I’ve been thinking a lot about gin recently. I seem to have a love-hate relationship with the spirit, and I think it’s because of its recent rise in popularity. There are plenty of great Gins that have been on the market for a long time, but it seems like I stumble across a new one every couple of days. Now SOME of the gins that have launched in the last two or three years are fantastic products that have added a new dimension to the category. The problem is though, that for every one new gin that I like, there seem to be twenty that I just don’t get. Many new Gins, just don’t taste or smell like Gin to me, in fact many of them sit in a broader category of ‘botanically infused spirits’, but not Gin. It used to be simple to think of Gin as that junipery stuff that makes Martinis taste good, it’s now so broad in taste and style that I sometimes don’t know where gin ends and herbal spirits begin.
So with my mind wandering across this brave new world of Gin, and the b&t drinks cabinet bulging at the seams under the weight of new products, I thought maybe now was as good a time as ever to look at what makes Gin so interesting. Hopefully while looking into the facts, stories and of course some of the rules and regulations that define Gin, I might just get my head around what makes some Gins great, and others, quite frankly baffling.
I should probably mention that I’m a traditionalist when it comes to Gin. I like juniper as an aroma and flavour and think that it should always be the key player in the list of botanicals. I can be a bit grumpy when it comes to new Gins, and I’m not always the quickest to embrace the latest addition to the ranks of the already crowded marketplace. I’ve always been of the opinion that there are already a handful of great Gins that have served us well for decades, and unless your Gin is an amazing product that brings something new to the category, I’m unlikely to give it the time of day.
With that in mind, here are 10 things you should know about Gin, and in the near future I’ll post about 10 gins I think you should be drinking. I’ll try to push my grumpy persona to one side and be open to a few new products, but in reality you can definitely expect some old favourites to make the list!
While many people consider Gin to be a very English spirit, it has its roots in Holland with the Dutch spirit Genever. The confusion starts when you try to pin down the early history of this category though, as it seems that juniper infused spirits were being made as far back as the 11th century by monks in Italy. While this was done for ‘medicinal purposes’ the use of juniper infusions spread across Europe and by the time the Black Death was decimating the populations on the continent, this juniper based drink was being used as a remedy (it didn’t work by the way!). As the science of distillation improved throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, juniper was used commonly for its pleasant aroma and alleged medicinal qualities.
It’s in the mid 1600s however that we run into issuess, as this is the point at which many people claim that Gin was invented. The problem with this is that the name Gin appears to be an English term for our version of a spirit invented in Holland at this time, Genever. Credit is often given to Franciscus Sylvius for inventing ‘Gin’ but in fact that should be corrected to ‘Genever’. Genever was malt spirit redistilled with the inclusion of juniper berries and other botanicals, and in its early days was still considered to be a medicine. It was during the Eighty Years’ War that English troops discovered Genever, the Dutch juniper flavoured spirit, when they noticed Dutch troops drinking it before going into battle. Not only was the term ‘Dutch courage’ coined, but at the same time the longstanding English love affair with juniper spirits was born.
To me Gin is a term that applies to our reinterpretation of the Dutch spirit Genever, and the two have distinct, if intertwined histories. So maybe Syvius invented Genever, but who invented Gin? We’ll never know and in reality it’s probably more of an evolution than an invention.
There’s a common myth that drinking too much Gin will make you depressed. Let’s be clear on this, the key word in that sentence is that it’s a myth. Of course drinking too much Gin won’t make you feel great the following morning, and as we all know drinking can affect your mood at the time of imbibing. The truth though is that Gin doesn’t really have any different ability to change your mood than any other spirit.
The myth is almost certainly based on the period of time when society in the UK drank far too much Gin, to the point where it started having a negative impact on daily life. During the late 1700s and early 1800s Gin was responsible for neglect in families, crime increases and general debauchery on a huge scale, so it’s no surprise that that it was blamed for almost any negative aspect of the human condition.
That being said, facts are facts and Gin doesn’t make you depressed!
