Gin, like many alcohols, has its roots in medicine. The medicinal qualities of its defining ingredient, juniper, have been appreciated for centuries, and it has frequently found its way into alcoholic remedies over the ages. Gin as we know it, however, began in the 16th century with a Dutch professor at the University of Leiden, Sylvius de Bouve , who infused malt spirit, or moutwijn, with juniper berries and called his creation ‘genever’, after the French name for juniper, genièvre. Originally intended as a tonic, by the end of the 16th century genever was being consumed recreationally across Europe, the juniper having the effect of smoothing the edges off and improving what would have otherwise been a fairly unpalatable spirit.
During the 30 years war the Dutch armies developed a habit of drinking a measure of genever before going into battle, a custom noted by the English soldiers who fought with them at various points; they took this ‘Dutch courage’ home with them. Genever consumption in England remained at low levels, however, and probably would have stayed so had it not been for the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1689, when William of Orange, a Dutchman, came to the British throne, bringing genever with him and setting the stage for the craze of the following century.
Upon his ascension William passed two key acts which, ultimately, would provide much of the impetus for the ‘gin craze’ of the 1700s. The first was to declare war on France, banning all French imports with it; most notably brandy, which had hitherto been very profitable for the French. The second was ‘An Act for the Encourageing the Distilling of Brandy and Spirits from Come [corn]’, ending the Company of Distillers’ monopoly on the industry. This helped to fill the newly created gap in the market, and was also intended to generate revenue and support for the crown: the people would buy spirits from the distillers, who would buy corn from the farmers, who would pay the landlords, who in turn would back William. This act was so successful, however, that within a year a new act had to be passed to regulate it, thus starting the see-saw legislation which would surround genever, or, in its diminutive form, ‘gin’, for over 60 years.
Distilling corn was banned briefly in 1699 due to a failed harvest, and a law was passed shortly afterwards requiring all distillers to take out licences. Neither of these measures lasted very long. In 1702 Queen Anne was crowned, and soon passed another act “…to encourage the consumption of malted corn”, and by the 1720s the production and consumption of gin was reaching epidemic proportions. A reform movement gathered pace and influence, and in the 1720s Parliament began to take various measures to regain control. A number of ‘Gin Acts’ were passed, the most important of these being in 1729, 1736, 1745 and 1751.
The 1729 act was primarily designed to generate extra revenue for the government, but proved impossible to enforce and was repealed after a few years. The 1736 act, however, was more concerned with reform. Duties and the cost of licences were pushed so high as to amount to prohibition, with hefty fines for transgressors. This, by and large, created more problems than it solved. People exploited various loopholes in the law, such as selling ‘medicinal’ concoctions with names like ‘Cuckold’s Comfort’ or ‘My Ladies Eyewater’ The infamous ‘Puss and Mew’ was another scheme, whereupon an image of a cat would be attached to an outside wall with the gin seller sitting on the other side. Customers would put money either in the cat’s mouth, or in a drawer underneath and receive their measure of gin from the same drawer or through a pipe running from between its paws. Less whimsically informers, on whom the excise men relied heavily, were harshly beaten and occasionally killed, and corruption was rife. Widespread tension eventually led to riots in 1738.
The act of 1743 repealed the prohibition and this time set duties and the cost of licences low; after the extent to which the first two major acts had been ignored or resisted it was of primary importance to encourage stop the public to flagrantly disobeying the law. The 1751 act (and that of 1746 before it) increased the duties to a reasonable level, and by the act of 1760 the gin craze was at an end. Whether the acts themselves were responsible, or whether the craze had simply run its course is a matter of debate.
Gin found itself back in fashion in the 1800s, as ‘gin palaces’ sprang up over London. These were lavishly decorated establishments were drinkers could enjoy a feeling of luxury in contrast to the unpleasantness outside. The development of continuous distillation from the 1830s helped to produce a purer, more palatable spirit, and the drier style of gin we know today began to develop. Many of the old gin houses date from this time (although Gordon’s, Booth’s and Coates date from the late 18th century). The 19th century was also the dawn of the cocktail, with gin’s versatility making it the spirit of choice for many classic recipes, including the greatest, or certainly most famous, cocktail of all time, the Martini.
