I love gin. It is my personal goal to bring gin to as many people as possible, and I strive to do so regularly. That said, I can completely understand why people don’t like it or why they might be very hesitant to spend their precious bar budget on something so widely reviled. Let’s get into the basics of gin and hopefully explain why it’s so divisive.
History Of Gin
Alcohol was first distilled for drinking purposes sometime around or after 1100 AD but it was not really a very tasty beverage. (Many would argue that it still isn’t but…) It also widely held the reputation of being incredibly good for you. It made you feel better, it warmed you up, it got rid of bad breath, it drew out the essences of plants, it was incredible! Having this medicinal reputation, along with a rather unpleasant flavor, meant that almost instantly people began flavoring it with those medicinal plants they had been using for centuries. Among the most preeminent of these was Juniper, renowned for it’s use as a diuretic (kind of a big deal at this time since the general medical consensus was “Get stuff out of them and see if they feel better”). The Juniper Berry is not dissimilar to a very tiny pine-cone and is similar in flavor. Since it’s of the pine family, it generally grows in cooler climates, which explains why it became especially popular to flavor liquors in northern Europe. While lots of places were using juniper to flavor their spirits (and beers and wines), it was not until 1585 when the English and Dutch collaborated on a war that the history of Gin truly begins. When the English came home, the brought with them the “Dutch Courage”, that magical liquid that gave the Dutch a fierce fighting spirit… this was Jenever.
Classifications of Gin
…or genever or Dutch Gin, however you feel. This is the precursor to gin as we know it, and it’s a liqueur that’s gradually gaining ground here in the United States again. Jenever began as a distillate made from malt wine, then sweetened and flavored with juniper. As distillation techniques progressed it became a neutral spirit sweetened and flavored with juniper. Already you can see the evolution beginning to take shape that leads to the gin we know today. Essentially Jenever would be maltier and more rich than modern gins, though it had enough different variations and regulatory laws to comprise a different post.
Old Tom Gin
Eventually, as distillation evolved so too did gin. This next evolution is what we would recognize as “Old Tom” Gin, a sweeter variation of the gin we make today. Even as distillation progressed, the distillates produced were still very pungent, carrying a lot of unpleasant flavors from the process. The solution was to cover these with bold flavors such as Juniper, anise, and licorice along with whatever was on hand. Originally it was sweet roots and herbs that gave Old Tom its characteristic sweetness but later as sugar became more widely available, it was outright sweetened. Part of the reason distillation progressed but gin didn’t reap the benefits was because during this time certain government acts had the unintended consequence of making gin the spirit of choice for cheap or unscrupulous distillers. It’s only real competitor in spirits was brandy, which was usually reserved for the more well-to-do classes. Consequently, Gin developed a reputation as a lowly drink, fit only for the poor and morally dubious.
London Dry Gin
This is the style that dominates the gin market and public perception today. Through the development of continuous distillation columns that produce significantly more palatable products, it became less essential to cover up the flavor of the original spirit. By nature (and legally speaking), this meant that distillers no longer sweetened their product. However, I think this had a much greater effect on the overall perception and production of gin. Since distillers no longer needed to mask flavors, they could focus on producing individual styles and recipes. It became more practical to have delicately balanced interactions between herbs and botanicals, and lighter herbs could be used more since they would now be able to shine through. It was this evolution that allowed for gin to become a ‘craft’ more so than it had ever been before.
New World Style Gin
New world style is somewhat controversial in my mind, though it is probably more true to the historical roots of gin. New World gins have essentially the minimum (or close to) amount of juniper necessary to call the spirit Gin, while the true flavorings are derived from other botanicals. Hendrick’s Gin is probably the most well-known of these, as it’s flavor is primarily cucumber and lavender. My own distillery produces a primarily citrus based gin, with lemon, lime and blueberry notes. I tend to refer to these as ‘starter gins’ since the vodka loving palette of Americans can tolerate the lower juniper presence with ease. On the other hand, they also allow for a great deal more creativity… Ballast Point distillery boasts a gin made with coriander and rose petals. Las Vegas Distillery produces theirs with cactus fruits in the first distillation, then re-distills with a variety of desert plants. Now, I happen to reference these ones because I’ve taken their distillery tours and have their bottles on my shelf, but it doesn’t take much searching to find other examples of this kind of attention to detail, creativity and innovation. As for those who might say “real gin has a big juniper punch! That’s just how it is!” well… no. not really. That’s how London Dry style is that has dominated the market since our great grandparents time. While that’s an admirable stronghold, it doesn’t make the statement true. Jenever didn’t even need to have juniper as the primary flavoring note and Old Tom Gin would have had (what we consider) excessive amounts of licorice and other sweet roots to achieve its characteristic sweet quality. This is merely another step in the long evolution of liquor and as our varieties grow, so too do our bars. Lovers of craft spirits will always find a spot for another bottle.
So there are some basic botanicals that are in almost all gins. Gin distilleries are usually reticent to share their full recipes however for obvious reasons, though there are exceptions. Bombay for example has no qualms with telling the world what is used to make their gin, so much so that they actually put them on the bottle. The reason they can do this are twofold: For one, they use the highest quality ingredients they can source from all over the world. The lemons I can procure in the store are quantifiably inferior to the ones they have. Secondly, they are extremely secretive about the exact portions they use of each of their botanicals, which is a much bigger issue. When distilling gin, ingredients must be correct to a milligram, even in large batches since any discrepancy can significantly affect the final product. Lets go over some of the more common ingredients:
Juniper – pine flavor
Angelica – huge part of the flavor of Chartreuse
Lemon Peel – Link to Valencia, Spain because that’s where Bombay gets their lemons from and they are literally some of the best in the world. When I think about them it makes my heart yearn. This New Years my friends made me cry because I thought about never getting to eat them.
Orris – Flowery, heady, woody
Cassia – Cinnamon
Almond – Nutty
Licorice – Sweet, tart
Sage – Savory, peppery
Lavender – Floral, sweet
Grains of Paradise – Peppery
Cardamom – Smokey, Peppery (apparently third most expensive spice… fun fact!)
Cubeb – allspice, black pepper
Nutmeg – sweet, baking spices