This question is a good one, and the truth is that no one really knows the answer. The first written reference that I know of is from 1714, in the Fable of the Bees by Bernard Mandeville. More interestingly is that in his book he mentions Gin twice and makes it clear that firstly he doesn’t approve and secondly it’s clearly a term that was already in common use. (forgive the lack of punctuation, but this is how it was written)
His first mention is this:
“Nothing is more destructive either in regard to the health or the vigilance and industry of the poor than the infamous liquor the name of which derived from Juniper in Dutch is now by frequent use and the laconic spirit of the nation from a word of meddling length shrunk into a monosyllable intoxicating gin that charms the unactive the desperate and crazy of either sex and makes the starving sot behold his rags and nakedness with stupid indolence or banter both in senseless laughter and more insipid jests It is a fiery lake that sets the brain in flame burns up the entrails and scorches every part within and at the same time a Lethe of oblivion in which the wretch immersed drowns his most pinching cares and with his reason all anxious reflection on brats that cry for food hard winters frosts and horrid empty home
In hot and adust tempers it makes men quarrelsome renders them brutes and savages sets them on to sight for nothing and has often been the cause of murder It has broke and destroyed the strongest constitutions thrown them into consumptions and been the fatal and immediate occasion of apoplexies frenzies and sudden death But as these latter mischiefs happen but seldom they might be overlooked and connived at but this cannot be said of the many diseases that are familiar to the liquor and which are daily and hourly produced by it such as loss of appetite fevers black and yellow jaundice convulsions stone and gravel dropsies and leucophlegmacies leucophlegmacies
Among the doting admirers of this liquid poison many of the meanest rank from a sincere affection to the commodity itself become dealers in it and take delight to help others to what they love themselves as whores commence bawds to make the profits of one trade subservient to the pleasures of the other But as these starvelings commonly drink more than their gains they seldom by seising mend the wretchedness of condition they laboured under while they were only buyers In the fag end and outskirts of the town and all places of the vilest resort it is fold in some part or other of almost every house frequently in cellars and sometimes in the garret The petty traders in this Stygian comfort are supplied by others in somewhat higher station that keep professed brandy shops and are as little to be envied as the former and among the middling people I know not a more miserable shift for a livelihood than their calling whoever would thrive in it must in the first place be of a watchful and suspicious as well as a bold and resolute temper that he may not be imposed upon by cheats and sharpers nor out bullied by the oaths and imprecations of hackney coachmen and foot soldiers in the second he ought to be a dabster at gross jokes and loud laugtiter and have all the winnmg ways to allure customers and draw out their money and be well versed in the low jests and raileries the mob make use of to banter prudence and frugality He must be affable and obsequious to the most despicable always ready and ossicious to help a porter down with his load shake hands with a balket woman pull off his hat to an oyster wench and be familiar with a beggar with patience and good humour he must be able to endure the silthy actions and viler language of nasty drabs and the lewdest rakehells and without a frown or the least aversion bear with all the stench and squalor noise and impertinence that trie utmost indigence laziness and ebriety can produce in the most shameless and abandoned vulgar”
Clearly he didn’t approve of the effect Gin was having on society at large, but perhaps more interesting is a later passage in his book that says:
“learning impudence aspire any It would encourage likewise the lower sort of people to give their children this part of education if they could see them preferred to those of idle sots or lorry rake hells that never knew what it was to provide a rag for their brats but by begging Bet now when a boy or a girl are wanted for any small service we reckon it a duty to employ our charity children before any other The education of them looks like a reward for being vicious and unactive a benefit commonly bestowed on parents who deserve to be punished for shamefully neglecting their families In one place you may hear a rascal half drunk damning himself call for the other pot and as a good reason for it add that his boy is provided for in clothes and has his schooling for nothing In another you shall see a poor woman in great necessity whose child is to be taken care of because herself is a lazy slut and never did any thing to remedy her wants in good earnest but bewailing them at a gin-shop”
So it’s clear that by as early as 1714, Gin-shops were common in England and had become a part of the fabric of culture at the time. In fact they were so well established as to be held to blame as a cause of parental neglect. It’s a pretty strongly worded passage and gives a clue as to how the over indulgence in Gin was having a negative impact on society at large.
