In the simplest terms, gin is a liquor which is mainly flavoured by juniper berries, producing a sharp taste and aroma which are often likened to those of pine needles, with citrus notes. In its best-known form, it begins with a neutral spirit of often undefined origin, such as grain alcohol, which is intended to be flavourless. The spirit is then re-distilled, and as its vapour leaves the still on its way to be condensed back into a liquid, it passes through a perforated metal basket containing the juniper berries. Other berries and herbs are often added to the basket to produce more complex flavours and aromas, and they are collectively known as “botanicals.”
In the Middle Ages, the Dutch favoured a similar liquor called jenever, or genever. English soldiers learned about it from their Dutch allies in wartime, leading to the term “Dutch Courage.” The popularity of genever in Britain grew when a Dutchman, William of Orange, became the English, Scottish, and Irish king in 1689. The English version of genever, called gin, became especially popular in London. For a number of years, gin production in England was unlicensed, while imported spirits were heavily taxed. Of course, this led to a flood of cheap, home-made gin that was readily available (the “gin craze” period). London alone had some 7,500 gin shops and 1,500 household stills. Gin rapidly became closely associated with cheap liquor, poverty, and alcoholism. Common ingredients used to enhance the flavour and aroma were turpentine and sulphuric acid, along with sugar or honey to cover up the less pleasant flavours! In fact, the word “gin” became synonymous with illicit, cheap, often unsafe spirits of any origin or ingredients, similar to what we might today refer to as “moonshine” or even “rotgut.” The growth in population of London became stalled, and this was largely attributed to an increase in the death rate, caused by gin consumption. The unsavoury reputation for gin was reflected in the nickname “mothers’ ruin,” and in terms used up to the present day such as “gin joints” or “gin mills” when referring to cheap bars, and “gin soaked” when referring to public drunkenness. During the American prohibition period, bootleg liquor of any type was generically called “bathtub gin.”
In 1751, the Gin Act was passed in Britain, which brought some degree of regulation to gin production and distribution. This helped to make drinking safer, but was only marginally successful in improving the reputation of gin as a beverage. One circumstance that did help was the need in British India, and some other colonies, to use quinine to prevent malaria. The taste of quinine is bitter, and it was usually consumed in a carbonated water drink called “tonic water.” Gin was found to make the tonic more palatable, and so “gin and tonic” quickly became a popular cocktail right to the present day, although today’s tonic water contains very little quinine.
In the 1830’s, improved distilling technology also improved the flavour neutrality (and palatability) of spirits, and the practice of sweetening the gin declined. This led to the concept of “dry gin,” without sweetener, while heavily sweetened gin was called Old Tom gin. Dry gin was mostly made and consumed in London, and so it became known as “London dry gin,” a term that has stuck to the present day. Today, very little London gin is actually made in London; about 70% of it is made in Scotland.
In the past 20 years, gin has been reinvented as a trendy, fashionable, and versatile drink. The use of more botanicals from diverse regional sources has produced a variety of flavours, which can be very complex and make each brand unique. For many years, gin rarely used more than 3 or 4 botanicals, but today’s modern gins often use 10 or more, and can go as high as 33. The number of botanicals used does not guarantee a difference in quality, but it certainly implies greater sophistication of flavours and aromas. Popular botanicals include citrus peel, berries, various culinary spices, and various regional herbs.
Regulations and legal definitions of gin are more diverse, and often more ambiguous, than for almost any other alcoholic beverage. In the European Union, traditionally produced gin is called “Juniper-Flavoured Spirit,” and is allowed certain regional names, as well. If the initial distilled alcohol strength attains at least 96% and the mash used is agricultural grain only, then it is entitled to the name “Distilled Gin,” and this is the product that we normally think of as “gin.” “London Gin” or “London Dry Gin” refers to distilled gin which meets certain additional requirements for purity. However, the word “Gin” by itself in Europe refers to a spirit which has juniper flavour infused into the liquid after distillation, similar to a flavoured vodka or liqueur.
In the United States, “Gin” refers only to a spirit with the flavour of juniper and at least 40% alcohol in the bottle. If it is produced through distillation with botanicals (called “aromatics”), then it is called “Distilled Gin.” In Canada, “Gin” is produced only through distillation with botanicals, and is entitled to be called “London Dry Gin” if there is no added sweetener.
So, how do we drink gin today? It’s often still served as gin and tonic, with a variety of designer tonic water products now available. The more complex artisanal gins may be best appreciated without any mix, often chilled or on ice, and some of them are valued as ingredients in the new designer cocktails that have recently become so trendy. Another classic gin drink, still popular today, is the martini, which is chilled London dry gin with a splash of white vermouth. Over time, the amount of vermouth used has declined considerably, and some martinis today are just straight gin, almost always dry.
Aligra Wine and Spirits carries more than 32 different gins, ranging from standard brands like Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire to more artisanal products like Ungava and The Botanist. We carry Old Tom Gin, 6 different London Dry gins, and several gins made in Canada. Please contact us or drop into the store to check out our inventory.