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What Is Gin?

In the simplest terms, gin is in essence flavored vodka, made by infusing a neutral spirit with a variety of botanicals that must legally include juniper berries. Gin typically has a higher proof than vodka, and its enticing herbal, floral and/or citrus aromas make it a willing cocktail base. Several styles exist that make gin a versatile category.

Gin can be made from a base of any fermentable material, from grapes and grain to molasses and sugar beet, and most gins undergo two distillations. The spirit is initially distilled in a column still, which results in a high-proof, light-bodied and clean profile; afterwards, juniper berries and other botanicals are used to add flavor. This can either be done through cold-compounding, in which botanicals are macerated in the base spirit before it’s re-distilled, or by suspending the botanicals in a basket over the still during the second distillation (this method is done for the highest quality gins as well as genever, which is pot-distilled). In the latter process, the vapor extracts aromatics and flavors as it travels over the botanicals on the way to the condenser, resulting in a more complex spirit.

Brief History

Gin has its origins in Dutch genever, also known as Holland Gin or Dutch Gin, which was originally created by distilling malt wine and adding herbs to make a harsh tasting beverage a little more palatable. Legend has it that genever was created by Dutch chemist Sylvius de Bouve in the sixteenth century, but since there are written references to it that date back to the thirteenth century its actual year of founding is unknown. However, by the mid-seventeenth century genever production was widespread in the Netherlands and Flanders.

Gin became popular in England after the government allowed individuals to produce it without a license, which led to the Gin Craze of the first half of the eighteenth century, when gin consumption (and often, overconsumption) rapidly increased. This in turn led to a surge in various social problems, to which the government responded by passing a series of Gin Acts which imposed higher taxes on producers and retailers in an attempt to curb the effects of a spirit referred to as “Mother’s Ruin.”

Over the years, other styles of gin emerged, including the softer and sweeter Old Tom Gin and the high proof Navy Strength Gin. Recent years have seen an increased popularity in Modern Gin or New Western Style Gin, which downplays the juniper notes craved by purists but off-putting by others in favor of other botanicals including spices, citrus peels and flower petals. Gin was the major base for most cocktails before 1920, but Prohibition and a big marketing campaign by the vodka industry saw its decline in popularity. However, the recent cocktail revolution has revitalized the category, and it’s often used in both classic and modern libations.

Regions & Styles

Though some associate London Dry as the default example of the category, there are actually many different styles of gin. Except for barrel-aged gin, most gin is not enjoyed neat or on the rocks but in libations. Since each is produced in a slightly different way, different gins work better in different cocktails.

  • London Dry Gin does not need to be made in London or even in England, for that matter. The name refers to a style of gin whose primary flavor is juniper, and whose botanicals must be distilled rather than cold compounded.

    Modern Gin (also called New Western Style Gin) can be made anywhere in the world. It downplays the inclusion of juniper berries in favor of a variety of other botanicals including citrus peels, star anise, coriander and even rose, cucumber and lavender. The category aims to appeal to fans who have eschewed the category because of juniper’s piney notes. Because of its wide variety of aromas and flavors, modern gin has been a popular option for modern craft cocktails.

    Plymouth Gin is a Protected Geographical Indication and refers to any gin distilled in Plymouth, England. (Today there is only one brand, also called Plymouth, which is produced in the town at the Black Friars Distillery.) Plymouth Gin is slightly sweeter than London Dry Gin and has a higher proportion of root botanicals, which lend it an earthy character.

     

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  • Old Tom Gin was first created in England in the eighteenth century, and is slightly sweeter than London Dry Gin but slightly drier than genever. Its name stems from the time when England was increasing taxes and licensing for producer and retailers. Black cat-shaped wooden plaques placed outside pubs were a secret sign for patrons to insert their money into a slot, and receive a shot of gin dispensed by a tube. Old Tom Gin became rare over the years, but the recent cocktail renaissance has seen its revival.

    Genever is also called Dutch Gin or Holland Gin, and is most like the original style of gin. It is made by macerating a low proof malt spirit with botanicals (mainly juniper), and the resulting spirit has a character similar to vodka, with more earthy and malty notes. Oude Genever must contain at least 15% malt wine but not more than twenty grams of sugar per liter, while Jonge Genever can contain no more than 15% malt wine and ten grams of sugar per liter.

    Navy Strength Gin was originally supplied to the British Royal Navy as part of the sailors’ rations. It is bottled at 114 proof—the level at which the gunpowder on the ship could still be fired if it accidentally became soaked with gin. Because of its spirited nature, this style can hold its own in stronger cocktails.

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    Barrel-Aged Gin is distilled the traditional way before being matured for months or even years in oak barrels, leading to a more complex, malty spirit that renders comparisons to a young whiskey. Because of its multi-layered notes, barrel-aged gins are typically served neat or on the rocks as a sipping spirit rather than mixing them in cocktails.

    Sloe Gin is made by macerating sloe berries, a small relative of the plum, in gin, and then sweetening it and bottling it with a minimum ABV of 25%. It can be sipped by itself, served on the rocks or mixed in cocktails like the Sloe Gin Fizz.

     

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