Most of us love a good Gin & Tonic, but there's so much to learn about this historic spirit. It's traditionally made in Europe, and it's characterized by the use of juniper as a flavoring; also known as a botanical. The word "gin" is the English translation of the Dutch word "jenever" (pronounced yen-e-ver).
Many believe that gin is the greatest of the clear spirits. “The main criteria for this aromatic, flavorsome spirit is a discernible juniper character,” says Cam MacKenzie from Four Pillars Gin in Australia. “If the distillation doesn’t have juniper, or doesn’t have enough juniper, it is just a weird, flavored vodka.”
Juniper is supported by other botanical characters; traditionally coriander, cassia, licorice, orris and other herbs. “The more contemporary gins are distilled using different spices, leaves, fruits and flowers to add greater complexity,” MacKenzie adds. Gin is normally bottled at 80 to 90 proof and its flavors range from floral to citrus to fruity.
How Gin Is Made
Gin comes from the combination of alcohol typically distilled from fermented grain and a specific set of flavorings known as "botanicals."
“In order for a spirit to be classified as gin, one of those botanicals must be juniper,” says Anthony Pullen, Trade Advocacy Manager for Bulldog Gin. “Without juniper, you have flavored vodka.”
What Is the Base?
Essentially, the base spirit is made from grain. Some use a wheat-based spirit and others used barley, grape, sugar and various other bases.
“It is important for the base spirit to be quite neutral so that the other botanical flavors and aromatics can shine,” says MacKenzie.
Why Juniper Is so Important
With gin, you must have a malt wine distillate and juniper berries. “From there, it is a matter of taste and creativity in terms of what else you are going to flavor your gin with; lemon peels, almonds, cucumber, chamomile, angelica root, apple, coriander,” says Francesco Dionese of Shelter Pizza in Brooklyn, New York.
“Juniper is crucial because it creates a beautiful aromatic canvas for all the other botanicals,” MacKenzie adds.
What Are the Different Ways to Make Gin?
There are actually three ways to make gin. The most common (and oldest) way to make gin is to distill the fermented grain (malt wine), and then redistill it with juniper berries and the other botanicals you choose to flavor your gin with. This will give the gin a bold and distinct flavor.
“Another way of flavoring the gin is to put your botanicals in a basket and hang it inside the alambique you are distilling your grain spirit with; this way the vapors of the alcohol are forced through the botanicals and will retain the flavors once condensed back into liquid, and the gin will acquire a more delicate and subtle flavor,” says Dionese.
Finally, the simplest way is to distill your grain spirit and then infuse it with juniper berries and your other spices.
Why Making Gin Is Like Making Perfume
Distilling gin is a process of extracting essential oils - not dissimilar to perfume-making - and creating a clean, pure spirit.
“Each recipe will be different and each distiller will have their own technique, and there are hundreds of different botanicals,” says MacKenzie.
What Is the History of Gin?
The documented history of juniper-flavored spirits goes back hundreds of years. There are entire books written on the subject.
“The juniper berry was well-known for its physiological effects for many years, but the Dutch pioneered the recreational consumption of juniper-flavored beverages (jenever) with the addition of exotic spices from Holland’s spice trade monopoly,” says Pullen.
“The English then took a (very serious) liking to this style of spirit and created a less malty and cleaner spirit which became gin,” Pullen says. In modern times, there has been a huge renaissance in the category, with new gins being created all over the world.
Gin's Ties to India
During the colonization of India by the British, masses of people were affected by malaria. Luckily, they quickly found a cure: an infusion of chinchona bark; what would later evolve into our well-known tonic water.
“The problem was that chinchona bark was disgusting, so they had to find a way to make it drinkable, and the most common drink at the time in England was gin. So, by adding to the chinchona bark infusion a little gin and a little lime juice, British colonials gave birth to the legendary Gin & Tonic,” says Dionese.
From there gin never stopped growing, especially after crossing the Atlantic and arriving in America, where it was mixed into cocktails.
Why Is It Sometimes Referred to As “Dutch Courage?"
The term “Dutch courage” came about when the British troops saw the effect drinking Genever had on the bravery of the Dutch troops before they went into battle.
“Gin made its way to the UK and nearly destroyed London during the gin craze of the 1700s,” says MacKenzie. “It basically became so cheap and available that it was the crystal meth of its time."
In fairness, what they referred to as gin wasn’t what we know it as today. “It wasn’t really a distilled gin but rather cheap alcohol mixed with flavors and sugar,” MacKenzie notes.
The Different Types of Gin
There are four main types of gin: London dry gin, Bathtub gin, Genever and Old Tom.
London Dry Gin
London Dry Gin has strict regulations about the way it is made. “It has to be made with a good quality alcohol (low on ethanol), no sugar can be added, it has to be flavored prevalently with juniper berries, it has to be at least 140 Proof after distillation, only water can be added to bring down the alcohol content, and unlike the name suggests, it can be made anywhere in the world,” says Dionese.
Popular during prohibition especially in speakeasies, Bathtub Gin is a homemade gin made by simply infusing the grain spirit with spices. Often bathtubs were used for the purpose, hence the name.
Genever is the father of gin, made by distilling malt wine and then redistilling it with spices and sweetening it, resulting in a sweeter juniper-flavored drink.
Old Tom gin is the successor of Genever. “Born in England, it was made sweeter and spicier to cover the bad taste of the poor-quality alcohol that was used to make it,” says Dionese.
It was popular among the lower class, and was sold through a machine shaped like Old Tom the cat. “This machine was built into the wall of the bar, so you wouldn't need to go into the bar to purchase the drink. The point was to avoid annoying drunks getting into the joint,” he adds.
All you had to do was put a coin into the machine, pull down the paw and some gin would pour out into your glass.
What Is Sloe Gin?
Sloe Gin is a flavored gin made by steeping sloe berries in gin and then adding sugar. “We make a version using shiraz grapes called Bloody Shiraz Gin – instead of adding sugar the gin extracts the natural grape sugars and color,” says MacKenzie.
Famous Gin Cocktails
Gin has always been a key cocktail ingredient since the birth of mixed drinks. There are so many great gin drinks, but a few of our famous favorites are the Vesper (a favorite of one 007), Bees Knees, French 75, White Lady and the Negroni.
There would be no Martini without gin. The fresh, bright and clean Gin Gimlet wouldn’t be a summer staple if not for the most important ingredient.
Is Gin Making a Comeback?
Gin was the most popular drink 200 years ago, then it lost popularity to whisky and then vodka.
“Gin is now back in trend at full force, with many bars specializing in this beautiful spirit. Here in New York, we have Bathtub Gin, Madame Geneva, Raines Low Room and Dutch Kills,” says Dionese.
Making Your Own Gin
If you love gin, it's possible to make your own gin at home. “Take a neutral grain spirit of 80 to 90 proof, vodka will work fine, and infuse it with juniper berries, spices and fruit of your choice, leave it to infuse for one month, strain it through a cheesecloth and bottle it,” says Dionese.
There are many spices and fruits you can use, including dried lemon, orange and grapefruit peels, coriander seeds, angelica root (just a pinch), chamomile, allspice, anise and cinnamon. Good luck!
In case you missed it, check out our comprehensive guide to rum.