Although rum tends to be most frequently associated with the navy, the drink of choice for the admiralty was more often gin. Indeed, two classic cocktails – the Pink Gin and the Gimlet – were created as a result of this preference. The first of these is simply a mixture of gin and Angostura bitters, created in 1824 as a stomach tonic. The British found it much more palatable when mixed with a large slug of gin, and thus the Pink Gin was born, remaining the admiralty’s cocktail of choice for some time (ships were even known to have ‘gin flags’, raised to invite officers of neighbouring ships over for Pink Gins at cocktail hour). As to the Gimlet, in 1867 a Scottish ship merchant named Lachlan Rose discovered a way of preserving limes with sulphates, allowing ships’ crews to protect themselves against scurvy without struggling to carry perishable fruit over long voyages. Once again, the British found this concoction somewhat more enjoyable when mixed with gin. Finally, during the British occupation of India, Jacob Schweppe patented a ‘tonic water’, containing the anti-malarial drug quinine. With their standard leap of logic the British, of course, added gin and created one of the most popular mixed drinks of all time.
In the 20th century gin’s popularity faded due to two principal factors. Firstly, American prohibition led to a deterioration in the quality of gin (although a number of classic cocktails do date from this time, primarily from people attempting to disguise the taste of ‘bathtub’ gin), and many American drinkers developed a taste for rum as a result of visits to the more relaxed Cuba. Secondly, the arrival and subsequent meteoric rise of vodka in the American market relegated gin to a distant second place for most drinkers. However, the rediscovery of classic cocktails in the 90s, combined with the arrival of more modern ‘boutique’ gins breathed new life into the category, and today’s gin drinker has a range of styles and brands to choose from.
All gins are made with ethyl alcohol flavoured with juniper berries (juniperus communis) and other flavourings. The ethyl alcohol used must be distilled to the minimum standards stated in the EU Spirit Drink Regulations. In all types of gin, the predominant flavour of must be juniper, and they must have a minimum retail strength of 37.5% abv. There are three definitions of gin: gin, distilled gin and London Gin.
This is made from:
a. suitable ethyl alcohol (of agricultural origin) and flavourings.
b. The ethyl alcohol does not have to be re-distilled.
c. The flavouring can be either approved natural or artificial flavourings.
d. The flavourings can be simply mixed together with the ethyl alcohol to form the gin (compounded).
e. There is no restriction on the addition of other approved additives such as sweetening.
f. Water is added to reduce the gin's strength to the desired retail level, but not below 37.5% ABV.
g. There is no restriction on the colouring of gin with an approved colouring.
Distilled gin is made in a traditional (i.e. pot) still by:
a. Redistilling neutral alcohol in the presence of natural flavourings.
b. There is no minimum strength laid down for the resultant distillate.
c. After distillation, further ethyl alcohol of the same composition may be added.
d. Additional flavourings may be added after distillation and these can be either natural or artificial flavourings.
e. The distillate can be further changed by the addition of other approved additives since there is no prohibition on their use in the definition.
f. Water may be added to reduce the strength to the desired retail level.
g. There is no restriction on the colouring of distilled gin with approved colourings.
London Gin is made in a traditional still by re-distilling ethyl alcohol in the presence of all natural flavourings used.
a. The ethyl alcohol used to distil London Gin must be of a higher quality than the standard laid down for ethyl alcohol. The methanol level in the ethyl alcohol must not exceed a maximum of 5 grams per hectolitre of 100% vol. alcohol.
b. The flavourings used must all be approved natural flavourings and they must impart the flavour during the distillation process.
c. The use of artificial flavourings is not permitted.
d. The resultant distillate must have a minimum strength of 70% ABV.
e. No flavourings can be added after distillation.
f. Further ethyl alcohol may be added after distillation provided it is of the same standard.
g. A small amount of sweetening may be added after distillation provided the sugars do not exceed 0.5 grams/litre of finished product (the sugar is not discernible and is added to some products purely for brand protection purposes).
h. The only other substance that may be added is water.
i. London Gin cannot be coloured.
(source: The Gin and Vodka Association; http://www.ginvodka.org/londongin/)
Until recently, the legal definition for London (or London dry) gin was simply ‘a type of distilled gin’. The above regulations were passed in 2008 as a measure to protect the style of London dry. It should be noted that London dry gin does not have to come from London.
Plymouth Gin is a style of gin that by law can only be produced in Plymouth, England. It is a ‘Protected Geographical Indication’ within the European Union. Dry in style yet more rounded and balanced than London dry gin. Smooth and creamy with an oily character, it has very little bitterness and a long finish.
Xoriguer (‘sho-re-gher’) is the only other gin with a protected geographical origin, and is from Minorca. It is based on grape rather than grain spirit and is distilled straight to bottling strength, 38%, without being diluted. It has a style somewhere between genever and gin, being slightly sweet and fairly full-flavoured.
Before the development of London dry, Old Tom was the dominant style of gin. Similar to genever and Xoriguer, it is a sweeter style of gin, and would have been heavier flavoured than today’s gins, primarily to disguise the rough flavour of the impure spirit. It is all but extinct now, although some companies have attempted to recreate the style.
