It’s All in the Name / The 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!