Gin is everywhere, from the global brands we all know, to every craft distillery and startup, to products that can hardly be identified as gin except for their story and claim on the label. It's definitely a moment of new found popularity, or rediscovered infatuation, and all the different gins available somehow connect with either community, or place, or history. It's all there, both the good and the bad, in the often sordid history of one of the worlds top cocktail spirits.
Gin is a distilled spirit that derives its predominate flavor from juniper berries, although the inclusion and dominance of juniper is not always strictly required. Most gin today uses juniper to one degree or another, especially London dry gin, a style of gin defined by juniper.
Modern gin is mostly clear, but some varieties are aged or acquire a hue in their creation and connection to early versions of what is a very old spirit indeed. The earliest origins of gin are found in the Middle Ages when it was used as medicine. This medieval gin likely bore no resemblance to what we're used to, but on paper it looks like a good approximation of a neutral spirit flavored with herbal ingredients.
In the 1400s this herbal tonic would become known as jenever, or genever, a Dutch beverage that earned a place as a social drink which, by the 17th century had traveled the world along with the ascendancy of Holland as a global power. Not long after that, in the mid-1700s, the word gin appears in print.
By this time, genever was known far and wide, eventually gaining the moniker Holland's gin in reference to its country of origin. Until Victorian times, and even into the 20th century, Holland's gin was the predominant style of gin, but it wasn't alone. The British had been busy, and their's is a story fit for pulp fiction and tabloids.
Never known for subtlety in either indulgence or global affairs of exploration, and later, empire, the British began by getting shit faced drunk in support of a trade war with France. William III, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, formerly known as William of Orange, was bound and determined to ruin the economy of France. Tariffs, blockades, and war were his methods of choice, but he also instituted the Corn Laws which offered deep tax breaks to distillers and resulted in a golden age for English producers.
Golden age is the wrong phrase. Gin craze is more like it. The Corn Laws, in the absence of any regulation of stills or distillers turned out to be a bad idea. The nation went nuts, and gin became a public nuisance of troubling proportions. Not only was gin cheap and everywhere, it was often poisonous. Disreputable distillers found no shame introducing non consumable stuff to their product in that good old capitalist way of increasing profit at the expense of public health.
Moral outcry was in order, and as with all campaigns against demon alcohol, it was, as it was for not only the gin craze, but absinthe and Prohibition, necessary. It wasn't free of hyperbole, however, and the good citizens of the crown were convinced through public information initiatives, to drink less gin and more beer.
It worked. Gin was relegated to the ash heap of things only the most disreputable, despicable or unsavory would consume. Gin was officially in the closet, but it wasn't there to stay.
The style of the gin at the time was old tom gin, so named because purveyors of the beverage would indicate so by mounting outside their establishments a wooden placard in the shape of a cat. This early British gin was dryer than the Holland's gin, but consumed with no less enthusiasm right up until gin act of 1751 put the brakes on the gin craze with taxes, regulation of distillers, taxes, public health laws, and taxes. It wouldn't be until the 1800s that gin would again raise a specter over the island nation when the invention of the column still revolutionized distilling across the board, and this new national craze gave rise to the Victorian gin palace. Yes, gin was back, and with all of the same problems as before.
Apparently, regulation wasn't enough, and enforcement was sparse. That left gin palaces free to soak an increasingly urban population with a seemingly endless supply of alcohol. They were at it again, and this time it wasn't just a cheap drunk. Gin was, as it began, medicine. The British were now burdened with a vast empire, and that vast empire was full of dangerous things, including mosquitoes. The annoying bugs carried malaria, and gin was what the doctor ordered. More correctly, Indian tonic water is what the doctor ordered, but the tonic water was so unpalatable it had to be tempered with something. That something was gin.
The 1800s was an unusual time for gin as all the varieties were all on stage at the same time. The British still embraced their old tom gin, American's were ever enamored with Holland's gin, and if you open a cocktail book from those days, before Prohibition in the US, the recipes look a bit odd. In most cases it's because the gin in question is assumed to be Holland's gin, or, sometimes specified, old tom gin, but London dry gin wasn't really that well known.
