A Gentleman’s Guide to Gin

By Julia Sharp
Photography by Emily Long
Bottles and glasses provided by Athens Distributing, Riverside Wine & Spirits,  and Imbibe

With a colorful and sometimes turbulent history dating as early as the 13th century, it’s no secret that gin has risen and fallen in popularity a number of times. As gin comes into vogue again, we explore the most common types distilled today.

Most modern forms of gin evolved from “jenever,” a juniper and malt wine spirit created by the Dutch and originally sold in pharmacies as medicine. In 1688, it was brought from the Netherlands to the United Kingdom by William of Orange during the Glorious Revolution. Following his accession to the British throne, William allowed the unlicensed local production of liquor in an attempt to reduce the number of imported spirits, which caused a surge in gin’s popularity.

By 1720, nearly 25% of all London households sold or produced gin in a virtually unregulated market. This overconsumption of gin, or the Gin Craze, as this time period is called, created a backlash in anti-gin propaganda. Campaigners publicized the “evils” of gin, leading to the spirit’s less-than-elegant reputation as “Mother’s Ruin.” Parliament intervened amidst the outcry with the Gin Act of 1751, which prohibited unlicensed sales and increased taxes. The Gin Act signaled the beginning of the end of the Gin Craze.

However, the juniper and citrus infused spirit is rising in popularity again and is considered to be one of the most elevated liquors on the market today.  The most common types of gin produced are Genever, Old Tom, London Dry, Plymouth (also a brand), Navy Strength, and New Western. Each type is characterized by various botanicals and distilling methods. In Europe, gin must be bottled at 37.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) with the main flavor derived from juniper berries and other aromatics. In the U.S., it must be at least 40% ABV. As gin continues to grow in popularity, craft and premium distillers alike are continuing to create imaginative and unique flavors that are equally as enjoyable neat as they are in cocktails.

Bols Genever Gin



Genever

Genever is considered the grandfather of modern gin and the origin of the phrase “Dutch courage” thanks to its birth region of the Netherlands and Belgium. It has a viscous mouthfeel and relies on warm, savory flavors like malt, pine, licorice, spice, and lemon peel. It’s produced using malt wine that’s triple distilled in copper pot stills, then infused with a blend of aromatic botanicals. Genever is also a legally protected spirit and must be produced in the Netherlands or a few select surrounding areas. One of the premier Genever distilleries is Bols, which has been located in Amsterdam since 1575 and still uses the same recipe created by their master distiller in 1820. Bols Genever is often likened to Scotch and whiskey due to its malt tones, so it’s easy to enjoy neat and in cocktails such as a Dutch Negroni or Holland House. Bols also offers a barrel-aged version of their Genever, which is aged for at least 18 months in French Limousin oak casks and has a sweet, hearty flavor, making it an ideal gin for American Bourbon lovers.

Old Tom Barr Hill Gin



Old Tom

Old Tom gin was one of the first uniquely British iterations of gin, and it reigned as the “King of Gin” in its day. Similar to Genever, it was produced in a pot still and made from malted barley and sugar. Because the column still was yet to be invented in the 18th century, homemade gins often had a sharp taste and minimal sweetness. To make it more palatable, sugar was added, creating the saccharine Old Tom style of gin. It eventually went out of fashion once distilling technology improved and gave way to more refined botanical flavors. However, many classic sweet cocktails that are still popular today, such as the Tom Collins and Martinez, were originally created in the late 1800s using Old Tom gin. Oregon-based distillery Ransom has done a marvelous job recreating this centuries-old recipe, and their Old Tom is produced in a pot still with malted barley. The result is a sweet, almost syrupy texture with a subtle finish of malt and sweet oranges. Barr Hill also produces a contemporary style of Old Tom gin, but theirs is a more modern take on the classic recipe, using raw honey to achieve the sweet flavor.

London Dry

delicate balance of juniper berries and citrus makes this popular type of gin an excellent base for your favorite cocktails. In order to be considered a London Dry gin, it must have all natural ingredients, no added flavorings or colors, and any added sweetness can’t exceed 0.1 grams per liter by the time it’s bottled. A shining example of a classic London Dry gin is Tanqueray No. Ten, which is distilled in a small still with fresh citrus for a bright, sparkling flavor that balances the crisp pine finish. One distinctly Scottish take on a London Dry is Eden Mill’s Original Gin, which is made with sea buckthorn berries plucked within walking distance of the distillery in St. Andrews. Although juniper is a key feature, this gin takes on a uniquely tart berry flavor and is balanced with classic citrus. Eden Mill also offers a range of gins that use different Scottish botanicals, barrel-aging methods, and more. Martin Miller’s London Dry Gin only uses the best and most carefully selected botanicals, Icelandic spring water, and a unique distilling process that involves distilling the same botanicals but in different combinations, then blending these together for a balanced and highly regulated gin. The attention to detail means this product is not as quick to produce, but the results are outstanding. Juniper is present but not a main characteristic, allowing fresh citrus to be the star. Coriander, angelica root, spice, and cucumber support the citrus to create a gin that’s contemporary and thoughtful.

