Gin is a spirit which derives its predominant flavour from juniper berries (Juniperus communis). From its earliest beginnings in the Middle Ages, gin has evolved over the course of a millennium from a herbal medicine to an object of commerce in the spirits industry. Today, the gin category is one of the most popular and widely distributed range of spirits, and is represented by products of various origins, styles, and flavor profiles that all revolve around juniper as a common ingredient.
- Juniper-Flavoured Spirit Drinks – This includes the earliest class of gin, which is produced by pot distilling a fermented grain mash to moderate strength (e.g. 68% ABV), and then redistilling it with botanicals to extract the aromatic compounds. It must be bottled at a minimum of 30% ABV. Juniper-Flavoured Spirit Drinks may also be sold under the names Wacholder or Genebra.
- Gin – This is a juniper flavoured spirit made not via the redistillation of botanicals, but by simply adding approved natural flavouring substances to a neutral spirit of agricultural origin. The predominant flavour must be juniper.
- Distilled gin – Distilled gin is produced exclusively by redistilling ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin with an initial strength of 96% ABV (the azeotrope of water and ethanol) in stills traditionally used for gin, in the presence of juniper berries and of other natural botanicals, provided that the juniper taste is predominant. Gin obtained simply by adding essences or flavourings to ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin is not distilled gin.
- London gin – London gin is obtained exclusively from ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin with a maximum methanol content of 5 grams per hectolitre of 100% ABV equivalent, whose flavour is introduced exclusively through the re-distillation in traditional stills of ethyl alcohol in the presence of all the natural plant materials used, the resultant distillate of which is at least 70% ABV. London gin may not contain added sweetening exceeding 0.1 gram of sugars per litre of the final product, nor colorants, nor any added ingredients other than water. The term London gin may be supplemented by the term “dry”.
In the EU, the minimum bottled alcoholic strength for gin, distilled gin, and London gin is 37.5% ABV.
In the United States, gin is an alcoholic beverage of no less than 40% ABV (80 proof) that possesses the characteristic flavour of juniper berries. Gin produced only through distillation or redistillation of aromatics with an alcoholic wash can be further marketed as “distilled gin”.
Some legal classifications of gin are defined only as originating from specific geographical areas without any further restrictions (e.g. Plymouth gin, Ostfriesischer Korngenever, Slovenská borovička, Kraški Brinjevec, etc.), while other common descriptors refer to classic styles that are culturally recognized, but not legally defined (e.g., sloe gin, Wacholder and Old Tom gin).
Several different production methods for gin have evolved since its early origins, this evolution being reflective of ongoing modernisation in distillation and flavouring techniques. As a result of this evolution, gins can be broadly differentiated into three basic styles:
- Pot distilled gin represents the earliest style of gin, and is traditionally produced by pot distilling a fermented grain mash (malt wine) from barley and or other grains, then redistilling it with flavouring botanicals to extract the aromatic compounds. A double gin can be produced by redistilling the first gin again with more botanicals. Due to the use of pot stills, the alcohol content of the distillate is relatively low; around 68% ABV for a single distilled gin or 76% ABV for a double gin. This type of gin is often aged in tanks or wooden casks, and retains a heavier, malty flavour that gives it a marked resemblance to whisky. Kornwijn (grain wine) and the oude (old) style of Geneva gin or Holland ginrepresent the most prominent gins of this class.
- Column distilled gin evolved following the invention of the Coffey still, and is produced by first distilling high proof (e.g. 96% ABV) neutral spirits from a fermented mash or wash using a refluxing still such as a column still. The fermentable base for this spirit may be derived from grain, sugar beets, grapes, potatoes, sugar cane, plain sugar, or any other material of agricultural origin. The highly concentrated spirit is then redistilled with juniper berries and other botanicals in a pot still. Most often, the botanicals are suspended in a ‘gin basket’ positioned within the head of the still, which allows the hot alcoholic vapours to extract flavouring components from the botanical charge. This method yields a gin lighter in flavor than the older pot still method, and results in either a Distilled gin or London dry gin, depending largely upon how the spirit is finished.
- Compound gin is made by simply flavouring neutral spirits with essences and/or other ‘natural flavourings’ without redistillation, and is not as highly regarded as distilled gin.
Popular botanicals and/or flavouring agents for gin often include citrus elements, such as lemon and bitter orange peel, as well as a combination of other spices, which may include any of anise, angelica root and seed, orris root, licoriceroot, cinnamon, almond, cubeb, savory, lime peel, grapefruit peel, dragon eye, saffron, baobab, frankincense, coriander, grains of paradise, nutmeg, cassia bark, and/or others.
By the 11th century, Italian monks were flavoring crudely distilled spirits with juniper berries. During the Black Death, this drink was used, although ineffectively, as a remedy. As the science of distillation advanced from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance period, juniper was one of many botanicals employed by virtue of its perfume, flavour, and purported medicinal properties.
The Dutch physician Franciscus Sylvius is credited with the invention of gin. By the mid 17th century, numerous small Dutch and Flemish distillers (some 400 in Amsterdam alone by 1663) had popularized the re-distillation of malt spirit or wine with juniper, anise, caraway, coriander, etc., which were sold in pharmacies and used to treat such medical problems as kidney ailments, lumbago, stomach ailments, gallstones, and gout. It was found in Holland by English troops who were fighting against the Spanish in the Eighty Years’ War who noticed its calming effects before battle, which is the origin of the term Dutch courage. Gin emerged in England in varying forms as of the early 17th century, and at the time of the Restoration, enjoyed a brief resurgence. When William of Orange, ruler of the Dutch Republic, occupied the British throne with his wife Mary in what has become known as the Glorious Revolution, gin became vastly more popular, particularly in crude, inferior forms, where it was more likely to be flavoured with turpentine as an alternative to juniper.
