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Gin is without a shadow of a doubt the most popular spirit right now. It's made an unprecedented resurgence over the last few years, something that seemed unlikely considering how it went out of fashion. People can't seem to get enough of this juniper nectar and new gins are being distilled and bought to market almost daily. It's drunk at home, in bars and is a key ingredient in many a cocktail. Here are some fun facts about this often misunderstood spirit.
Gin is widely believed to come from Holland and records suggest that it was first distilled in the early 17th century. Strong opposition to this theory comes from Italy, where brands like Malfy insist it was Italian monks who first distilled the spirit some one hundred years before. It was originally sold as medicine in Dutch pharmacies with juniper being added to help make it taste more palatable. It was widely believed that Juniper had some holistic properties of its own too. We now know that it helps to repel fleas, a trait that was no doubt welcome at that time! Dutch gin is known as Genever and is much sweeter than its English counterpart.
The term 'Dutch Courage' is thought to have originated when British troops were fighting in the 30 Year War. They were given rations of Genever to help stave off the cold and damp. The fact that being inebriated made them a little braver would not have been unwelcome either. These soldiers started to return to England with the gin and it started to gain popularity. There were small amounts of distillation occurring in England at this time but the results were variable and the quality poor.
Gin production was actively encouraged by King William III as it assisted the country's agriculture using corn and barley. Pretty much anyone was permitted to start distilling and soon consumption overtook beer and ale. It's worth bearing in mind that at this time the water was filthy and could easily kill a person if consumed. Alcohol was one of the few safe things available to drink. Gin was even dished out as part of workers’ wages and, despite the very dubious quality, became very popular with the poor.
1729 saw the introduction of an excise license become necessary to distil gin. The cost was a very substantial £20 and a duty was also levied per gallon sold. Nobody listened. The reasonable quality spirit was nearly stamped out and the consumption of illicitly distilled gin rose drastically. Unbelievably, one in every four dwellings in London had been dedicated to the sole sale of spirits. Alcoholism was rife and people were dying in their droves. Those that were still living were pretty much incapable of anything such was their level of inebriation.
It was at this time Hogarth produced 'the 'Gin Lane' engraving showing the misery and carnage that was rampant in London due to the excessive consumption of gin. His companion piece depicted those citizens drinking ale as the picture of good health and virtue. The term 'Mothers' Ruin' was coined as gin was used to aid abortions and it was very common for babies and small children to die because of neglect through drunkenness. Bad times indeed, but things were to get worse before getting better.
1736 saw what was known as the 'Gin Riots', where common folk protested violently against the new Gin Act. A license to distil was raised to £50 and duty rose to £1 a gallon. Among the rioting, illegal gin was still being made. In fact, production rose and as much as 11 million gallons were distilled in London alone. Laughably, only two distillers took out licenses during the six years The Gin Act was in effect.
In 1742 The Gin Act was repealed. It was being completely ignored and the authorities had no way to enforce the law when so many people were breaking it. The government worked together with distillers to create new policies that were mutually agreeable to all involved. The policy entailed spirits being sold at a reasonably high price, sensible excise duties and the licensing of sellers under the watchful eye of the courts. The system that we still have today is virtually the same as this.
The distillers became more concerned with quality and flavour as opposed to churning out the highest volumes of spirit that were harmful for the imbiber. Distillers became respectable and started sponsoring events and expeditions. As the production of gin moved out from the gutters, the high-quality spirit that we know and love today was born.
The 1800's saw fabulous Gin Palaces being established, providing a place of grandeur for even the working class to imbibe. These Gin Palaces were quite luxurious and at a complete juxtaposition to the squalor and deprivation of the areas they were located in. By the half way point of the 19th Century, it’s estimated there were around 5000 in business within London alone. Further reforms to the industry saw distillation continually improve and gin went from the tipple of the poor to being drunk by the rich and powerful of high society.
The definition of gin is defined by European Law. The first and most important stipulation is that the predominant flavour must be juniper. How much this rule is enforced is debatable considering the number of flavoured gins that are on the market. Three defined methods of production are laid out in the regulations. There is London Gin, Distilled Gin and Compound Gin.
There are some rules that are applicable across all methods of production. The ingredients that provide the flavour profile are called botanicals. Juniper is one such botanical and is always included. Other common botanicals include citrus fruits, coriander, black pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg to name just a few. No gin distiller worth their salt would ever reveal their exact recipe. Varying the volumes of the botanicals will yield vastly different results, even when compared to another gin using the exact same botanicals in different weight ratios. Every gin must be bottled at least 37.5% abv but many distilleries bottle at a higher strength.
London Gin must use all-natural ingredients; no artificial flavourings are allowed. The process requires neutral spirit of no less than 96% abv to be re-distilled with botanicals. This is commonly done in a copper pot still and the process is only permitted to be undertaken once, hence why London Gins are often called 'one shots'. The botanicals are placed in the still and the watered down neutral spirit is pumped in and heated. This releases the essential oils from the botanicals which flavour the spirit.
The distillate is re-circulated through the still until it reaches an alcohol percentage of over 90%. The top and bottom parts of the liquid, known as the head and tail, are discarded. Only the middle part, that of the highest quality, goes on to be bottled. After this one run of distillation, the only things that can be added to a London Dry are water, neutral alcohol and a very small amount of sugar.
This follows pretty much the same process as London Dry except for some key differences. Firstly, the gin can be distilled as many times as the distiller wants. This has meant that some experimental gins have been made by blending different distillates together, often created by more than one of the three methods listed here. Secondly, other flavourings are permitted to be added after distillation. This includes those from natural sources but also from artificial ones too.
Creating a compound gin is less expensive than the other two methods but this doesn't make it inferior in taste. Essential oils are extracted from botanicals, usually by pressing them. These oils can then be added straight to any spirit. Alternatively, the actual botanicals themselves can by placed directly into neutral spirit and left to macerate. For want of a simple term, the flavours are simply infused with the spirit. Once they are filtered out, that's the gin ready to be drunk.
It's an old method that was primarily used to create gin quickly and increase profit margins. Many of these cheap gins were of an inferior quality and this method is less commonly used nowadays. It’s possible to create high quality gin in this way though. Professor Ampleforth's Bath Tub and St. Ives Gin are both notable examples of how this method can create fresh and vibrant flavours that are well balanced and consistent from batch to batch.