London dry gin is characterized by high ABV (alcohol by volume) and juniper. Lots and lots of juniper. London dry gin is not a sipping spirit, it has to be mixed with something, and for many, the strong taste of pine trees is off putting. Not so when it came to the British Navy.
The British Navy was, in effect, the first brand ambassador. They embraced gin with a verve found only in the way they embraced rum before that. But with gin came the lime. The Gimlet is a creation of the Royal Navy because they needed something to mix with the gin, and lime was a natural choice. The lime was mixed with sugar so it would keep on a long ocean journey, and that's why a gimlet, even though delicious with fresh lime juice, is traditionally made with lime cordial. It was how the British sailors kept their lime from spoiling.
By the middle of the 20th century, London dry gin was becoming what we think of when we say gin, but it was also fading from the public taste. Vodka was the new thing, and gin was all but forgotten. Today you can find so many varieties of gin, and, like it has time and time before, gin is as popular as ever. It's the cycle of gin that keeps bringing it back, and every time it comes back it comes back with new flavors and styles, and the cocktail world is all the better for it.
Gin can be made in several ways depending on what the distiller wants to achieve. Before we examine distillation, let's take another look at the different types of gin.
London dry gin - The gin we think of when we say gin. It's always juniper forward, very dry and usually has an ABV somewhere between 40% and 50%. London dry gin developed late in the world of gin, and is a result of modern distillation methods. This is the gin favored for such classic drinks as the Martini, Gimlet, and Gin & Tonic.
Genever - The original gin, also known at times as Holland's gin, genever is sweeter than most other gins. Made from malt wine, a fermented spirit not too far from beer or ale, gevnever is also more flavorful, with more variety of character from brand to brand.
Old tom gin - The ancestor of London dry gin, old tom gin carries the color of the barrel in which it aged. Old tom is not an especially robust spirit, but sometimes it's aged in wood long enough to impart distinctive flavors and character. Old tom gin is sweeter than London dry, but not as sweet as genever. It's also the perfect gin for a Tom Collins, Martinez, or any 19th century gin cocktail.
Plymouth gin - Plymouth gin is a very specific kind of gin, similar to London dry, but made in Plymouth. Legal, only gin made in Plymouth can be called Plymouth gin, and there is only one brand of Plymouth gin which is uniquely called Plymouth Gin. Yes, Plymouth gin is both a style of gin, and a brand of gin, but, while it can be as dry as London dry, the juniper is dialed back a bit in favor of citrus notes. Some say it's the water of Plymouth that makes this gin special, but who are we to say. I't a top shelf gin with a lower ABV that pairs perfectly with citrus. Use it as the base of sours, and citrus based long drinks.
American gin - American gin is a relatively recent class of gin, and while it may or may not be universally accepted as a distinct style apart from London dry, it remains quite similar to it's British counterpart, but with more latitude about the juniper. American gin is often craft gin, made locally and reaching small markets, although brands like Aviation and Junipero have become global brands, and staples of the modern cocktail bar. American gin is perfect when you want to experiment, try different things, or experience the local flavor of the many regional native gins.
Modern gins all start with a neutral spirit which is then flavored through one or more different processes. For some, this means macerating ingredients in the spirit and boiling off the aromatic vapor. This type of pot distillation is how London dry gin is made, and most gins, at some point, will undergo this technique. Making gin this way is almost like making a pot of tea where you put the leaves in the boiling water and let it flavor the beverage.
On the other hand, another way to make gin is in a column still where the vapor created by boiling the spirit is passed through the flavoring ingredients. In this case, only the vapor is exposed to the flavoring agents. Column stills are more efficient because the flavoring agents never enter the still. A pot still must be cleaned after each batch, not so with a column still.
In addition to the two basic ways of making gin, producers have found ever more efficient techniques of creating their products. In one case, a given weight of botanicals is multiplied by a given amount as to oversaturate the spirit. This is sort of like gin concentrate, the final product being a bit of concentrate cut with neutral spirit. Global brands often do this as a way to match production to demand, and the final result is still as much a bottle of gin as any other.
