I’ve always been partial to gin. The last few years have been really exciting for gin drinkers. Because the flavor profile of the spirt varies so much, it’s a great addition to cocktails. It’s also a very underrated sipping spirit. When it’s hot out, gin on the rocks with a sprig of thyme or basil and a squeeze of lime is a really simple patio drink or nightcap. It’s also an easy spirit to be adventurous with. It mixes really well and adds dimensions of herbal, floral and citrus notes to any cocktail. Gin is a drinker’s drink. It’s not simple and it rewards thoughtful and constructive tasting. At the same time, it’s also a great spirit to work with if you’re trying to up your mixology game. Try creating the same cocktail with different brands and types of gin. That will give you a really good introduction to how different flavors change the overall nature of a cocktail and key you in to some flavor combinations you might not otherwise think to try.
Gin is also a spirit with a long and complex history. A great summer read is Gin, Glorious Gin: How Mother’s Ruin Became the Spirit of London by Olivia Williams. Her social history of gin is also a history of England. She wends her way from the dangerous back-streets of Whitechapel through India and into Buckingham Palace. Although it’s history, her writing style is light and lively and she packs in plenty of anecdotes and funny stories about drinkers famous, infamous and unknown to keep the book really entertaining.
Quite simply, gin is defined as an agricultural spirt flavored with juniper. It may be aged or unaged. By an “agricultural spirit” the definition means that gin can be made from any base starch. There are gins derived from barley, sugar beets or cane, corn, grapes, potatoes and wheat, to name a few. Other spirits, like rum, are defined partially or completely by what the base fermented matter is. Gin is rather defined by it’s flavoring agents. Juniper is required – without juniper it is not gin. However, as long as juniper is one of the main flavor notes, it doesn’t matter what else you put in your blend or whether you have aged the spirit or not. Juniper = gin.
This makes gin a really interesting spirt to sip or to blend. Some gins are highly floral, such as Aviation gin which uses lavender as one of it’s major flavoring agents. Hendricks gin is credited with re-invigorating gin as a spirts category with it’s base notes of cucumber and rose. Most gins have a handful of additional flavoring agents. Tanqueray 10 uses a blend of 10. The Botanist has 31. The range and variety of gin contributes to its popularity on cocktail lists because different brands can be combined with mixers, other spirits, wine or beer to create an almost endless combination of flavors and textures.
Like many spirits, gin began its life as a medicinal compound. Even in Ancient Greece, juniper was added to wine as an aid to digestion and as a cure for illness. When distilling became popular in Europe in the Middle Ages, monks created tinctures and extracts of distilled alcohol and various herbal compounds, including juniper. In the 11th century, the Benedictine order of monks at the university in Salerno, Italy produced a pharmacopeia, a recipe book for medications for various ailments, which documented an early “recipe” for a juniper-infused tonic.
Although predominantly thought of as the quintessential English spirit, gin as we would think of it today was first produced by the Dutch. Drinks historians have found reference to genever in printed works from the middle of the 16th century and it was a product which was taxed by Dutch authorities as early as 1606. The fact that it was seen as a taxable good suggests that it was being consumed for purposes other than purely medicinal by that time. It is likely that production of genever or gin was happening prior to that, since juniper was already recognized as both a medicinal and flavoring agent and seeping or re-distilling alcohol with strong flavoring agents was common to mask the taste of the byproducts of rudimentary distillation practices.
Genever caught on in England when English soldiers were stationed in Antwerp during the Thirty Years War. Dutch soldiers would reportedly take a shot of genever before battle to steady their nerves, which is generally accepted as the origin of the term “Dutch courage.” Genever was used as a medicinal and perhaps as a sipping spirit. I’s popularity began to rise and by the time that William of Orange ascended to the English throne in 1689, it was widely-consumed enough to make taxing it to raise revenue for war and imperial expansion lucrative. Taxation was only one way in which the English attempted to control what some historians consider to be the first example of a European moral scare over an intoxicant. In Craze: Gin and Debauchery in the Age of Reason, historian and drugs and addiction researcher Jessica Warner argues that the gin panic of the early 18th century was the first modern drug scare. Elements of the negative connotations associated with gin from this period are still present. It has had a reputation as a harsh, cheap and low-class spirit which social crusaders and prohibitionists referred to as “Mother’s Ruin.” Despite that it was historically important to the British Empire and became intimately associated with Englishness.
The gin and tonic is the classic gin cocktail but tonic was also an important medical advance which assisted in European colonization of Africa and Asia. Tonic is flavored with quinine. Quinine is derived from the bark of a tropical tree. One of the properties of quinine, an alkaloid which is found in the bark of trees from the Cinchona family, is that it can be used to treat shivering and mild fevers. This makes it useful in treating malaria, a tropical disease which is carried by mosquitoes. In the 19th century, it was also thought to prevent malaria, which meant that it was widely administered to soldiers and colonial officials in tropical areas which were prone to malaria outbreaks. Because extract of quinine is extremely bitter, it was mixed with other strong or sweet drinks to mask the taste. Gin fit the bill nicely and the gin and tonic was born. Add a lime wedge and you’re even getting protection against scurvy!
There isn’t one. Other than the presence of juniper, which is piney and refreshing, gin takes on so many different forms. It can be herbal, fruit-driven, floral, spicy or any combination of those. The most common additions to gin are coriander, angelica or orris root, citrus peels, licorice and cinnamon. Current trends in gin are floral aromatics (violet and rose) and complex profiles with several layers of aromatic and flavor compounds for a spirit that is structured, subtle and lingering.