But when did Gin as a name first come about? We may never know. If I speculate then it seems likely that the shortening of Genever would have happened soon after the spirit was being made in England, as opposed to being imported from Holland, but whether it had several nicknames (Gen, Genny, Gin perhaps?) and it was Gin that stuck and became popular, is much harder to prove and is perhaps a research project for another time! All that can be stated for certain is that between 1585 when England got involved in the war in Holland, and 1714, when Gin was widely available to the point where Gin Shops were common place, the original Dutch Genever was changed into English Gin.
Fast forward to modern times and we find that Gin has evolved into the spirit we recognise today, in other words a crisp, clear liquid, strong on juniper flavour and aroma, but balanced with nuances of other herbs, spices and fruits. At least that’s the theory of what it should be, although it could be argued that many new style Gins blur the line of what is or isn’t a spirit with juniper as it’s dominant flavour. I digress…
It’s important to understand that there’s more than one kind of Gin. There are several differing styles that have developed over the centuries, be these regional differences or levels of sweetness and dryness. There’s Plymouth Gin, and London Dry, Old Tom and Old English, not to mention distilled and compound Gins… in other words there’s a lot to think about in terms of understanding that all Gins are not the same!
There are also different classifications of Gin, in terms of how they are produced, but I’ve saved that for further down this blog.
Old Tom tends to refer to the old style of Gin made in England when we first started imitating Dutch Genever. This style of Gin was popular at a time when distillation methods were relatively crude, and as such, spirits were distilled to a lower strength than is possible with modern column stills. Originally these would have been made by taking a grain spirit (similar to unaged whisky) and infusing it with juniper and other botanicals, before redistilling it. This Gin would often have been slightly sweetened to cover the poorly distilled spirit and to make it more pleasant to drink. Henrik Hammer (of Geranium Gin and Old English Gin) has done some interesting research that shows that it is likely that Old Tom was probably just the name of one product that was available in the early days of Gin production, but it’s a name that stuck and now all Old English style gins tend to be known by this name.
London Dry is the style most commonly recognised today, but despite its name, it doesn’t have to be made in London. It is a ‘dry’ gin, in other words it is unsweetened, and can trace its invention back to the era when Column stills were first in common use. Making a spirit with a column still allows the distiller to make a much purer spirit, distilled to a higher abv and eliminate many of the impurities that other distillation methods allow through. It makes a cleaner, crisper spirit if you like, and this defines the style of London Dry Gin.
Plymouth Gin is another popular ‘style’ of gin, although really it is more of a geographical definition than anything else, and there’s now only one producer, the aptly named Plymouth Gin. By tradition this is a more floral, and slightly sweeter Gin than London Dry, and is regarded by many as a fantastic style of gin.
Many people put Sloe Gin into this category of spirit too, but really it’s a liqueur, made using Gin as a base, but then infused with sloe berries and plenty of sugar. Technically this isn’t a Gin!
For as long as bartenders have been writing books about cocktails, Gin has been a favourite spirit. In many cocktail books you’ll find more Gin based cocktails than any other spirit. The Savoy Cocktail Book has, for example, right around 400 cocktail recipes containing Gin or Sloe Gin. In fact I’d be willing to bet that if you gathered all the classic cocktail books together and counted through the recipes, you’d find that in the first hundred years or so of cocktail books, there are more Gin cocktails than any other spirit. I don’t even think it would be a close race!
So why have bartenders always loved Gin as a base for their cocktails? Well it’s a light spirit that allows the flavours you add to come through, but it has character in the form of the botanicals it’s made from. There’s a depth of flavour, but without it being as heavy as an aged spirit. It works well in short, punchy drinks, but is equally at home in long refreshing drinks. In other words it’s incredibly versatile.
So while Gin may be back in fashion, don’t for one second make the mistake of thinking this is a Golden Age for this spirit. It’s been popular for a long time now, and will almost certainly stay popular with anyone making mixed drinks!
There are a load of rules and regulations about how Gin must be produced, and these rules vary from country to country. For the sake of simplicity I’ve based the below on the EU regulations, and in fact directly cut and pasted them from a blog I wrote a few years back about the rules for all spirit categories.
