Gin is a neutral grain spirit that is flavored with juniper berries and other botanicals. The word gin is an English shortening, derived from the word genever, which is Dutch for juniper. Arnold de Villanova developed the initial gin-like spirits in the 1200s, creating most specifically a medicinal formula for geneverbessenwater, which helped alleviate discomfort related to kidney ailments.
In Holland in the 1580s, gin was consumed in copious amounts by British troops who were fighting the Spanish in the Dutch War of Independence. Referred to as “Dutch Courage,” gin was drunk by the soldiers during battle.
The next landmark use of gin was in the 1600s in the Dutch town of Leiden, when a doctor by the name of Franciscus Sylvius also used gin for medicinal purposes, gaining wide recognition in the process. While gin was first used as a diuretic, it was later seen as a legitimate beverage.
Drink photo courtesy of shutterstock images
When William of Orange and his wife Mary became the rulers of England after the “Glorious Revolution,” William discouraged the importation of brandy from other countries by implementing high taxes, thereby promoting the production of grain spirits, like gin, by abolishing taxes and fees on spirits that were being made locally. By the 1720s, a quarter of the households in London were being used for the production of gin, which led to mass drunkenness throughout the city. The government attempted to prohibit gin production with the Gin Act of 1736, resulting in illicit distilling and the marketing of gin as a “medicinal” spirit.
Gin saw an explosion of growth throughout the British Empire, with several different styles of gin emerging in different countries. The originally harsh “Old Tom” style of gin was soon transformed into a smoother, cleaner style known as Dry Gin, which eventually turned into London Dry Gin. This style became a generic term for the variety rather than a reference to where it was produced.
Meanwhile, Holland began to mass produce Genever. Genever is different from London Dry Gin because it is made from malt wine and is therefore more viscous in texture and flavor.
In the United States, illicit gin saw a huge production boost during Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933. Gin requires no aging and was relatively easy to make by mixing raw alcohol with the extract of juniper berries and other botanicals in a bathtub, thus coining the term “Bathtub Gin.” These gins were typically bad tasting and sometimes dangerous, but this illegal movement also gave rise to the popularity of gin cocktails which used mixers to disguise the taste of the gin. Gin is now one of the most popular spirits on the market, helped by the recent revival of classic cocktails such as the Martini, Aviation, Negroni and more.
Nowadays, gin is distilled mostly in column stills that produce a neutral-grain spirit. The resulting spirit is high in proof, light-bodied and clean. Compound gins are made by mixing the base spirit with juniper and other botanical extracts, while more mass-market gins are made by soaking the botanicals in the spirit and then re-distilling the mixture. Top quality gins are distilled as many as three to four times, with the final distillation releasing an alcohol vapor into a chamber in which dried juniper berries and other botanicals are suspended. The vapor extracts the aromatics and oils from the berries, resulting in a spirit that has noticeable flavor and complexity.
Here are tasting notes on a few gins that I was lucky enough to try. Some are good, some are great, all are worth trying! Get your hands on these brands and let us know what you think!
Juniper Green: Clean and calm on the nose, not very heavy on juniper which is kind of nice. Coriander, grassy. Slightly fruity, notes of raspberries, apricots. Juniper and licorice are present but play more of a supporting role. Smooth, very low acidity, a really great gin.
Hayman’s Old Tom’s Gin: Stone fruits, lots of apricots, pears and plums. This is much more fruit-forward, a classic Old Tom’s style in its slight harshness. Slightly nutty as well, like toasted almonds. Floral notes, very rosey.
Hendrick’s Gin: Juniper- and coriander-forward, but vegetal as well. Notes of cucumber, celery, corn. A slight spice on the palate, but this has a very unique flavor to it. Savory, salty, slightly grilled. An interesting complexity from the infusion of cucumber and rose petals. Very smooth and creamy. This is really fantastic.
Nolet’s Silver Dry Gin: Sweet on the nose, lots of berries and flowers. Notes of blueberries and raspberries are very present, with the juniper present but very well hidden. Smells like warm grass. Very clean and crisp with a slightly creamy mouthfeel. This gin has a lot of body and complexity, a slightly meaty quality from the richness. Extraordinary.
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