Gin is a distilled product, so it begins its life like any other spirit. Some type of agricultural product is turned into a mash which is then fermented. Gin is not required to have any particular base product for its mash. This step is similar to making beer – water is added to a starchy base and then yeast is mixed in. The yeast converts the sugars in the mash to alcohol. In beer and wine, this is the final step. With spirits, the resulting liquor is then distilled. For most gins, the first distillation happens using a column still. The liquid is boiled, and the steam goes up through the column of the still. It runs through a series of metal plates which condense the alcohol and the water is boiled off while the alcohol is collected. For some gins, all or some of the botanical elements are added during this step.
Other gins are “double distilled.” In this process, the product of the first distillation are put into another still, in this case often a pot still, and then re-distilled with the botanical elements added.
The other method of producing gin is to just steep the botanicals in alcohol or add botanical components to neutral alcohol. This method is often used to make inexpensive gin and does not create a spirit which is as complex or well-produced as distilled or double-distilled gins.
There are a number of different styles of gin. The type of gin listed on the label tells you a lot about the production method used. Some of the most common are:
If the bottle just says “gin” on it, it was made without re-distillation. Flavoring has been added to a grain-neutral spirit. The dominant flavor must be juniper. You can use these as mixing gins although there are better gins to use as a house gin or well spirit for your home bar.
Grain neutral spirit has been redistilled in the presence of juniper berries (as the dominant flavor) and other natural botanicals. Distilled gin must use real botanicals, not flavorings or essences.
London Gin or London Dry Gin
All London gins are dry, but some brands accentuate that by adding the word dry. By legal definition, London gin must be distilled and can only have less than a tenth of a gram of sugar per liter added. The only other ingredient permitted is water. Water may be added to control the final proof of the spirit. In the US, the minimum proof is 80 (40% alcohol by volume) and in the EU the minimum proof is 75 (37.5% alcohol by volume).
Navy or Navy Strength Gin
Gin that is bottled at 100° (British) proof or 114 proof in American terms – equivalent in both cases to 57% ABV.
This is gin distilled in Plymouth UK. It is a Protected Geographical Indication, so if it says Plymouth Gin on it, it was made in Plymouth. This is an old style of distilled gin which is sweeter than London or Dry gin. It used to be a very popular style of gin, so you will also run across this term in historical cocktail guides. It is also produced in Navy Strength and has a long historical association with the British Navy.
Old Tom Gin
Also sweeter than London gin. Similar to Plymouth gin, but not place-name protected. Old Toms can come from anywhere and have had a resurgence due to the craft cocktail movement. Can be used as a substitute for Plymouth gin in cocktails.
Gin which has been infused with sloe, a type of plum, and sugar. Traditionally, the sloes and sugar would be infused into the gin, but now many sloe gins are made by adding the flavoring to the spirit. Much sweeter than gin and fruiter, almost a cordial.
Funny story: my first bartending job happened when I had zero bartending experience and should not have legally been behind a bar. I had literally no idea what I was doing but we had a large wedding, one of our bartenders quit in the middle of the shift and I got tapped to work the service bar. Shouldn’t have been much of a problem, mostly simple mixed drinks and beer and wine, except I got an order for 7 Red Devils. I knew enough to know that that was a clear the rail style drink, so I dutifully put in all the clear spirits (vodka, rum, gin, white tequila…). Standing there staring at the rail, wondering what the red part of it was, I spied the bottle of sloe gin, so in that went, too. Pro tip: don’t do that.
Gin which has been aged in wood casks. This is a relatively new style of gin in the United States and a several craft distilleries have been elevating gin in wood. The wood adds color, some body and cask notes like smoke, vanilla, cedar or toast to the other aromatics in the spirit.
Sometimes called Dutch gin or Holland gin, although it’s actually quite different from gin. Enough so that I considered keeping it out of this guide and doing one just for genever. But because it’s the parent spirit and because the association is so strong, it bears inclusion in the gin guide. It is a protected category under EU law, and can only be made in Belgium, the Netherlands, two regions in France and two in Germany. It is made from a base of a malt wine which is distilled. A portion of the malt wine is then re-distilled with juniper and other natural botanicals. The two distillates are then blended. The malt wine base gives genever a richer and sweeter body and mouth than gin. Genever may be aged or unaged.
There are a few different styles of genever. In the US you will see oude and jonge. This is not a reference to any type of aging. It’s a stylistic difference. Oude is “old style” genever. It is made with a higher proportion of the malt wine, in the old fashioned way. Jonge genever is the newer style which is made with more of the spirit from the second distillation. Oude genever will be sweeter and heavier than jonge genever. In the Netherlands and Belgium, you will also see Korenwijn, which is the oldest style of genever. That’s going to be between 51% and 70% malt wine based. It’s intense and interesting and definitely worth ordering if you see it.
Do not substitute genever for gin in a cocktail (or generally vice versa, either). The taste, body and process are so different that they are not interchangeable. However, you might experiment with adding genever to bourbon cocktails or swapping out the bourbon altogether for genever. It makes a really interesting take on an Old Fashioned and I like it in a Sazerac as well.
Background image: a detail of William Hogarth’s Gin Lane (1751)