It’s hard to think of any other alcohol that has had a history as fluctuant as gin. From being drunk more than water to becoming the symbol of high class, gin has been at the centre of it all. Gin has seen a resurgence in the past few years, especially in Britain. What caused this recent boom?
We must first understand what gin is and how it differs from other alcohols that are on the market today. Gin is a flavoured spirit that distils the essence of the botanicals through a neutral grain base – essentially a high proof vodka. There is no limit as to how many botanicals can be added to make a gin. A botanical, in relation to gin, is a natural ingredient, which means that it is unprocessed. There is a great debate on ingredients which are man-made but still processed. For example, honey is processed by bees, but pollen is not. Therefore bee pollen is a botanical, honey is not.
Legally, for it to be called ‘gin’, juniper berries must be present. No juniper, no gin. This does not necessarily mean juniper has to be the most prominent flavour. That comes down to the style of gin. New styles of gin have been more experimental in distilling methods and botanicals, so don’t worry if you’re not the biggest fan of juniper.
Gin itself is a British creation but the idea derived from a Dutch drink – ‘genever’. Dutch soldiers would be given rations of genever to calm their nerves before they went into battle. In an effort to stop high British desertion rates, they were given genever as well – this is also where the term, ‘dutch courage’ was coined. Genever was originally produced by distilling a malt wine to around 50% abv (alcohol by volume). The resulting drink was not particularly pleasant so juniper, as well as other herbs/spices, were added to make it more palatable. Juniper was included on account of its apparent medicinal benefits. In the wake of the war, genever was brought back over to Britain through trade and, in some cases, smuggling. When genever was introduced to Britain, it was referred to as ‘gen’ then, eventually ‘dutch gin’.
King William III was a great influence in gin’s rise to prominence in the late 17th/early 18th century. After passing an act that made it cheaper and easier to produce spirit than it was to import – especially after a tax increase on French brandies and wines – distilling in Britain became considerably more popular. At the time, there was a corn surplus which meant that there was an abundance of the crop that could be used to make the spirit. British distillers replicated the process of distilling with juniper and additional botanicals through the base which gave us the earliest gins.
Old Tom gin
The first British gin is known as ‘Old Tom’ gin. Old Tom gin is a style of gin, much like London dry. Early gins were made to poor quality and were unpleasant to drink. By the mid 18th century, the gin craze was in full effect. It is thought that approximately 1 in 4 residents in some London districts was producing their own gin. Residents would buy in the cheap spirit and flavour it in their homes. Water, particularly in cities where much of the distilling was happening, was contaminated by waste. Turpentine was cheap and was used to mimic the flavour if juniper because they are both pine based. Sulphuric acid also gave the illusion of a strong alcoholic beverage.
Gin almost ruined the country as so many people were drinking it to a harmful extent. Acts were put into place to reduce the production, distribution and access to such products. These acts were not popular with the general public as some took to rioting in protest of the acts. As a result of the acts, gin became very expensive, to the point where it became a symbol of class. People would put money back into their establishments, thus, the introduction of ‘Gin Palaces’. Venues where the middle to upper class could go to and drink their gin.
Higher quality gins became less dependent on sweeteners and enhancers which, over time, led to the creation of the ‘London Dry’ style. By today’s standard, London Dry gins do not have to be made in London, or even England to hold the title. For them to legally be classified as London Dry gins, juniper has to be the dominant flavour and they do not permit the use of artificial flavourings or colouring. Further requirements are; the neutral grain spirit base has to be distilled to no less than 96% abv and the distillate has to come out of the still at no less than 70% abv; the distillate is then cut with water to bring it down to the desired strength.
Now we’ve reached the modern age and the gin industry has boomed. Distillers have been more experimental in botanical compounds and distillation methods, creating new and exciting concoctions. Scotland has been at the forefront of this movement as you can use the very same facilities to make gin as you can whisky. When whisky legally has to be aged (for a minimum of 3 years – style dependent), gin does not. With Scotland producing so much whisky, it seems only natural distilleries would try their hand at gin as they are waiting for the whisky to mature – at least then they are bringing money into the distillery while they are waiting on the whiskies ageing.
We can also look at the recent interest in cocktail bars and cocktail culture. A great number of classic cocktails use gin as the base spirit. Given its complexity and diversity in flavour, gin offers much to be built upon in cocktails. The botanical compound offers a foundation for which a bartender can build upon. Take a martini, for example; by adding a touch of vermouth and gently stirring down the gin, the flavours provided by the botanicals have more room to breathe and showcase themselves.
Although gin may not be as popular in other countries as it is in Britain, general interest is spreading and people are starting to approach it in an inquisitive manner. There are awards and authorities that exist and try to determine what the ‘best gins on the market’ are but, due to sheer diversity and the great number of options/variations, the only way to know what gin is for you is to explore and try it for yourself.
- Citrusy Gin (I use Brooklyn): 25ml/1oz
- Chambord: 25ml/1oz
- Triple Sec: 25ml/1oz
- Lime juice: 25ml/1oz
- 1:1 ratio Honey Water: 12.5ml/1/2oz
- Basil Leaves: 5 – 6
- Raspberries: 5 – 6
- Put everything into a shaker
- Fine strain into rocks glass over ice
- Garnish with basil sprig/leaves
- London Dry Gin: 50ml/2oz
- Lime Cordial: 25ml/1oz
- Place all ingredients into mixing vessel
- Add ice
- Fine strain into a martini glass
- Garnish with lime wheel/slice
The gimlet cocktail was created by Dr Thomas Gimlet and was given to sailors to remedy scurvy.