Gin is, at its simplest, a spirit flavoured with a variety of botanicals, with the predominant flavour being juniper. Despite that simple start, it is a spirit with a long and turbulent history, as well as a vibrant present and future.
While gin is often seen as England’s traditional spirit, its origins are very much from over the sea. Juniper has been used to flavour spirits almost since the invention of distillation, both for its perceived medicinal qualities as well as its flavour, but it is only since the 17th century that the beginnings of modern gin started to appear.
The invention of genever, Dutch-style gin, is often attributed to Franciscus Sylvius in the early-mid 1600s. However, gin’s current story starts when it hopped the English channel, and became well known in Britain after William of Orange took the English throne in 1688. Due to a low taxation, locally produced gin was cheap to make and thus cheap to buy – gin’s popularity exploded.
This was the time of the gin craze. More than half of London’s drinking establishments were gin shops, and the wave of overconsumption and extreme drunkenness provoked inevitable outrage from the general public and government – Hogarth’s famed diptych of Gin Lane and Beer Street, showing the perils of drinking gin as opposed to the joy of drinking beer, was in direct response. Parliament reacted by passing various laws to help control the drinking and production of gin, and by the 1850s, things had calmed down.
Gin continued to be a popular drink in Britain, but spread with the British Empire and then beyond to all corners of the globe. Many gins are now tailored to the taste of the localities where it’s consumed, leading to a wide range of styles, flavours and ingredients, from the historical to the ultra-modern.
Production and Drinking
Gin production falls into two main camps – compounding and distilling:
Compounded gin is made by adding flavourings, either actual botanicals or natural extracts, to neutral spirit. Many cheaper gins are made using this method, but there are also a range of excellent gins within the category, produced by macerating whole botanicals to produce high-quality spirit.
Distilled gin is made by redistilling spirit that has had botanicals added to it. London Dry Gin is a stricter version, which also forbids the addition of anything but water after distillation.
While a spirit must have, according to most regulations around the world, a predominant flavour of juniper in order to be called gin, the rest of the ingredients are left up to the producer.
There are certain botanicals which are very common – including orris and angelica root, orange and lemon peel (both fresh and dried), liquorice, anise and cardamom – but with the increasing popularity of gin since the turn of the millennium, producers have started looking further afield – grains of paradise, green tea, cubeb, honey, hops, exotic fruit and locally harvested plants have all appeared, each contributing to a gin’s unique flavour profile and distinguishing each bottle from the rest of the field.
Part of gin’s popularity is its versatility. While one of the most common ways to drink it is in a gin and tonic, it’s also the base of a huge number of cocktails created over the past century, including the most iconic of them all: the Martini. While many of the new wave of gins are great to drink neat, or over ice, it’s the classic serves and cocktails that most focus on, and every gin has a range of different uses. There may be many of them, but every gin has its place.
Did you know?
- juniper has been used for more than 1,000 years as a medicine to treat rheumatism, arthritis, loss of appetite (as well as overactive appetite) and gout
- London dry gin can be made anywhere in the world
- if you are making a Martini, then you have to use gin. If you make your drink using vodka, you have actually created a classic cocktail called a Kangaroo
Typical Character and Style of Gin
- Mixed Herb