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What is Gin Made From?

Gin, a spirit with a rich history and a cornerstone in the world of cocktails, stands out for its distinctive botanical flavor, primarily derived from juniper berries. Beyond its core ingredient, gin’s complexity arises from a diverse array of botanicals, production methods, and regional influences, making it a versatile and beloved spirit worldwide. This article delves into the ingredients, production process, and variations of gin, offering a comprehensive exploration of its unique character and legacy.

1. Introduction to Gin

Gin, a spirit both complex and storied, has played a pivotal role in the social and historical fabric of numerous cultures. Originating as a medicinal liquor made by monks and alchemists across Europe, particularly in Italy, Holland, and Belgium, it evolved from a herbal remedy to a mainstream spirit. Gin’s primary characteristic, its strong juniper flavor, is derived from the juniper berries that are its signature ingredient. However, the transformation from a health tonic to a popular alcoholic beverage is as intriguing as the drink itself.

The earliest known gin-type spirit was produced in the early 17th century in the Netherlands, where it was known as genever. Distilled from malt wine, genever was a very different drink from the gin we know today, rich and heavy with a pronounced malty flavor.

It was Dr. Franciscus Sylvius, a Dutch physician, who is often credited with the invention of gin in the mid-17th century, though the exact origins remain somewhat murky. Sylvius sought to create a diuretic medicine that would cleanse the kidneys and relieve other ailments. By distilling spirit with juniper berries, known for their medicinal properties, he created genever. The name ‘gin’ itself is derived from either the French ‘genièvre’ or the Dutch ‘jenever’, both of which mean juniper.

The spirit’s popularity in the Netherlands soared, and it became a staple for British soldiers stationed there during the Thirty Years’ War in the 1600s. Known as “Dutch Courage,” gin was consumed by soldiers for its calming effects before battle. When these soldiers returned home, they brought their taste for gin with them, setting the stage for its popularity in Britain.

By the late 17th century, gin production began to take root in England, particularly after the government allowed unlicensed gin production and imposed a heavy duty on all imported spirits with the 1690 Gin Act. This led to a period known in history as the “Gin Craze” in the early 18th century. During this time, gin consumption in England reached an all-time high, exacerbated by the poor quality of life and the availability of cheap spirits. The spirit was blamed for various social problems, prompting the government to enact several laws to control its production and consumption.

The mid-18th century saw the introduction of more stringent regulations, which gradually improved the quality of gin. It was during this era that the foundation for modern styles of gin, particularly London Dry Gin, was laid. Distillers began to refine their methods, moving away from the harsh, often dangerous spirits of the gin craze era to more sophisticated, balanced distillations.

As British influence spread across the globe, so too did gin. It became an integral part of colonial life, particularly in tropical regions where gin and tonic—a combination of gin, quinine tonic, sugar, and lime—became a popular drink for its supposed ability to ward off malaria. The quinine in the tonic water was effective against malaria, and gin helped mask its bitter taste.

Today, gin is celebrated for its versatility and distinctiveness, embraced in classic and modern cocktails alike, and revered for its nuanced expression of botanicals. From its medicinal origins to its status as a staple in bars around the world, gin’s journey is a testament to its enduring appeal and adaptability.

2. Core Ingredients of Gin

The distinctive character of gin stems largely from its botanical ingredients. While the mandatory use of juniper defines the spirit, a diverse palette of herbs, spices, flowers, and fruits can be employed to create its complex flavor profiles. Here, we explore the essential and optional botanicals that are commonly used in gin production, shedding light on their roles and the nuances they bring to the final product.

2.1 Juniper Berries

The indelible mark of juniper berries on gin cannot be overstated. These berries, when distilled, release oils that impart the classic piney flavor associated with gin. Juniper berries vary widely in taste depending on where they are grown. For example, berries from the Tuscan region of Italy are known for their robust flavor, while those from Macedonia are often considered to be milder and sweeter. This variation allows distillers to experiment with regional flavors, making juniper not just a required ingredient but a versatile one as well.