Gin is a broad category, with many styles, definitions and strict regulations governing its production. So starting with the generic definition, I’ve broken it down into its subcategories. If a bottle simply states that it is gin, for example, it must follow the rules stated below, but if it’s a ‘London Dry Gin’ then there are further regulations that apply, and so on to all the other styles.
European Union regulations state:
‘Gin is a juniper-flavoured spirit drink produced by flavouring organoleptically suitable ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin with juniper berries (Juniperus communis L.).
(b) The minimum alcoholic strength by volume of gin shall be 37,5 %.
(c) Only natural and/or nature-identical flavouring substances as and/or flavouring preparations shall be used for the production of gin so that the taste is predominantly that of juniper.’
Simplified: gin is a spirit made using a base of agricultural (usually grain) spirit, flavoured with juniper and other ‘botanicals’ in such a way that juniper remains the dominant flavour. Natural (or nature-identical) flavourings are allowed. This means that the minimum any spirit has to do to be called a gin is to take a neutral spirit and flavour it with juniper. Fortunately bottles stating that they are ‘distilled gin’ or ‘London gin’ has to follow slightly more rigorous production methods so tend to be higher quality products
Of course not all gins are created equal, and the above only serves as a starting point for defining gin. Here is the next step in terms of regulations; distilled gin:
Base ingredients: Agricultural spirit of at least 96% abv, juniper berries and other natural botanicals
Production method: The base spirit (usually neutral grain) is redistilled in ‘stills traditionally used for gin’ in the presence of juniper berries and other natural botanicals in such a way that the juniper taste is predominant.
Aged: none required
Bottling strength: minimum 37.5% abv
Additives: Neutral spirits of the same quality as those used in the production process, natural flavouring substances and flavouring preparations may be added.
Simplified: this is the next step up from just plain ‘gin’ as the base spirit must be redistilled with the natural ingredients including juniper berries. This process will generally lead to a more balanced and flavourful product when compared to simply adding flavourings to the neutral spirit. However it is worth noting that due to the fact that other flavouring agents are allowed not all of the flavour comes from the distillation process.
Base ingredients: Agricultural spirit, juniper berries and other natural plant materials
Production method: gin whose flavour is obtained exclusively through the redistillation of high quality agricultural spirit, in the presence of all the natural plant materials used. Distilled to at least 70% abv and containing no sweetening beyond 0.1g of sugars per litre and no colourants or any other ingredients other than water.
Aged: none required
Bottling strength: minimum 37.5% abv
Additives: none allowed
Simplified: London gin (or London dry gin) gets all of its flavour through the redistillation of a neutral spirit along with natural plant materials and juniper berries. This process ensures a higher quality of finished product (generally speaking) than products labeled simply as ‘gin’.
The quandry with the definition of Gin is that it states that the dominant flavour and aroma must be that of the juniper berry, but this is something subjective. Even as little as three years ago this wasn’t a major issue, as most of the larger producers were creating products that were clearly ‘juniper led’. Now however we have literally hundreds of new variants on the market, many of which are small craft distilled gins, produced around the world. While on one hand it is great to see new life being breathed into the category, it has also perhaps muddied the waters.
Every producer has their own unique recipe, based on a neutral (or fairly neutral) spirit, infused (one way or another) with Juniper berries and other botanicals. To me though, we have come a point where many new products have focused so much on the other botanicals they use, that they are moving away from having juniper as their primary flavour and aroma.
The legal definition is loose enough that as long as you are happy that juniper is the leading aroma and flavour, there’s no way of proving otherwise. This is probably what has led to me becoming a bit of a ‘Gin cynic’ over the past few years.
For me, the juniper aroma and flavour needs to be my first, and strongest impression when I open a bottle. Juniper is what makes Gin, Gin! There are products on the market now that smell like suntan lotion, flowers, fruit or spices, and that only have the barest hint of juniper to them, and yet are labeled as Gin. It’s a crime!
Until there is a more objective way of measuring the juniper content of Gin, I guess we will continue to see new products coming to the market that don’t resemble (what I think of as) Gin. Or maybe the bubble will burst on the current popularity of Gin, and we’ll see the few good new products and the old faithful juniper led favourites survive, and the non-junipery Gins will fade away… a man can but hope!
