What is Gin?
Best friends with beefeaters and bartenders, gin is a clear spirit steeped in history and culture due to its accessibility, distinct flavour palate and popularity in classic cocktails. But most people have no clue what gin actually is other than a great way to end a hard day. We’ll fix that for you, so you can fix your friends a proper G&T.
While popularized in London in the 18th century, gin actually originates from France, Belgium and The Netherlands as early as the 11th to 13th century. Originally called jenever, gin was a popular medicine made from monks in areas rich in juniper trees. The name gin is a shortened form of the old English genever which derives from the Latin juniperus due to the alcohol being made from juniper berries. Jenever, like most spirits, was made as a cure-all for the people, although according to doctors at the time people were a little too keen to get their medicine.
A brief history of a long loved Gin.
In 1688, William of Orange moved from The Hague and married into the English royal family becoming the King of England, Scotland and Ireland. Upon taking the throne he became embroiled in an ongoing religious and political battle with the King of France. At that time French Cognac was the primary spirit consumed in the UK and William III did not like this one bit. So, to stick it to the French the English Government passed a range of legislation between 1689 -1697 aimed at restricting brandy imports and encouraging gin production. This encouragement was shown in the reduced taxes on the distillation of spirits. Additionally, no licenses were required to make spirits, so gin distillers could have smaller and simpler workshops than brewers, who were required to serve food and provide shelter for patrons. And so modern-day gin (and the start of craft distilling) was born. Bloody Heretic we say!
Now cheaper than a pint of beer, gin took the stage as the beloved drink of the people. While the higher class sipped on their gin as a fashion statement, the people were learning first-hand the effects of partying too hard. Gin drinkers were heavily criticized for the state they left London in during the Gin-Craze. Artist renderings of the streets of London depict people neglecting their children, openly brawling and a whole litany of drunken buffoonery and adultery that characterized the Gin-Craze. The King saw this unsavoury behaviour and to keep it from getting more out of hand, he tightened the laws around the production and sale of gin by introducing expensive licenses, making amateur distillers obsolete. Once again, England became a pint-swilling and tea-sipping country.
Decades later, Gin saw a resurgence after the Gin-Craze with the invention of the coffey still by Aenaes Coffey. This style of still produced purer, crystalline spirits which was a big upgrade from the bathtub methods distillers were previously using. By the time English sailors started drinking gin regularly, the coffey still method was widespread. Sailors were bringing a malaria medicine called quinine on their tours but it tasted absolutely awful. This is when Schweppes came out with their Indian Tonic Water, a tonic made from quinine that was supposed to be more palatable than its straight up counterpart. The English being crafty little bastards started mixing this tonic with gin to get it down easier and even introduced limes to combat scurvy. This paired with the fact lime cordial was a popular preservative started the legacy of some of the most recognizable cocktails in history — the Gin & Tonic and the Gimlet.
When gin was introduced to the US it took over by storm. It rose in popularity for a similar reason that it did in the UK decades prior, it was cheap to make and prohibition made any bootleg alcohol the go-to. In early speakeasies hidden from the authorities, a classier and sophisticated take was given to gin cocktails. Dubbed the Gin Rickey, this cocktail was a staple of Roaring Twenties dinner parties and Great Gatsby-esque soirées due to its simplicity and the wide availability of homemade gin. Gin maintained its popularity in North America until the 60s when vodka took over boasting even greater versatility and a lower price for the same effect. Today, gin is once again a bartender’s greatest asset when pulling off drinks everyone can enjoy with class. At-home bartending is experiencing a large influx of people taking up the hobby increasing its relevance and popularity. Partly due to the pandemic, everyone has been searching for new pastimes and when you’re stuck at home learning how to make stellar drinks be sure to remind your friends (once you finally see them again) that gin is the culprit.
What is Gin made from?
Simply put the base of gin is… (drumroll please) vodka. Any type of vodka works but the distiller decides to use corn, grain, potato or another main ingredient based on the core flavour profile they want to achieve, but generally, they use a neutral vodka so the botanicals are showcased without interference. And, there are many styles of gin including London Dry, Sloe gin, Navy gin and Old Tom gin. Each has their own history and recipe style that has played a pivotal role in shaping gin’s interesting history.