2.2 Additional Botanicals

The choice and blend of additional botanicals in gin production are where distillers truly express their craft and creativity. Each botanical is selected for the unique character it brings to the gin:

  • Coriander seeds: The second most common gin botanical, coriander seeds contribute a lemony, peppery flavor with a slightly spicy finish. It complements the piney notes of juniper beautifully, adding depth and complexity to the spirit.
  • Angelica root: This earthy, woody root is crucial for binding the flavors of other botanicals together. It acts as a fixative, helping to stabilize the volatile components of the gin and ensuring a more balanced and harmonious flavor profile.
  • Citrus peels: Typically, peels from lemons and oranges are used. They add a bright, fresh zestiness to gin. The oils extracted from citrus peels enhance the gin’s aromatic quality, making the spirit vibrant and invigorating.
  • Orris root: Sourced from the root of the iris flower, orris root has a floral, slightly woody fragrance. It’s another fixative that helps to maintain the integrity of the gin’s aromatic profile over time.
  • Cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg: These warm, aromatic spices can introduce a hint of exotic warmth and sweetness, lending a subtle complexity that can transform the profile of a gin.
  • Licorice and almond: Licorice adds a natural sweetness and a hint of earthiness, while almond contributes a soft, nutty quality. Both can smooth out the sharper notes of the botanical mix, rounding out the edges of the gin.
  • Cassia bark: Similar to cinnamon but with a more pronounced spicy note, cassia bark can add a warmth that is less sweet but more intense than cinnamon.

2.3 Regional and Modern Botanicals

In addition to these traditional ingredients, many contemporary gins include regional or less conventional botanicals such as lavender, rose petals, cucumber, chamomile, or even exotic fruits. These ingredients reflect local tastes and botanical availabilities and allow for a vast spectrum of gin flavors. For instance, a gin produced in the Mediterranean region might include olive leaves, thyme, or basil, reflecting the aromatic landscape of the area.

3. Production Process

The production process of gin is an intricate blend of art and science, involving the careful selection of ingredients and precise distillation techniques to create the final product. This process not only determines the flavor and quality of the gin but also reflects the style and philosophy of the distiller. Here we delve deeper into the various methods and stages involved in crafting gin.

3.1 Distillation

Distillation is the heart of gin making, where the spirit acquires its essential flavors through the infusion of botanicals. There are several distillation techniques used, each offering different benefits and influencing the character of the gin.

3.1.1 Pot Distillation

The pot distillation method is one of the oldest and most traditional approaches in gin production. It involves a single or batch distillation in a pot still, where the neutral base spirit is combined with botanicals. The mixture is then heated, causing the alcohol and flavors to vaporize. These vapors pass through a condenser, cooling them back into liquid form. Pot distilled gins often have a richer, more robust flavor due to the direct infusion of botanicals and the typically slower distillation process, which allows for greater flavor extraction.

3.1.2 Column Distillation

Column distillation is a more modern and continuous method, using a column still equipped with multiple plates or trays. This technique allows for a higher degree of control and consistency in the distillation process. In gin production, the base alcohol is heated and vaporized, then allowed to ascend through a series of plates filled with botanicals or through a botanical basket positioned at the top of the column. This method is particularly effective for achieving a high level of purity and capturing delicate botanical flavors, resulting in a cleaner, more refined spirit.

3.1.3 Vacuum Distillation

An innovative method used in some craft distilleries is vacuum distillation, where distillation occurs at lower temperatures by reducing the air pressure inside the still. This technique is beneficial for preserving the flavors of more delicate botanicals that might be damaged by high heat, such as citrus peel, flowers, and herbs, resulting in a gin with a fresh, vibrant flavor profile.

3.2 Compounding

Not all gin is redistilled. Compounded gin is made by simply adding extracts or essential oils of botanicals to a neutral spirit without further distillation. This method is less common and generally considered to be of lower quality compared to distilled gin. However, it allows for quicker production and can still produce an acceptable product for mixed drinks where the nuances of a premium gin might be less noticeable.

3.3 Cutting and Blending

After distillation, the gin is often “cut” or diluted with water to bring down the alcohol by volume (ABV) to a desired level. This stage is crucial as it impacts the mouthfeel and flavor intensity of the gin. Distillers must carefully balance the strength of the alcohol with the preservation of botanical flavors to achieve the desired quality.

Some distillers also blend multiple distillates to create their final product, a process that can enhance complexity and ensure consistency across batches. The blending must be meticulously managed to maintain the character and profile the distiller aims to achieve.

3.4 Aging and Resting

While most gin is consumed clear and unaged, some styles, like barrel-aged gin, spend time in oak barrels previously used for other spirits. This aging process can impart additional flavors such as vanilla, caramel, and wood notes, adding depth and complexity to the gin. Even when not aged, many gins are allowed to rest for a period after distillation to let the flavors meld and mature, resulting in a smoother, more harmonious spirit.

4. Types of Gin

The diversity of gin is evident in the various styles that have emerged over the years, each with unique characteristics that cater to different palates and preferences. Here we explore the major types of gin, highlighting their distinctive features and historical contexts.

