Mother’s Ruin. Bunter’s Tea. Kill-Grief. Roll-Me-In-The-Kennel. Even if you’ve never tasted gin, the always-fruity (and slightly disturbing) nicknames of this historic spirit should give you an idea of its reputation as a potent, moreish concoction that can fell even the hardiest drinker.
Its vigour might account for its early popularity – when getting steamed was the only way to weather the 17th century, what with all its scurvy and people emptying latrines into the street – but these days, gin is more than just a byword for inebriation. In fact, recent years have seen the emergence of infinite ‘craft gin’ producers, which create small-batch, highly botanical blends in micro-distilleries based around the world.
In a perfect world, you’d learn everything there is to know about this compelling little sup by seeking out these artisan producers, and sampling all the gin they have to offer. Then again, hospitals don’t exactly hand out new livers. So, to give you a head start, here is everything you need to know distilled into a handy bluffer’s guide.
The History Of Gin
Any discussion on the trajectory of gin’s popularity and development should begin with its historical origins. Its earliest purpose was not a drink to be knocked back on a Friday night, but an unction for the ill.
Made from juniper berries – thought to be medicinal as far back as the 11th century – gin officially began life when the Dutch took the long-established recipe of distilled juniper berries, blended it with malt or wine and named it ‘geneva’, a contraction of the French word ‘genévrier’, meaning juniper.
The blend was used to ward off illness and eventually made its way over to England, where geneva was shortened to gin. Here it began to gain popularity among the wider population as a drink of choice rather than just a salve. Later it would make its way to the tropics with British sailors, where it was used to disguise the bitter taste of malaria medication known as quinine, which was dissolved in tonic water. Thus, we got the gin and tonic we know and love (a little too much) today.
Types Of Gin
The gin boom shows no signs of letting up – as craft gin distilleries pop up all over, the drink is constantly being reinvented, by both those who drink it and those who make it. Which means, fortunately, there’s no right or wrong way to guzzle the nation’s favourite spirit. But what’s the difference between an Old Tom, London Dry, Plymouth and distilled gin?
“The only thing that makes a gin a gin is juniper which is the predominant gin flavour,” says Adam Ellesmere, ‘minister of fun’ at London microdistillery Sipsmith. “For the 270 years of London’s gin history, cocktails were formulated on the basis of London Dry Gin, which is juniper-heavy, with a bit of spice, cassia bark and pink peppercorn, with a citrus finish.”
Here’s the surprising bit – it’s distilled with neutral grain alcohol. Making gin is like flavouring vodka, except the botanicals are always natural. Generally ‘distilled’ – sometimes called ‘one-shot’ – gins are the most traditional, laborious and expensive. These involve distilling the grain mash and juniper altogether. Industrial gin makers (i.e. not the craft gins) add the juniper when the neutral spirit is redistilled, while compounded (or bathtub gin) is when a neutral base spirit is simply mixed with juniper. Prohibition-style, basically.
London Dry Gin
These days, most ‘London’ gins are about as authentic as Don Cheadle’s British accent in Ocean’s 11. Rather than referring to something made specifically in the capital (or even England), London Dry Gin is simply a category of gin. To call itself such, a gin can only be watered down to a minimum strength of 37.5 per cent, must have all natural ingredients and can’t have any flavourings or colourings added after the distillation process.
Got mates who brew their own takes on gin? That’s Old Tom – a sweetened style that rose up with the original Victorian gin craze. “There was a gin cartel war between Alexander Gordon and Charles Tanqueray, both vying to be London’s best gin producer,” says Ellesmere. “They were both making variants of Old Tom. Tanqueray developed the best methodology, stills, process – to a point where he’d created a gin so good he didn’t need to add any sugar to it, and London Dry Gin was born.”
A quintessential gin and tonic, or classic cocktails like the martini, are made with London Dry Gin, which is produced by distilling botanicals with the spirit and serving it as is once it’s out of the distiller. As above, what’s termed a ‘dry gin’ means there’s no added (artificial) flavouring as the flavours are all natural from the botanicals. Plymouth Gin (unlike it’s London counterpart) must be made in Plymouth and is slightly less dry than London Dry because there’s a higher proportion of root ingredients, softening the juniper notes and bringing a more earthy feel to it.
A distilled gin is made in a similar way to Plymouth gin, but the flavours (like cucumber and rose petal for Hendricks, for example) are added after distillation has taken place. The other type is a basic gin, like a supermarket own brand, which is vodka with juniper and other botanicals that haven’t been distilled with the spirit.
What Is The Best Gin?
With new brands on the market practically every week, it’s hard to know how to cut through the noise and find your dream gin. However, there are a few things to look out for that make your ginscovery easier.