Genever differs from gin in that although it is flavoured with juniper, the taste need not be discernable. Also, it tends to be a blend of two different spirits, the first being a neutral grain spirit redistilled with juniper and other flavourings, the second being a more fully flavoured pot-distilled spirit based on malted barley, known as moutwijn (‘malt-wine’). The proportion in which these two are blended determines the style. ‘Jonge’ (‘young’) genever generally only contains around 5% moutwijn. The name ‘young’ refers not to the age, but to the fact that it is a more modern style of genever. ‘Oude’ (‘old’) genever, by contrast, is a fuller, more traditional style, and legally must contain at least 15% moutwijn. They are sometimes cask aged. ‘Korenwijn’ (‘corn-wine’) genevers must contain at least 51% moutwijn and are generally aged in casks. ‘Roggenaer’ designates a genever which is based on rye malt.
Not technically a gin but rather a liqueur; it is a sweetened spirit that is traditionally made by infusing sloes (fruit of the blackthorn tree) in gin. Alternatively, an ‘autumn’ fruit such as damson can be used. It is often considered a traditional winter warmer. Sweet fruit flavours with a slight bitterness followed by a dry finish. Drink straight in a small glass or in a variety of cocktails.
As detailed above, gin must be predominantly flavoured with juniper (although this is somewhat hard to quantify and many modern gins owe their success to having a flavour profile very light in juniper). Other classic botanicals include: coriander seed, angelica root, liquorice, lemon peel, orange peel, orris root, cassia bark Gin production can be split into two main categories: cold compounded and distilled. Cold compounded gin is made by simply adding botanicals or flavourings to neural spirit and allowing it to macerate. Gins made in this fashion are generally cheaper but don’t hold their flavours as well as their distilled counterparts.
Distilled gins can be further subdivided into those made by maceration and distillation, and those made by vapour infusion. Of these, the former is by far the more common and traditional method. Botanicals are placed in a pot still with neutral spirit which has been diluted down to around 60%. The number and type of botanicals varies greatly from producer to producer, and plays a definitive role in the flavour of the final gin. The length of time the botanicals are allowed to macerate also plays a part; some distillers like to leave them 24 hours or more to enhance the depth and intensity of the flavours, others prefer to distil straight away. The resulting distillate may be diluted with water directly down to bottling strength (known as the one-shot method), or neutral alcohol may be added before the final dilution (known as the two-shot method). Most modern gins are made using the two-shot method. Vapour infusion is the least common method, and involves packing the botanicals into a special basket which is then placed into the neck of an adapted pot still. The neutral spirit is vaporised, and the alcohol vapours pass through the basket before condensing. This method tends to lead to a much lighter style of gin.
Oude genever is produced using a traditional method; the only one in existence before the 19th century. Oude Geneva must contain at least 15% maltwine but not more than 20 grams of sugar per litre. This is a minimum qualification, and high quality distillers will often avoid sugar as it is not required to create a pleasant tasting genever and is really used to camouflage poor flavour and balance. This spirit is complex, full bodied and richly flavoured with juniper. It can be aged in oak casks for a period of years which will result in a taste bearing resemblance to an aged whisky. Best suited to drinking straight or as a premium ingredient in luxury cocktails.
Jonge genever is a modern style of genever which came into existence after the 19th century. As grain supplies during the war became low molasses from sugar beet was frequently used to produce the base spirit. In modern times either wheat or sugar beet is used. Jonge geneva can contain no more than 15% malt wine and 10 grams of sugar per litre. This is a minimum qualification and distillers will often avoid adding sugar as this tends to impact on the delicate nature of jonge genever. Jonge genever is dry, fresh and delicate with notable maltiness and a distinct flavour of juniper berry. Suited to mixing in cocktails.
Genever is produced using pot stills, and is regularly aged in oak casks, typically for three to five years but occasionally for longer. Some genever producers now also produce fruit-flavoured gins.
Steinhäger is a German gin produced in the village of Steinhagen in the North Rhine area, traditionally sold in earthenware bottles. The geographical name ‘Steinhäger’ has been protected by EU directives.
Distilleries producing gin exist around the United Kingdom spreading from Plymouth in the south to Invergordon in North West Scotland. While generally these are owned by large companies producing various different brands of gin, a few small boutique distilleries do exist. The United Kingdom produces mostly dry gin.
The USA mostly produces a dry gin style. In recent years there has been a big resurgence of micro distillers producing top quality boutique gins.
The Philippines is the world's largest gin market. In global terms, gin from the Philippines accounts for around 43% of the world gin market. Most of the gin produced is consumed locally.
The largest gin-drinking country in Europe. One of the best selling distilled gin brands in the world, Larios, is produced in Malaga.