4.1 London Dry Gin

London Dry Gin is perhaps the most internationally recognized style of gin. Despite its name, it does not need to be produced in London; instead, “London Dry” refers to a method of production and a quality standard. This type of gin is made through a strict distillation process where no artificial flavors are added after distillation, and only a very small amount of sweetener is permissible. The result is a crisp, clean spirit where the flavor of juniper is front and center, accompanied by a harmonious blend of botanicals. Classic brands like Beefeater, Tanqueray, and Gordon’s exemplify this style, which is favored for its versatility in cocktails such as the Gin and Tonic and the Martini.

4.2 Plymouth Gin

Plymouth Gin holds a geographical designation much like Champagne in France. It must be distilled in Plymouth, England, and has a full-bodied, slightly fruity, and very aromatic profile with a less pronounced juniper flavor compared to London Dry Gin. Plymouth Gin is smooth enough to be sipped neat but also holds its own in mixed drinks. Its unique taste profile comes from a balanced blend of botanicals, including cardamom, orange peels, and orris root, making it a distinct style favored by many gin aficionados.

4.3 Old Tom Gin

Old Tom Gin offers a sweeter alternative to the typically dry London Dry Gin. It bridges the gap between the malty Dutch Genever and the clean London Dry style. This type of gin fell out of favor in the early 20th century but has seen a resurgence among craft distillers who appreciate its historical significance and richer flavor profile. Old Tom Gin is often used in classic cocktails like the Tom Collins and the Martinez, where its mild sweetness enhances the drink’s depth without overwhelming the other ingredients.

4.4 Genever

Genever, often considered the grandfather of modern gins, originates from the Netherlands and Belgium. It is made from a base of malt wine, giving it a deeper, almost whiskey-like flavor profile that distinguishes it from other gins. Genever can be enjoyed on its own or used in cocktails, and it comes in two main varieties: oude (old) and jonge (young). The “old” refers not to aging but to a traditional style that is richer and sweeter, while “young” Genever has a cleaner, more neutral taste. This style of gin is crucial to understanding the evolution of gin and is cherished for its rich heritage and distinctive taste.

4.5 Contemporary Gin

Contemporary or New Western Gin is a relatively new category that pushes the boundaries of flavor and the very definition of gin. These gins often minimize the juniper flavor in favor of other botanicals, creating a diverse spectrum of flavors that might include everything from floral or citrus notes to spicy or herbal undertones. Brands like Hendrick’s, which uses cucumber and rose petals, exemplify this style. This category represents the creativity and innovation within the gin industry, appealing to a broader audience and encouraging experimentation in gin production and consumption.

4.6 Navy Strength Gin

Navy Strength Gin is another significant category, known for its high alcohol content—typically around 57% ABV. Originally supplied to the British Royal Navy, its strength ensured that if it spilled on gunpowder, the powder would still ignite. Its robust flavor profile makes it ideal for cocktails, where it can stand up to mixers and other strong flavors without being overshadowed.

5. Conclusion

Gin’s appeal lies in its complexity and the creativity it inspires among distillers. From its juniper-forward base to the layers of botanicals that craft its distinctive profile, gin is a spirit that caters to a wide range of palates and occasions. Whether sipped in a sophisticated cocktail or enjoyed in a casual drink, gin continues to be a pillar of the global spirits industry.

This exploration of gin highlights its cultural significance and the artisanal craftsmanship behind its production, offering both connoisseurs and casual drinkers a deeper appreciation of this iconic spirit.

FAQs

What is the basic ingredient of gin?

The basic ingredient of gin is a neutral spirit, typically made from grains such as barley, corn, rye, or wheat, which is then redistilled with juniper berries and various other botanicals. Juniper berries are essential as they impart the distinctive piney flavor that defines gin, but the specific choice of additional botanicals can vary widely, allowing distillers to create a range of flavor profiles within the category of gin.

Why is gin called gin?

Gin is called “gin” as a shortened form of the word “genever,” the Dutch word for juniper. The spirit originated in the Netherlands and Belgium, where it was initially known as “jenever.” This name highlights the importance of juniper berries, which are the essential flavoring agent in gin. Over time, as the spirit gained popularity in England and beyond, the name was anglicized to “gin.”

What is the strongest gin?

The strongest gins are typically labeled as “Navy Strength” gins, which have an alcohol by volume (ABV) of around 57% or higher. This high proof is a historical nod to the British Royal Navy’s practice of supplying their ships with gin that was strong enough to ensure that gunpowder could still ignite if it was accidentally soaked with the spirit. Navy Strength gin is known for its robust flavor and intensity, making it a popular choice for cocktails where a stronger gin presence is desired.