As for which Gins I rate and which I could live without, that’s probably a conversation for another time. I will however be following this post up with 10 Gins You Should Be Drinking, and offering up a few brands that I think are worth a try.
Gin has a lot of negative connotations attached to it, and as I’ve stated before this goes back to an era when Gin consumption was so high that it became a social issue in the UK.
Gin rose in popularity at a staggering rate when William of Orange (King William III) came to the throne in England in 1689, and when the government then allowed unlicensed Gin production to start, and at the same time, imposed a heavy tax on imported spirits, suddenly Gin was affordable. Unfortunately the lack of licensing also reflected a lack of quality as many people sought to make cheap spirits that would have a wide appeal. Often turpentine was used in the production, and in many cases juniper probably didn’t even feature in the ingredients at all.
In this period, popularly known as the Gin Craze, literally thousands of Gin shops sprung up around the country. It’s estimated that of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London alone, over half were Gin shops! The rise in popularity of Gin also coincided with a rise in the death rate in London, as well as an increase of crime rates and social unrest. When the government tried to impose taxes and legislation to control Gin consumption and production, it was so unpopular that it led to rioting in the streets.
The negative reputation of Gin during this time can be seen in the famous Hogarth illustration ‘Gin Lane’, and phrases such as ‘Mother’s ruin’ used to describe the spirit, still survive to this day.
Thankfully that era is firmly behind us, but it’s incredible to think how entwined with the fabric of society Gin once was in the UK, and how much must have been consumed for it to become such a problem.
It’s almost impossible to write about Gin without giving a mention to tonic water. The Gin & Tonic is perhaps the quintessential English beverage, and I suspect that more Gin is consumed in the G&T than any other way.
The tradition of drinking Gin and tonic water together goes back to Victorian times, when troops in India were required to consume quinine as an anti malarial medicine. Now quinine is pretty unpleasant on its own, being incredibly bitter and sharp. So a tonic water was made by infusing quinine into carbonated water, but this was still pretty unpleasant stuff. To mask the flavour, soldiers would add Gin to their tonic water, to make it more palatable, and thus the G&T was born.
Today most tonic waters contain barely a hint of quinine, which is good news quite frankly, but to some even the slightest hint of quinine is off putting. I speak from experience here, as frankly I despise the taste of tonic water. It wasn’t until I tried Gin neat for the first time that I realised that it wasn’t the Gin that I didn’t like.
From my point of view you can keep the tonic water and I’ll enjoy my gin on the rocks or in a cocktail, thank you very much!
Another drink that frankly has to be mentioned when writing about Gin, is of course the Martini. These days it seems that almost anything can be referred to as a Martini, or at least have ‘tini’ slapped on the end of it, as long as it is served in the right kind of glass. As far as I’m concerned however there is only one spirit that can or should be used in a Martini, and that is Gin.
You see the Martini started out as a Gin based concoction, mixed with vermouth and sometimes bitters. In fact it was similar to the Martinez (which I’ve written about extensively before) but with Gin as the majority ingredient and vermouth playing a supporting role, as opposed to the other way around. Originally made with sweet vermouth, the drink then went on to have sweet and dry versions made by varying the vermouth used. Eventually as tastes changed, the dry vermouth became the only choice for a martini, and then your choice was between wet (using a slightly higher ratio of vermouth) or dry (using less vermouth)… the thing that didn’t change was the base spirit.
These days the Martini is often considered a drink that can be made with either Vodka or Gin, but that’s a relatively modern thing, that seems to have come about as Gin fell out of fashion and Vodka stole the limelight. In fact the combination of Vodka and vermouth has been known by a number of other names, including the Kangaroo, or the Kangaroo’s Kick, but until recently was never really considered to be a Martini.
Bartenders take note, when I order a Martini, I’m talking about Gin, and only Gin as my base spirit… oh and I prefer mine wet (or at least moist) with a twist.
Gin is a fascinating category with a huge history to it, and despite my grumblings about some of the new products coming on to the market; it remains a favourite amongst bartenders and consumers alike. So signing off I’ll raise a Martinez to the juniper berry, and the spirit it gave birth to. Cheers to Gin!