Gin holds the distinction of deriving flavor from the only spice that comes from conifers, the misnamed juniper berry. Next time you’re sipping a gin martini, Tom Collins or Satan’s Whisker’s with friends at the bar, you might be able to win a wager by knowing that juniper doesn’t produce berries—what looks a bit like a blueberry is actually a covered cone.
Gin is divided into two main categories: compound and distilled. Connoisseurs insist that compound gin is inferior to distilled gin.
- Compound gin is a neutral spirit infused with a variety of botanical essences.
- Distilled gin follows the flavoring stage with a second round of distillation, producing a smoother spirit.
Each brand of gin has its own recipe of unique botanical flavorings. In addition to juniper, cinnamon, citrus fruits, coriander, licorice root, savory, frankincense, or dragon eye might flavor gin.
A Short History of Gin
Many in the United States think of gin as an English product, thanks to our colonial heritage and the name recognition involved in London dry gin, a specific type of the spirit. However, gin as we know it is of Dutch origin, and was closest to the type of gin we now call Genever.
As William of Orange ascended to the English throne, he introduced the Dutch tipple to England. William levied virtually no restrictions on the production of gin, which became quite popular because he vigorously taxed imported spirits and permitted conditions within which very cheap, extremely crude product could flood the market. Turpentine, for instance, was a common substitute for other botanical flavorings. The Gin Craze was in full swing.
What Makes Gin, Gin?
The London style relies on column stills, rather than the pot stills still favored by the Dutch to produce Genever. Accordingly, the London style tends to have higher alcohol by volume.
The second characteristic distinguishing the London dry style from Holland’s genever is that the latter matures in oak barrels for up to three years, much like whiskey. Genever tends upon release to be more full-bodied.
Combinations of the two styles have their fans, too, as Seagram’s Extra Dry attests. Seagram ages its spirit three months in oak; during its stay in cask, the spirit mellows and tints pale gold.
The Flavor of Gin
Dry gin’s taste approximates vodka’s. Although some people will drink straight gin, is it far more commonly mixed, such as in the perennial favorite gin and tonic. The original gin and tonic was concocted as if an ironic homage to gin’s medicinal roots in that, during the heyday of British colonialism in India, quinine was used to fight off malaria. The British first mixed the quinine with soda water, and then added some gin and a pinch of sugar. The irony is that the British colonists masked the flavor of tonic water with gin whereas, today, most cut gin with mixers to mask the flavor of the spirit.
Many of the most popular contemporary gins please the palette with more than juniper. Over time, gins makers have made more complex, fruity, aromatic gins. From time to time the UK sees a rise in boutique gin, infusing unique flavors to the clear spirit and, in the US, influential mixologists concoct new potions or resurrect and update golden age gin-based cocktails. Either way, the spirit has risen far above its reputation as the rot-gut swill of the gin mills.