05/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Need An Excuse To Drink Some Gin? It's Charles Tanqueray's 200th Birthday!

On this day we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the late great Charles Tanqueray -- the son, grandson and nephew of English clergymen who decided to follow a different calling. In 1830, at the tender age of 20, he opened his own distillery in London, and later birthed the gin that bears his name. (Tanqueray, in case you didn't figure that out already.)

I'm a big fan of gin. To commemorate Charles Tanqueray's big day, then, I've decided -- in addition to quaffing a large, ice-cold martini -- to write about some of the gins and gin-related stuff I've been trying lately. Use the following information as you choose.

A quick primer for the uninitiated: Gin, as it's known today, is in essence flavored vodka -- 100% neutral grain spirits flavored with a variety of herbs, spices and botanicals. Each gin uses a different recipe, but to be considered gin, they all must employ juniper berries as the dominant flavor.

More or less, anyway. In recent years, the people who make and market the stuff have come to realize that not everyone loves gin (which I don't understand, but that's another story). They've downgraded the juniper in the mix and upped the levels on other flavors, to make gin more palatable to the masses and less of an acquired taste. Hendrick's, which has a distinctive cucumber flavor, is one of the best and best-known of the lot. The unofficial appellation for these light-on-the-juniper concoctions is "New Western Dry Gin."

One of my favorite New Western Drys is Tanqueray Rangpur, which uses Rangpur limes (actually a hybrid of Mandarin orange and lemon) plus ginger and other botanicals to create a light, wonderfully refreshing "gin." With soda or tonic, it makes a great warm weather drink. Last I heard, Tanqueray Rangpur wasn't available outside the USA, and its future is somewhat in doubt even here, so pick it up while you can.

I actually prefer Tanqueray Rangpur to Tanqueray's regular London Dry. I like juniper in my gin, but Tanqueray takes it to the extreme, producing a gin that to my palate is heavy and somewhat medicinal. That abundance of flavor makes for a great gin & tonic, in which the juniper isn't dominated by the quinine flavor of the tonic. But in a martini, it can be a tad overwhelming.

In my younger, more foolish days, I thought drinking Tanqueray martinis was a sign of manliness. Eventually, however, I learned that juniper and masculinity had no correlation, and I switched over to less domineering gins. My favorite is Plymouth, which since 1793 has been making a wonderfully smooth gin that doesn't bonk you over the head with juniper, but doesn't hide it behind other botanicals either. I think it's the most harmonious and perfectly balanced gin around -- it makes a sublime martini and goes quite well in just about any other gin cocktail you'd care to imagine.

Sadly, not every bar stocks Plymouth. My backup of choice is Beefeater -- one of the only London Dry gins still made in London. It's an inexpensive gin that can be found in virtually every bar that serves the stuff, from the diviest dives to the swankiest hotspots, and it's better than just about every trendy bottling that costs twice as much. It's strong, but not overpowering, dry and elegant with a perfect balance of spice and fruit. Just writing about it makes my mouth water. Is it 5:00 yet? Beefeater introduced their new 24 brand a couple of years ago, and Beefeater Summer is due to launch soon. I haven't tried either yet, but I have a feeling they'll both be good.

Another gin that you should be able to find just about anywhere you go imbibing is Bombay Sapphire. The thing I like about it is its high proof. Lots of other brands have lowered the proof, or percentage of alcohol, that they use in their spirits as a cost-cutting measure. Many gins now hover between 80-85 proof (40-42.5% alcohol by volume). Bombay Sapphire, however, has stuck to its guns at 94 proof, and God bless 'em for it. Not that alcohol overwhelms this lovely, complex gin -- far from it. It keeps juniper in the mix without letting it get too far out in front, with a balance of spice and citrus notes rounding it out. And did I mention it's 94 proof?

Van Gogh is another 94-proof gin that is not as widely known as it should be. Perhaps that's because Van Gogh's reputation rests largely on its flavored vodkas, much beloved by the sector of the market that likes those abominations known as "dessert martinis" -- cocktails made for people who don't like the taste of alcohol. But I digress. Van Gogh's gin is crisp, clean and sophisticated, more herbal than juniper-y, and it makes for a very fine, understated martini.

Last but not least is a newcomer from genius distiller Tad Seestedt, who runs Ransom Cellars in Oregon. His new Ransom Old Tom Gin blew me away to such an extent that I'll be devoting a separate HuffPost piece to it in the near future. He also sent me a bottle of his new London Dry-style Small's Gin. Seestedt adapted a combination of 19th century recipes to create a gin that tastes like nothing else I've ever tried. It's got an intense, almost overwhelming aroma that's both herbal and fruity -- a fellow imbiber said, "It smells like Christmas."

The effect is just as powerful on the taste buds. I tried it neat and in a martini; when I paid too much attention to it, trying to catalogue all the smells and tastes, my head nearly exploded. When I stopped overthinking and simply drank it, however, it made for a very fine gin. "Small's" is a most ironic name for this colossal, mammoth spirit. It's so unusual that, after one tasting, I can't even figure out how much I like it. But I can't wait to experiment with it some more.

If you'd like to learn more about gin, the best place to start is with The Bartender's Gin Compendium by gaz regan (formerly known as Gary Regan). Despite the title, it's a great read for laymen. Gaz is quite the raconteur, and the book never fails to entertain even at its most educational. Concise capsule reviews of just about every gin on the market are an invaluable help for confused consumers. The great gaz also produces Regan's Orange Bitters, which, when added to a martini, make a good cocktail great and a great one divine. Both the book and the bitters are available on Amazon and elsewhere online, and I can't recommend them highly enough.

Now if you'll excuse me, it's martini time....