What Is Gin, Exactly?
The long and boozy history of an iconic spirit
Spending as many hours as I do belly up to a fancy bar with a cocktail in hand, there’s a refrain from fellow patrons that I hear a lot: “I don’t like ____.” [Fill in the blank with any spirit] Let’s re-evaluate this sentiment for a second. While there’s no right way or wrong way to drink, and the best bartenders will pour you whatever you ask for without a blink of judgment, how about a little palate exploration? We’re living in a foodie revolution, and the drinkie revolution is not too far behind, so get ready.
I used to be a “I don’t like gin” kind of person, ever since my first whiff of the stuff when I was about 14. All my friends were experimenting with the idea of “getting drunk” as a primary recreational activity, and I thought: “Why not?” So one afternoon I opened up our fully stocked liquor cabinet at home, poured myself a tumbler full of Gordon’s gin, took one sniff and poured the stuff right back into the bottle. No thanks. And that was that. I became an “I don’t like gin” kind of person. That is, until I started drinking in the right places. Try and tell me you don’t like gin after you’ve had Audrey Saunders’ Earl Grey MarTEAni, and I say you don’t just not like gin, you don’t like to drink, my friends.
But let’s backtrack a little, to a time before gin got all fancy. Most people, history buffs and booze nerds excepted, would never guess gin’s humble origins. Most of us only know it as a very aromatic, supremely English (and therefore proper) lawn party drink in G&T’s (gin and tonics) or in an elegant dry martini. Classic and classy. But until recently, gin was distilled — and consumed — in back alleys and bathtubs. Dating back to the 18th Century, it was the drink of choice for the very poor, and boy did they drink a lot of it.
Origins of gin
The dictionary definition of gin is that of a neutral grain spirit re-distilled with botanicals, with a predominant juniper flavor. The only thing all gins must have in common is the juniper berry, but gins come by that distinctive pine-y flavor in a variety of ways. There’s no prescribed ratio, there’s no amount of juniper that is required by law; the definition merely states “predominant flavor of juniper.” Other common gin botanicals include coriander, citrus peels (bitter orange, lemon, grapefruit), angelica root and seed, licorice, orris root, bitter almonds, nutmeg, cinnamon and anise, to name a few.
The four main styles of gin
1. London Dry Gin
The one that is most familiar as “gin” and most widely available is a style called London Dry Gin. Curiously, a London Dry does not have to be made in London, instead it’s defined by getting its juniper flavor from neutral spirits (grain alcohol) re-distilled with botanicals, with nothing added after the re-distillation process. Some cocktail historians and purveyors of urban cocktail legend say that the origin of the expression “dry martini” comes not from the amount of vermouth added to the cocktail, but from a shortening of the request for a “London Dry Martini.”
2. Dutch Genever
Another style of gin, and history says it’s the first style, is the Dutch Genever. Rather than starting with a neutral grain spirit, a genever starts with a malted grain mash, more like whiskey. The process lends itself to barrel-aging, whereas making English gins is a very quick process, sometimes taking no longer than a day. The soft yellow spirit has been making a comeback lately.
3. Old Tom
Old Tom gin is yet another style that has fallen out of favor, and production, until recently. Old Toms are characterized by sugar in the re-distillation process that makes them sweeter than a London Dry.
4. Compound Gin
The last style of gin, compound gin, was probably the most prevalent in the early days of gin production, when it was the beverage of choice for the working classes and the out-of-work. Compound gin derives its flavor from essences that are added to neutral grain spirits, with no re-distillation. One of those “essences” in the cheapest swill was turpentine. But even this style of gin is having a modern day renaissance of sorts. Hendricks is a type of compound gin: the signature cucumber and rose petal essences are too delicate for re-distillation process and are added after the other more traditional botanicals are re-distilled with neutral spirits.
And there you have it, a gin primer. Stay tuned for more from the Master Distillers at Beefeater and Plymouth, and afternoon high tea with Hendricks.