Gin is everywhere at the moment and its popularity continues to grow as more and more gins come to what could be described as an overcrowded market. With so many gins to choose from its all too easy to become confused and possibly drawn in by fantastical claims of exotic and downright crazy botanicals; after all, with so much competition every gin is trying to differentiate itself and stand out from the crowd. With this in mind, I thought I would lend you guys a hand in understanding the fundamentals of the different types of gin available, its history and how its made. Hopefully this will allow you to make an informed choice when buying gin whether you are new to the spirit or an old soak! I'll also try to be as concise as possible so you can get through it all without nodding off! So without further ado....
A Brief History Of Gin
English troops fighting in the Low Countries were perhaps the first importers of gin to British shores. In 1585 the Earl of Leicester's troops took some Dutch Courage (a tot of gin) prior to battle as they allied themselves to the Netherlands in their war with Philip II of Spain. The English found themselves in need of this courage once again before fighting in Holland, this time during the Thirty Years War. These troops undoubtedly returned home with some gin as, in 1660, the famous diarist Samuel Pepys wrote of ""strong water made with juniper"" that was used as a treatment for colic. The story continues with William of Orange who banned all French imports when he ascended to the throne in 1689. In addition, he passed reckless laws with little foresight that encouraged all his new subjects to distil their own alcohol. As you can imagine, this edict was wholeheartedly endorsed and practiced by the populace! It's hard to over estimate the disastrous effect this had on the country and by 1720 a quarter of all houses in London were distilling lethal concoctions masquerading as gin. It appears that during this time the working classes were permanently without their faculties, public health went down the drain, vice reigned supreme and no work was done at all. For many, this led to a premature death and gin was labelled as 'Mother's Ruin'. The middle of the 18th century saw laws passed to combat these serious problems; gin was taxed and made available for sale only in public houses. Gin was transformed from a beverage of escapism for the poor to one of moderation for the middle class. The subsequent invention of the continuous still in the 19th century moved the quality of the gin being produced into a new league. Prior to this, gin bore no resemblance to the spirit we would recognise today; it was a thick, sweet, rich drink with heavy juniper notes. With the advent of the continuous still and the improvement in both the understanding of distillation and the quality of the distillate there was no longer reason for sugar and glycerine to mask the rank spirit. Over time gin became drier, with delicate and complex flavours courtesy of a wide range of exotic botanicals much like the gin we know today. It became known as London Dry Gin simply because most distillers were based in the capital city. Believe it or not there has never been a requirement to be physically located in London; this term refers to a style of gin that adheres to an exact production method as we will cover in a bit.
Overview Of Gin Production
Gin is made from a high strength, rectified, neutral spirit and flavouring ingredients known as botanicals. EU regulations state that juniper must be the most prominent flavour but other common botanicals include coriander, dried angelica, anise seed, dried liquorice, ginger, lavender and citrus peel. Botanicals are at the very heart of a gin and each distillers' recipe is a closely guarded secret. Distillation in pot or short column stills is the best method of extracting the essential oils from most botanicals and efficiently combines their flavour with the spirit. The flavour can also be simply added after distillation and sometimes both these methods are used in conjunction to add flavours not suited to being distilled. It's fair to say that up to a point a gin will be more complex if a greater number of botanicals are used. However, any gin should be judged solely on its taste, balance and length of finish rather than be subject to a simplified 'more is better' philosophy. When distilling the neutral spirit and botanicals, the congeners (the elements release aromas and flavours) have different boiling points across different botanicals. This must be taken into account as the congeners start to vaporise at different points in the distillation process. Suffice to say that distilling is an art form and no two gins will be created the same, even if the same botanicals are used. Think of it like two chefs being given the same ingredients to cook a meal with; you can guarantee that they won't produce the same dish! Knowing what flavours to capture and which ones to discard is important as is knowing how the different botanicals will react to each other when combined. A good example of this are roots for not only do they bring their own intrinsic qualities to the table, they also highlight the citrus botanicals as well.
European Union Gin Definitions
All gins are made from ethyl alcohol, flavoured with juniper berries and other optional flavourings. In all gin varieties juniper must be or have been the predominant flavour. In the EU gin must have a minimum retail strength of 37.5% ABV. Many countries outside the EU have different alcohol thresholds and there are some geographical and cultural derogation which give common descriptors to other styles. There are three types of gin; Gin This made from: a. suitable ethyl alcohol 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 Distilled gin is made in a traditional 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 - Examples Include Little Bird, Portobello Road and Sipsmith 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 0.1 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.
And Finally.... What Is Juniper?
Juniperus Communis, or the common juniper, grows in many forms from low spreading shrubs to trees exceeding 10 metres in height. The female berry or seed cone is what's needed for gin and these, depending on the climate where the juniper grows, take up to 18 months to open and have a range of flavours. It is the vital ingredient in gin and is literally criminal to leave it out. Gin is so tied with this berry that the name itself derives from the Dutch word jenever. Simply put, gin cannot exist without juniper.