What are the main ingredients of Gin? (And what the heck are botanicals?)
Botanicals are core ingredients that are used in the making of gin for flavouring profiles. The primary three ingredients used in the majority of gins are juniper, coriander and angelica. Even though these are the most popular, there are hundreds of flowers, roots, fruits, berries and nuts that are used to create a palate for each gin that makes it distinctive. This can include some very localized or exotic ingredients. There is even an ingredient in Polish gin called “horny goat weed”… we kid you not.
Finding good quality botanicals takes great care and appreciation. The distillery team has to understand the proper handling and processing to maximize the use of each ingredient and specific selection. When all the ingredients are sourced and blended properly it comes together like creative clockwork.
How is Gin actually made?
Whichever base or style is selected, the vodka is run through the still another time with botanicals introduced into the vapour column. This process extracts flavours and other compounds that infuse right into the spirit. If a vodka is steeped with fruits or other items it is generally considered a flavoured vodka or it can be called a compounded gin.
There are two major distilling styles. The first and earliest style of distilling gin is through a rudimentary style of still called a pot still. Pot distilling involves a very simple domed still that is generally made from copper. The second style is a column still. The latter technique also includes a gin basket that holds the botanicals at the head of the still to allow the vapours to course through them and pick up flavouring components. This method leaves the gin with a lighter flavour than the pot distilled method and produces a distilled gin or London Dry gin.
Why is Gin so popular?
Gin becoming popular in England around the industrial revolution was the first step in becoming the international hit it is today. Because gin has a very unique flavour it is often sought after by bar enthusiasts. It’s herbaceous aroma blends well with many different additives and flavours. These types of aromatic melanges have a similar yet distinctly different taste as to keep from monotony, thus cementing gin as a perfect foundation for many of the tastiest cocktails today. Gin’s flavouring makes it a good choice for simpler cocktails like the Negroni and Martini while also lending a hand in making slightly more advanced drinks like the Gin Fizz and French 75. A playful drink supported by gin can be a quick and easy fix for any dinner party. As the night gets older, those drinks can then turn into the rich and layered drinks that accompany the cocktail hour. A perfect transition from a perfect spirit.
Are Gin and Vodka the same thing?
That is the same thing a patron asked us the other day while perusing our batches of gin and vodka. We asked them promptly to leave and barred them from entering the establishment again. We’ll remember their face too, they better not think about coming back. No, vodka and gin are not the same. They may share similarities but they couldn’t be more different. At first glance, a vodka soda and gin & soda may look the exact same but as soon as you lift the glass ever so slightly towards your thirsty, gaping maw the difference is as clear as the spirit. Vodka is a great base for many cocktails and can be used interchangeably with gin for many of them but the end product will always be different. The taste of gin has an attitude that simply differs from that of vodka, and for good reason. Vodka is a colourless, flavourless spirit and gin is the opposite. Gin is an experience and needs to be handled with grace and poise. Gin may be colourless often but it has a distinct botanical taste that lends a hand in its popularity. There’s a reason we take shots of vodka and not gin, that reason is that gin is a spirit you need to taste with a mix for the full experience. Vodka is gauged by how smooth the finish is while gin is judged by the notes of botanicals used. If you do take shots of gin, again, we will bar you from the establishment and hope every other bar and restaurant follows suit.
While it’s no surprise gin is so popular, it’s reputation will go down notoriously in history as mother’s ruin and the beginning of mild alcoholism that has cursed the English since it’s conception. But we have the power to change that and have been for a while. By exploring the possibilities gin has to offer we can continue the legacy of a drink with an attitude. Gin, the medicine turned rebel is leaving it’s awkward adolescent stage and becoming a true adventurer. When we celebrate the urge to find the answers and seek to satisfy our ravenous spirit, we can finally drink life to the lees, well in this case, the trees. Juniper to be specific.
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