Tempered Spirits

Homemade Cocktails — Experiments, Critiques & Travels

A Gin Primer

Gin is good. Cocktailians like gin, mainly for one reason: it plays well with nearly everything you can toss into a drink. Citrus? No problem. Herbs? Easy, it’s already infused with those. Bitters? Perfect. Aromatic wines? Hey, I already mentioned it works with herbs, fruit, and bitters! It’s a neutral-esque spirit that can easily hold its own, bringing panache to the party; vodka disappears into the crowd, but gin mingles with the party-goers and excites opinion. It’s Winston Churchill meets Holly Golightly.

For those readers unacquainted with gin, and to have something to act as a reference for the Heron Club’s first meeting, I figured a post on the the basics of gin was in order. We’ll cover what it is, the types and characteristics of gin, and look at a brief history. Think of it as a condensed Wikipedia entry.

What is Gin? (We might ask, What Is Life?)

Gin is a distilled spirit and one of the core “base spirits” of mixology. It is a white spirit that is either unaged or minimally aged. Gin’s defining characteristic is its flavor, which is imparted by infusing a neutral grain spirit (wheat or rye, usually, that has been distilled to 90% + alcohol) with juniper berries and botanicals (a secret mix of herbs and spices).

Photo by ragesoss on Flickr

Dried juniper berries provide the dominant flavor, giving the liquor its unique, “piney” taste. Gins may include (to steal from Robert Hess) lemon and orange peel, anise, orris root, angelica root, cardamom, coriander, licorice root, cinnamon, almond, lavender, and cassia. During the production of true, quality gin, the botanicals are incorporated into the process of distillation: the neutral spirit is distilled, infused with botanicals, and re-distilled, often passed through a second mix of dried herbs and spices, infusing the alcohol with flavor before it condenses and is collected.

Gin is the only one of the base spirits that is infrequently sipped “neat,” often mixed to take the best advantage of its flavor, which can be astringent on its own. Of course, the exception to this rule are sweetened gins, Dutch genevers, and gin martinis served “up” with no vermouth (why order a cold glass of gin and water? I’m at a loss for an explanation).

That being said, what types of Gin are there?

The two most common types of gin are London Dry gin and genever. The London Dry gins are the most popular variety, especially in the US and UK. Genevers remain popular in the Netherlands, their home turf and the birthplace of gin, but also appear in Belgium and Germany. Two older, lesser-known types of gin are Plymouth and Old Tom, both of which are British. Accompanying the increasing interest in cocktails, spirits, and micro-distilling are two new types of gin: American dry gins, which are often produced by craft microditilleries and are very similar to their British cousins, and what we might call “experimental botanical” gins, which use wildly unique additives in their infusions.

So, what are the defining characteristics of all these “types?”

London Dry:

As the name implies, these gins are not sweetened and are therefore “dry.” They tend to be higher proof and more juniper-forward in their flavor profile, emphasizing the “piney” flavor of gin. London Dry emerged alongside column stills in the mid-1800s, developing into a light-bodied, crisp, and highly-refined liquor that is excellent for mixing.

Brands: Beefeater, Boodles, Gordon’s, Tanqueray, to name a few.


Genever is the “original” gin, first produced in the Netherlands. It is also known as “Dutch gin” or “Holland gin.” Genever is distilled from malted grain mashes (as are whiskies), giving them a smooth, whiskey-like taste. “Dutch Courage” comes in two forms, jonge (young) and oude (old). Oude genever is a golden straw color, smooth and aromatic, with a pronounced malt wine taste; it is meant to be sipped neat, at room temperature. Jonge genever is lighter and drier, with a very neutral flavor (like vodka), and is meant to be served chilled, neat. If you find yourself in a bar in Holland, order a kopstoot (or “headbutt”), which is a shot of genever with a beer chaser (very much like our Boilermaker).

Brands: Bols, Boomsma

Plymouth Gin:

Smoother, more full-bodied and more aromatic than London Dry gin, and ever-so-slightly sweeter, Plymouth-style gin carries a Protected Geographical Indication in the EU, distilled only in Plymouth, England in accordance with a tradition as old as the British Navy. Unfortunately, only one distillery, Plymouth Black Friars, continues to manufacture it, but they do a heckuva job. Plymouth comes in two proofs: regular, which is fine for everyday mixing, and the hard-hitting Navy-Strength, which is difficult to locate in the US. Plymouth Sloe Gin has also hit the US market in recent years, but it is a liqueur, and not a true gin (though it’s one of the only true sloe gins on the market, and quite possibly the best; I love the stuff). Plymouth is an excellent cocktail ingredient that once enjoyed great popularity in the UK and pre-Prohibition US, and was Winston Churchill’s supposed favorite.

Brands: Plymouth (the one and only!)

Old Tom Gin:

An older style of British gin that nearly went extinct at the turn of the last century, Old Tom is a sweetened form of London Dry gin. Before the advent of column stills, gin was sweetened, aged, and infused to mask the inferior product produced by pot stills. It was extremely popular in 18th-century England and 19th-Century America, and is enjoying a comeback as a cocktail ingredient, especially in the classic formulations unearthed by those such as David Wondrich. Our selection of Old Tom is still pretty limited, but across the Pond a number of new gins have emerged. Old Tom Gin works wonders in early drinks, but the amounts of sugar in modernized recipes must be tinkered with to account for the sweetness of the gin.

Check out Jay Hepburn’s coverage of Hayman’s Old Tom and three accompanying gins.