Gin became popular in England after the Government allowed unlicensed gin production and at the same time imposed a heavy duty on all imported spirits. This created a market for poor-quality grain that was unfit for brewing beer, and thousands of gin-shops sprang up throughout England, a period known as the Gin Craze. Because of the relative price of gin, when compared with other drinks available at the same time and in the same geographic location, gin became popular with the poor. Of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London, not including coffee shops and drinking chocolate shops, over half were gin shops. Beer maintained a healthy reputation as it was often safer to drink the brewed ale than unclean plain water. Gin, though, was blamed for various social problems, and it may have been a factor in the higher death rates which stabilized London’s previously growing population, although there is no evidence for this and it is merely conjecture. The reputation of the two drinks was illustrated by William Hogarth in his engravings Beer Street and Gin Lane (1751). This negative reputation survives today in the English language, in terms like “gin mills” or the American phrase “gin joints” to describe disreputable bars or “gin-soaked” to refer to drunks, and in the phrase “mother’s ruin”, a common British name for gin. Paradoxically the “negative” connotations are now becoming associated with “positive” connotations – with the resurgence of gin, upmarket bars now frequently refer to “mother’s ruin”, “gin palaces”, where printed copies of Hogarth paintings may sometimes be found.
The Gin Act 1736 imposed high taxes on retailers and led to riots in the streets. The prohibitive duty was gradually reduced and finally abolished in 1742. The Gin Act 1751 was more successful, however; It forced distillers to sell only to licensed retailers and brought gin shops under the jurisdiction of local magistrates. Gin in the 18th century was produced in pot stills, and was somewhat sweeter than the London gin known today.
In London in the early 18th century, much gin was distilled legally in residential houses (there were estimated to be 1,500 residential stills in 1726), and was often flavoured with turpentine – to generate resinous woody notes in addition to the juniper. As late as 1913, Webster’s Dictionary states without further comment, ” ‘common gin’ is usually flavoured with turpentine.”
Another common variation was to distil in the presence of sulphuric acid. Although the acid itself does not distil, it imparts the additional aroma of diethyl ether to the resulting gin. Sulphuric acid subtracts one water molecule from 2 ethanol molecules to create diethyl ether, which also forms an azeotrope with ethanol, and therefore distils with it. The result is a sweeter spirit, and one that may have possessed additional analgesic/intoxicating effects – see Paracelsus.
Dutch or Belgian gin, also known as jenever or genever, evolved from malt wine spirits, and is a distinctly different drink from later styles of gin. Schiedam, a city in the province of South Holland, is famous for its jenever-producing history. The oude (old) style of jenever remained very popular throughout the 19th century, where it was referred to as “Holland” or “Geneva” gin in popular, American, pre-Prohibition bartender guides.
The 19th century gave rise to a style of gin referred to as Old Tom Gin, which is a sweeter style of gin, often containing sugar. Old Tom gin faded in popularity by the early 20th century.
The invention and development of the column still (1826 – 1831) made the distillation of neutral spirits practical, thus enabling the creation of the “London dry” style that evolved later in the 19th century.
In tropical British colonies gin was used to mask the bitter flavour of quinine, which was the only effective anti-malarial compound. Quinine was dissolved in carbonated water to form tonic water; the resulting mix became the origin of today’s popular gin and tonic combination, although modern tonic water contains only a trace of quinine as a flavouring.
Gin is a popular base spirit for many classic mixed drinks, including the martini. Secretly produced “bathtub gin” was commonly available in the speakeasies and “blind pigs” of Prohibition-era America as a result of the relative simple production. Gin has remained popular as the basis of many cocktails after the repeal of the American Prohibition.
Sloe gin is traditionally described as a liqueur made by infusing sloes (the fruit of the blackthorn) in gin, although modern versions are almost always compounded from neutral spirits and flavourings. Similar infusions are possible with other fruits, such as damsons. or beach plums.
Classic gin cocktails
- Beefeater – England, first produced in 1820
- BOLS Damrak Amsterdam – Dutch jenever
- The Botanist – artisan dry gin from the Hebridean island of Islay, made with 31 wild botanicals, of which 22 are native to the island.
- Blackwood’s – Scotland
- Bombay Sapphire – England, distilled with ten botanicals
- Boodles British Gin – England
- Booth’s Gin – England
- Broker’s Gin – England
- Catoctin Creek – organic gin produced in Virginia
- Citadelle – France
- Cork Dry Gin – Ireland
- Damrak – Netherlands, sweet candied citrus aromas with a spicy liquorice and a juniper edge
- Gilbey‘s – England
- Gilpin’s Westmorland Extra Dry Gin – England
- Ginebra San Miguel – produced in the Philippines
- Gordon’s – Scotland
- Greenall’s – England
- Hayman’s Old Tom – England
- Hendrick’s Gin – Scotland, infused with cucumber and rose petals
- Leopolds Gin – USA
- New Amsterdam Gin – USA
- Nicholson’s – made in London from 1730, now a Diageo brand
- Plymouth – England, first distilled in 1793
- Sacred Microdistillery distilled in one of London’s two new micro-distilleries
- Seagram‘s – USA
- Sipsmith – launched in 2009, the first copper distillery in London since 1820
- South Gin – New Zealand
- Steinhäger – Germany
- Taaka – USA
- Tanqueray – Scotland, first distilled in 1830
- Uganda Waragi – triple distilled Ugandan Waragi
- Whitley Neill Gin – England