Importantly, don’t always assume a more expensive bottle means a better gin. The price of gin depends on the production volume, rather than the quality. Which explains why supermarkets are frequently named as having some of the best in the world, despite being cheaper than online retailers and airport duty-free.
Enrico Gonzato, assistant bar manager at famed 5-star London hotel Claridge’s, points out that processes of distillation differ depending on country, region and even town. “Botanicals and resources differ wildly so it’s worth trying a local gin in a small scale distillery because you can see that tradition and that particular technique,” he says. “There are 200 types of citrus fruit in Asia, compared to only 30 in Europe.”
For a ginthusiast, the best place to work your palate and build your knowledge is at the bar – but the myriad gin fests, fairs and small-scale distillery tours are just as fruitful (and fun).
“Every new style or flavour opens up a whole new way of drinking gin,” says Ellesmere. “It might be with different tonic water, but the garnish is different, and suddenly you have an entirely new flavour profile, even though it’s still a G&T.” So why not take a classic London Dry like Sipsmith, and experiment with it? Play on the citrus notes and serve it with a slice of lime (run it around the rim of the glass before squeezing it in) and a classic Fever Tree tonic, or mix it up with a slice of grapefruit and a Fentiman’s Connoisseurs Tonic Water.
This alone should be proof that there is no set answer about what tastes ‘best’, but there will be some that appeal more to your palette. Take time to work out whether you’re into floral (Adnams Copper House Dry Gin or Hendricks), citrus (Sipsmith Lemon Drizzle or Monkey 47) or herbal-led (Opihr Oriental Spiced London Dry) flavour profiles. Gins with a higher ABV (alcohol by volume) and with more botanicals, such as Sipsmith V.J.O.P or Gin Mare can even be enjoyed on the rocks.
Jake Rogers, a spirits expert at East London drinking parlour TT Liquor, is a big fan of Death’s Door, distilled in Washington Island, Wisconsin. Its philosophy is less is more. “They only use three botanicals, and you can really pick out the flavour. Plus, at 47 per cent ABV, it stands up well to mixing,” he says. Another favourite is Old Curiosity’s Apothecary Rose Gin; a light pink rose in hue, it’s made by a herbalist in the lowlands of a botanical nursery just outside of Edinburgh, Scotland. “I’d definitely recommend it if you’re looking for something a bit out there,” he adds.
Kudos to newcomer Cabby’s Gin, too – a full-bodied, versatile gin, it’s made by an ex-cab driver with a passion for distillation. “Whenever you order it, it gets dropped off in a black taxi, which is pretty cool,” says Rogers, who says originality is the key to finding a good gin. “Competition these days is super fierce – obviously I still look for quality of product and flavour, but I like a gin to have its own distinct niches or backstories. I need something to make me go ‘wow, that’s out of the ordinary’.” Looks like reading those labels is worth it in the new gin-scape.
Best Gin Cocktails
The most versatile of the cocktail-making spirits, gin’s distinct herby, spicy aromatics make it the ideal match for many liqueurs, juices and other spirits. A good gin should work within a G&T and a martini, so have something classic in the cupboard to ensure you’re prepared for cocktail o’clock, whenever the moment arises.
Claridge’s Gonzato likes to kick off a party with a Tom Collins, a blend of sugar syrup, fresh lemon and gin (which was once upon a time Old Tom gin, hence the name). Topped with soda water, it’s refreshing and easy, and even better with a flowery gin. “Another classic cocktail is a French 75, made with gin, Champagne, sugar syrup and lemon juice,” he says. “Add a drop of absinthe last, and it will open up the flavour. It’s the perfect welcome drink.”
Along the less classic – but equally straightforward lines – is the Southside, which according to Gonzato, is as close as you’ll get to a gin daiquiri. “It’s aromatic, with gin, fresh lime juice, and sugar syrup, with around eight mint leaves – all you do is shake it, strain it and add a garnish.” Other classic gin cocktails include the gin martini (gin and vermouth), the Negroni (gin, vermouth and Campari) and the gimlet (gin and lime). Try them all to figure out your poison, just have some aspirin to hand for the morning after.
Enrico Gonzato’s Teatulia Martini
- 50ml Earl Grey gin (Tanqueray 10 infused with Teatulia Earl Grey tea)
- 15ml Lemongrass Ambrato Vermouth (Ambrato vermouth infused with fresh Teatulia lemongrass tea)
- 5ml Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto
How To Serve
- Martini glass
- Grapefruit zest
How To Make
- Chill the martini glass prior to mixing
- Mix 50ml gin with 15ml vermouth and 5ml rosolio di bergamotto
- Shake all ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker
- Strain and pour into the martini glass
- Garnish with a strip of grapefruit zest