Brands: Ransom, Hayman’s (these two can be found in the US), Secret Treasures, The Dorchester, Both’s

American Dry Gin:

American gins are similar to London Dry and Plymouth, with an emphasis on precise, small-batch craft distillation and a willingness to experiment with their botanicals. The juniper is often more subtle and less piney, allowing the gin’s citrus and floral characteristics to come through. Leopold’s (Ann Arbor), Aviation (Portland), Bluecoat (Philadelphia), Catoctin Creek Virginia) and Death’s Door (Madison, WI) are excellent examples of this type, ranging from non-piney and juniper-heavy, to floral, to herbaceous, to smooth and neutral. These gins are often best when highlighted with subtle flavors, allowing the gin to bask in the spotlight.

Brands: Leopold’s, Aviation, No. 209, Junipero, Bluecoat, Catoctin Creek, Death’s Door, 13th Colony (Americus, GA)

Experimental Botanical Gins:

A number of experimental gins have avoided falling into the aforementioned types, experimenting with blends of neutral spirits and adding numerous unique flavors into their botanical mixes. Hendrick’s, from Scotland, incorporates a flavorful, pot-still liquor into their neutral base and adds essences of cucumber and rose into the final product. G’vine Gin, from France, uses grape spirit and an infusion of green grape flowers, while Citadelle, another French gin, is aged in cognac barrels. Experimental gins are less about the intense, hard-hitting juniper and more about the balance and novelty of their botanical infusions.

Brands: Hendrick’s, G’Vine, Citadelle

So, what about the history of Gin?

Well, it’s incredibly complicated, but we can boil it down to a list of main points:

  1. Gin, as we sort-of-know-it, was christened “genever” by the Dutch in the 1600s; legend points to physician Franciscus Sylvius as having named it. Regardless of how it came to be (juniper was being included in medicinal tinctures in the Middle Ages, if not before then), it caught on as a health remedy, and later a casual quaff, in Holland by the mid-1600s. Its popularity in the Netherlands has endured for centuries, with brief periods of popularity overseas.
  2. The English discovered gin during the 80 Years War and during the reign of William of Orange (a Protestant-dominated period known as the Glorious Revolution). As usual, military conquest and political intermarriage brought the spirit across the channel, capturing the attention of the British drinking public.
  3. Soon after, in the early 1700s, London was awash in gin shops and distilleries, thanks to heavy duties on imported liquor and cheap, unlicensed production. Sales of gin outnumbered those of all other alcoholic beverages, including beer. The cheap stuff was mixed with sulfuric acid, turpentine, and who knows what else; that, along with public drunkeness at a massive scale, inspired a series of attempted moral reform efforts on the part of the government. These Gin Acts largely failed at Prohibition (an ominous bit of foreshadowing), but new licensing requirements and government controls were successful, greatly improving the quality and safety of the spirit.
  4. The column still was invented in 1832, leading to quick, easy, mass production of neutral spirits. Pot stills were gradually phased out of gin production, making sweetened gins, like Old Tom, unnecessary and leading to the development of London Dry gins of the mid-to-late 1800s. The British Empire had expanded dramatically by that point, especially after the Napoleonic Wars. British gins traveled to the colonies via the Navy, encountering a number of new ingredients: quinine, dissolved in soda water, is distributed to British soldiers in the tropics to combat malaria. When mixed with gin, it gave birth to the ubiquitous Gin & Tonic. British sailors combined Navy-issued lime cordial, useful for combating scurvey, with gin, giving us the Gimlet.
  5. Americans were drinking genever and Old Tom, imported from England, until the late 1800s, at which point the “dry spirits” market exploded: dry vermouth, dry champagne, dry gin, dry cocktails, &c. were the order of the day by 1900. The Dry Gin Martini emerges and gains enormous popularity between 1890 and 1910.
  6. Things got really dry in 1920 when Prohibition drew a curtain over the liquor industry, at which point homemade “bathtub” gins took the place of quality mass-produced spirits. Bathtub gins were “compound gins:” cheap neutral spirits infused after distillation with herbs, chemicals, and anything potent that was lying around. Like the spirits produced during the Gin Craze in 18th-Century England, lots of additives, like sugar and citrus, were needed to make bathtub gin drinkable. Speakeasy cocktails received an unexpected boost in popularity as a result.
  7. In 1933, Prohibition was repealed. Quality British dry gins re-appear on the American market, enjoying a resurgence in popularity after WWII. British, French, and Cuban cocktails, inventive takes on a defunct American bar-tending institution, were brought back from war-torn Europe and the Caribbean. The vodka craze hit in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, replacing gin in the once-favored Dry Gin Martini (which had also suffered from enormous Prohibition-era shocks to vermouth imports). Old Tom became extinct, except for a few pockets of production in England, and Plymouth gin remained overseas, as did genever.

Like any good history, gin’s remains slightly fuzzy and un-codified two or three decades before the present day. There seems to be a severely limited use of gin in cocktails from the 1970s-1990s, understandable considering vodka’s blitzkrieg and the elimination of small distilleries in the US. In the 2000s, however, during the Neo-Cocktailian Renaissance, gin again found its place in the halls of mixology. The re-discovery of classic gin drinks and formulations, and the resulting proliferation of quality gin, has proved very tasty, indeed.

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This entry was posted on September 10, 2011 by in Gin, Heron Social Club, Old Tom Gin and tagged , , , , , , , .
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