The Fascinating World of Gin: An Ode to a Timeless Spirit

Gin, with its aromatic profile and versatile nature, has been a staple in bars and homes worldwide for centuries. This clear spirit, known for its distinctive juniper berry flavor, has a rich history and an exciting contemporary resurgence in the world of mixology. Let's delve into the world of gin, exploring its origins, production methods, and the varied styles that make it a much-loved spirit.

The Origins of Gin

The story of gin dates back to the Middle Ages, where it began its journey not as a popular spirit for cocktails, but as a medicinal concoction. Its ancestor is a juniper-based medicinal liquor known as 'jenever,' which originated in Holland. Apothecaries would distill alcohol with juniper berries and other botanicals to create remedies for a variety of ailments, including stomach complaints, gout, and gallstones. This early form of gin was a far cry from the refined spirit we enjoy today, but it laid the groundwork for the evolution of gin.

The transformation of jenever into what we now recognize as gin began in the 17th century during the Eighty Years' War. English soldiers fighting alongside Dutch forces in the Netherlands encountered jenever and appreciated its warming properties in cold, damp weather. This led to its nickname "Dutch Courage."

When these soldiers returned home, they brought with them a taste for this juniper-flavored spirit. The English began to produce their own versions of the spirit, and it was during this period that the term 'gin'—an anglicized version of the Dutch word 'jenever'—came into use.

However, it was the passing of the Distillers Act in 1690, which allowed anyone in England to distill their own spirits, that led to the widespread popularity of gin. This period, often referred to as the 'Gin Craze,' saw a dramatic increase in gin consumption. At its peak, it's estimated that the average Londoner drank over 14 gallons of gin per year.

The gin of this period was often poor quality and unregulated, leading to widespread social problems. Eventually, the government stepped in with a series of 'Gin Acts' to control production and sales, leading to the closure of many gin shops and the rise of licensed premises.

Over time, gin production became more refined, and the spirit began to gain a reputation for quality. The creation of the column still in the 19th century allowed for a much purer distillate to be produced, leading to the development of the London Dry style of gin we are familiar with today.

Today, gin is enjoyed worldwide and is central to many classic cocktails. Its fascinating history, from medicinal tonic to the centerpiece of the cocktail renaissance, highlights the adaptability and enduring appeal of this juniper-infused spirit.

Production of Gin

The production of gin is an art form, a delicate balance of science and creativity. The process begins with the creation of a neutral grain spirit, similar to vodka, which serves as the base for the gin. This spirit is often made from grains such as rye, barley, or corn, and it is essentially flavorless before the gin-making process begins.

Gin and Tonic

Once the neutral grain spirit has been created, it is ready for redistillation with the chosen botanicals. The primary botanical in gin, and the one that gives it its characteristic flavor, is the juniper berry. The juniper berry imparts a piney, slightly citrusy flavor that is unmistakably gin.

However, gin isn't just about juniper. One of the aspects that make gin so exciting and diverse is the vast array of other botanicals used in its production. These can include a wide variety of fruits, herbs, and spices, each contributing unique flavors and aromas to the final product.

Some common botanicals used in gin production include:

  1. Coriander: Coriander seeds are the second most common botanical used in gin production after juniper. They add a complexity to the flavor, contributing a slight spiciness and hints of lemon.

  2. Citrus Peels: Citrus peels, particularly from lemons and oranges, are often used in gin production. They add a bright, zesty element to the gin's flavor profile.

  3. Angelica Root: This botanical often acts as a binding agent, helping to marry the flavors of the other botanicals together. It contributes a slightly earthy, herbal flavor.

  4. Cardamom: Known for its intense, aromatic flavor, cardamom can add a spicy, slightly sweet note to gin.

  5. Cassia Bark and Cinnamon: These botanicals add a warm, spicy note to gin, similar to cinnamon.

During the redistillation process, the neutral grain spirit is vaporized, allowing it to pass through a "gin basket" containing the chosen botanicals. As the vapor comes into contact with the botanicals, it absorbs their flavors and aromas. The vapor is then condensed back into a liquid, now infused with the flavors of the botanicals.

Each gin producer has its own secret recipe of botanicals, proportions, and distillation techniques, which results in a broad spectrum of gin flavors. From the juniper-forward London Dry gins to the contemporary gins showcasing a variety of botanicals, there's a gin to suit every palate.

Styles of Gin

There are several styles of gin, each with its unique characteristics:

  1. London Dry: Despite its name, London Dry Gin doesn't have to be made in London. The term "London Dry" is a quality designation, meaning that the gin is distilled to a completely neutral spirit before it's redistilled with botanicals. The result is a crisp, clean flavor where the juniper berry takes center stage, and no additional flavors or colors are added after distillation. Some popular brands include Beefeater, Tanqueray, and Bombay Sapphire. This style is a favorite for many classic cocktails, including the classic Dry Martini—made with gin and dry vermouth—and the Gin and Tonic—gin mixed with tonic water and typically garnished with a slice of lime or lemon.

  2. Old Tom Gin: This style of gin bridges the gap between the juniper-forward London Dry and the malty Dutch Genever. It is slightly sweeter than London Dry and is known for its botanical complexity. Hayman's and Ransom are notable brands of Old Tom Gin. This gin style works exceptionally well in cocktails like the Tom Collins—made with gin, lemon juice, sugar, and carbonated water—and the Martinez, often considered the precursor to the modern Martini, made with Old Tom gin, sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and orange bitters.

  3. Plymouth Gin: This gin, both a style and a brand, must be made in Plymouth, England. It's a full-bodied gin, slightly less dry than London Dry, with a slightly fruity aroma and a touch of earthiness. Plymouth Gin is the only gin distillery still in operation in Plymouth. This gin is wonderfully versatile and shines brightly in cocktails like the classic Gimlet—made with gin and lime juice.

  4. Genever: The Dutch precursor to modern gin, Genever is a unique style of gin that is maltier and heavier due to its high proportion of malt wine. This gives it a flavor profile closer to a light, botanical whiskey. Famous brands include Bols and Boomsma. Because of its distinct flavor, it's often enjoyed neat or on the rocks, but it can also be used in cocktails like the classic Dutch variant of the Negroni—where Genever replaces the traditional gin.

  5. New Western or International Style Gin: These gins mark a departure from the traditional juniper-heavy flavor profile. Instead, they allow other botanicals to shine through, leading to an array of unique and intriguing flavors. Hendrick's, with its signature infusion of rose and cucumber, is a well-known brand in this style. These gins can be enjoyed in a range of cocktails, and their unique flavor profiles often inspire innovative, contemporary concoctions. For instance, Hendrick's works exceptionally well in a Cucumber Basil Smash—a refreshing blend of gin, fresh basil, cucumber, and lemon juice.

Gin's diverse flavor profiles make it a favorite among mixologists. It serves as the base spirit in numerous classic cocktails, from the refreshing gin and tonic and bracing Negroni to the elegant Martini. Each cocktail allows the gin's botanicals to interact in fascinating ways with other ingredients, creating a symphony of flavors.

In recent years, the craft cocktail movement has sparked a gin renaissance, with new craft distilleries and gin-focused bars popping up all over the world. This resurgence, coupled with gin's intriguing history and varied styles, ensures its place in the pantheon of beloved spirits.

Gin, with its unique blend of history, variety, and versatility, continues to captivate the world. Whether you're savoring it in a classic cocktail or exploring the offerings of modern craft distilleries, the world of gin offers a journey of discovery that is sure to intrigue