If you make gin from gin concentrate, you could, in theory, also blend gin from component parts. Imagine acquiring each flavor component, either through distillation or through lab chemistry, then blending each flavor into a single product. It's gin, just as sure as any other gin is gin, it was just made like those soda mixes you make at the gas station. A little cola, a little lemon lime, a little root beer, and all together they make a unique creation that is still soda pop, just made from alot of individual flavors of soda.
Finally, you can make gin just like you make flavored vodka, liqueur, or any infusion. Throw some flavoring agents in a bottle of neutral spirit, such as vodka, and wait a while for the flavors to infuse. This isn't the most highly regarded way of making gin, but it is a way to make gin at home with relatively little equipment. Don't do it in a bathtub, though. That's gross.
Gordon's gin is not only the best bargain in any liquor store, it's also the world's most popular gin, and our choice for best bargain option. At 40% ABV, Gordon's is less sharp than most London dry gins, which makes it perfect for more delicate drinks like a Vesper. Gordon's is also an original London dry gin, and old recipe books will often call for Gordon's as a way of indicating the recipe requires London dry gin. So ubiquitous was Gordon's in the early 20th century that London dry gin was also referred to as Gordon's water as opposed to the equally colloquially named Holland's gin, or genever.
Tanqueray is made by the same company as Gordon's, Tanqueray Gordon & Co. Ltd of London, and anyone who's at all familiar with gin has seen the short green bottle of the quintessential London dry gin. Tanqueray is highly focused, sharp, and very juniper dominant. At 47% ABV it stands tall in any glass, and will go toe to toe with anything you throw at it. Use it with powerful, dominant flavors in cocktails like the Negroni, or G&T.
Beefeater is the other British heavyweight, but, even though it has as high an ABV as Tanqueray, it's more gentle and versatile. It will still hold it's own in any cocktail, but shines when you also want a delicate touch. It works just as well in a Martini as it does with citrus making it a perfect all around choice for a variety of cocktails.
Aria, a gin made in Portland, is an American gin designed for all the cocktails. Like Beefeater, Aria is a great all around choice for a variety of drinks, isn't shy when you need it to be assertive, but truely shines in sours and with fruit juices and liqueurs. Save this one for the White Lady or Clover Club, or mix it in a Martini. If you like it stirred and served up, Aria is a great choice for a Vesper.
Aviation is another product of Portland, although the brand is now international and as highly regarded as ever. Aviation is a unique American gin that starts out as a rye spirit, and is flavored less with juniper and more with sarsaparilla, which gives it a surprisingly wonderful finish reminiscent of cola. It's a very dry, aromatic gin that can redefine any cocktail, and if you're looking for a change of pace in your Martini, try it with Aviation, or use it in some of the most gin forward cocktails from a century ago, such as Pink Gin, or the Improved Gin Cocktail. It's also great at the other end of the spectrum, in drinks like the Singapore Sling.
Ransom Old Tom, another Oregon product that's become world renown, is an old tom gin aged in wine barrels. Ransom is a little more assertive than other old tom gins, but in a good way. It works in old recipes, but sips like a smooth, modern craft product. It's a go-to for both the Tom Collins and Martinez, and a great option for trying old cocktails made with the spirits of the day.
Bols Genever has been around for hundreds of years, is still produced in the old way, and is a maltier genever made from 100% malt wine. This makes it a great option for any genever drink, or just served neat. On the other hand, it's but one example of a broad class of drinks, in both style and manufacture, and can give a false impression, like having just one bottle of rum in your bar, but, if you only want one genever, or want to start a journey through all the different genevers, this is your first stop.
Plymouth gin is both a style of gin, and a brand of gin. It's a very respectful guest in any cocktail, but it's an investment. For those who want to experience Plymouth gin, or those who have an appreciation for the style, it's a must have. For those looking for a great all around gin, Plymouth works in everything, but Beefeater and Aria offer more budget friendly choices. In any case, you should try it, at least once.
Beyond the basics, we encourage you to experiment, try different gins, and find what you like. There are so many available, from the stout and assertive Junipero, to the distinctively local Trillium and the more regional brands from around the world, you could build a museum sized collection of gins, and why not? It's one of the most basic cocktail spirits, and in simple cocktails like a Martini, is a different experience every time. So go buy some gin and have fun! The days of turpentine and bathtub gin are long gone, so fear not.