Glass bottles of Plymouth Gin with Orange Slices


 


Plymouth

Until 2014, Plymouth gin could only be produced and sold if it was made in Plymouth, England. Although that restriction has been lifted, there is still only one brand of Plymouth gin in the world, produced by Black Friars Distillery. This distillery was originally built as a 13th-century Dominican monastery and was even used as a prison at one time, yet they’ve produced the same Plymouth brand of gin since 1793. Less dry than London gins, Plymouth is a bartender favorite because it’s incredibly smooth and works well in nearly every cocktail. Coriander and cardamom create a soft, minty aroma that’s pleasant when paired with the subtle bitterness of the juniper. Angelica root also brings the dry feel traditionally associated with English gins and adds a slight sweetness that complements the gentle citrus palate. Plymouth additionally produces a Navy Strength gin featuring a similar flavor profile that’s more intense and heated due to its high alcohol content.


Plymouth’s Proprietary RecipeWhen the European Union changed legislation regarding the protection of a name based on its geographical location, Pernod Ricard – the company which owned Blackfriars and the rights to the Plymouth name – elected to forgo their claim to exclusivity. This was because the laws required companies to hand over their exact recipe and distilling methods, and Pernod Ricard valued their secret recipe more than having their brand name protected.

Navy Strength Martin Miller's Gin in glass bottle



Navy Strength

Navy Strength gin isn’t for the faint of heart. While a standard London Dry is about 40% ABV, Navy Strength is typically bottled up to 57% ABV. Due to its higher proof, gunpowder could still be fired even if it became soaked with the gin, making it a suitable ration for the British Royal Navy. Called a “proof test,” this practice was made famous by Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson during the Napoleonic Wars. He wanted to provide gin for his officers without running the risk of a leak or spill ruining precious gunpowder needed for cannons, and at 90 proof, Navy Strength was strong enough to pass the test. Launched in 2003, Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength Dry Gin is remarkably drinkable despite its high proof. Like the standard Martin Miller’s London Dry Gin, the Westbourne Strength balances a subtle hint of juniper with refreshing citrus. With a higher proof, these flavors are more intense than the original, and there is a stronger emphasis on peppery notes of cassia, cardamom, and nutmeg. It makes a great substitute in many classic gin cocktails needing an extra kick, such as a Gimlet or a Cosmopolitan.

New Western Gin in blue glass bottles



New Western

Although British-made gins still dominate the market today with exports growing 533% in the last decade, New Western (also known as New American) gins are quickly claiming the spotlight. This type is based on the concept that juniper doesn’t have to be the dominant flavor; it simply needs to be present. One quintessentially American-made brand is Philadelphia-based Bluecoat Gin, which was launched in 2006. This gin was named after “bluecoats,” which were civilians who volunteered and fought for freedom against the British during the Revolutionary War. Made with 100% organic botanicals, Bluecoat is a bold, citrus-forward gin with a blend of American orange citrus and lemon peel, and it uses juniper berries from the Mediterranean to add a slight earthiness. Another extremely citrus-forward brand is Brooklyn Gin, which was created in 2010. While Brooklyn Gin features the key gin ingredients of juniper berries and citrus, there are also notes of sweet oranges, lavender, cardamom, and coriander. The distillers meticulously hand cut citrus peels and hand crack juniper berries to create a spirit that’s perfect for citrus-forward cocktails like a Tom Collins.

It’s All in the NameThe word gin stems from a combination of the Dutch word jenever and the French translation genièvre; both words derive from juniperus, which is Latin for juniper.



We chatted with local expert Greg Hobart at Athens Distributing Company to learn more about gin’s modern revival.


How is gin made?

The process for making gin is similar to vodka, but it uses more specific ingredients. The process starts by making a neutral grain spirit using an agricultural product like corn, wheat, or rye. Unlike vodka, gin is infused with botanicals. Distillers can do this in three ways. The most common is to add the botanicals directly into the pot still with the liquid and distill it together, and most large scale brands use this method. Many small batch, high-end distilleries will use a gin basket, which is a small cylinder that’s filled with botanicals and placed over the pot still. The botanicals don’t come into contact with the liquid and instead release essential oils into the distilled vapor. The third and least favorable way is just to add the natural flavors in directly and not during the distillation process.

What are the most common botanical flavors associated with gin? What’s the most uncommon flavor you’ve come across?

The most common flavor is juniper berry, because that has to be used in order for it to be classified as gin. This gives it the piney “Christmas tree” flavor most people reference. There aren’t too many other laws associated with gin unless you’re making a London Dry, so the other flavors used are totally up to the distiller. The second most common flavor would be any kind of citrus such as lemon, lime, or grapefruit. Coriander is popular as well, but those are the main botanicals that can be easily picked out when tasting. A lot of gins also feature licorice, orris root, and angelica root. One of the most uncommon botanicals we’ve come across is in Eden Mill, which uses the sea buckthorn berry that grows wild near where the gin is made in Scotland. Sea buckthorn is a small orange berry that is actually part of the rose family.

What sets gin apart from other clear spirits?

Gin really is set apart by the botanicals used. Other clear spirits like vodka and rum aren’t really meant to be enjoyed on their own and are usually served with something else. Vodka is meant to be tasteless and have no smell, while unaged rum is generally very awkward to taste by itself. Gin is the opposite of that – it’s meant to be very exciting and flavorful. I consider gin to be wonderful to taste by itself. Gin is the star of the show, while other clear spirits are more like elevator music. They’re still good and have a purpose, but gin is just going to be much more interesting and creative.

What are the proper steps for tasting gin?

When you’re tasting liquors, you want to use a Glencairn glass or a tulip-shaped glass. Not everybody has one of those, so a wine glass will also work well. With a wide bottom and narrow top, the shape of the glass helps to concentrate the aroma of the botanicals so they don’t diffuse in the air and leave a straight alcohol smell. You don’t want to overpour in the glass, so just pour about a quarter inch into the glass and swirl it around a little. Hold your nose three or four inches away from the glass and enjoy the aromas. As you get closer, you’ll be able to detect different botanicals. As you drink, take a very small sip and let it roll over your tongue. I like to grind my tongue over the roof of my mouth and breathe out, which helps get all of the botanical flavors over your olfactory. It can be hard to get past gin’s initial juniper offering, and that’s a good way to get past it and experience the other botanicals. It’s amazing what a person can pick out once they’re trained how to taste.

How are distributors, retailers, and bartenders helping to bring about gin’s revival again?

We really have to thank bartenders for making gin popular again. Bartending is a prestigious craft now, and these people are more than just someone who opens a beer or pours premade drinks. Today’s bartenders are true mixologists, and they’re making new drinks all the time. I think they saw the imaginative opportunities of gin and took advantage of that when creating new and exciting cocktails. Some bartenders are even putting a twist on the classic cocktails and replacing the traditional spirits with gin instead.

A great example of this is the gin old fashioned, which is made with a barrel-aged gin rather than bourbon. Gin can be more unique than bourbon because there aren’t nearly as many strict laws. While all bourbons taste like a variation of the same thing and use similar ingredients, gin technically only has to share one ingredient with their competitors. That variety from other botanicals, found only in gin, allows bartenders to take a more artistic approach to mixology that isn’t offered by other spirits.

What are some popular cocktails to make with gin?

My classic pick and personal favorite would be a gin martini. It’s the original martini, and it really wasn’t meant for vodka. To me, a gin martini is just an elite cocktail. I use Tanqueray Ten because it’s a little different from other gins, being more citrus forward than juniper. I call it a martini in a bottle, because it is so wonderful to enjoy on its own. I pour 2.5 oz. of Tanqueray Ten into a shaker over crushed ice, shake for about 30 seconds, and strain into a martini glass with a twist of lemon. I prefer it without vermouth, but you can also add half an ounce of dry vermouth.

For a unique twist on a classic cocktail, I recommend a gin old fashioned. It calls for barrel-aged gin rather than the traditional rye whiskey or bourbon. The recipe is open to interpretation, but it generally includes oranges, simple syrup, a sugar cube, barrel-aged gin, and angostura bitters. While it’s not common to leave the muddled orange in the drink, I’ve had one like that and it’s really a great twist.

For a sweet treat, you can also make a delicious bee’s knees cocktail using the Barr Hill honey-infused gin. It’s made with 1.5 oz. of Barr Hill honey gin, 3/4 oz. lemon juice, and 1/2 oz. honey simple syrup (to taste). Shake with crushed ice, strain, and pour over a martini glass. Enjoy!

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