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The Serious Eats Guide to Gin
Gin! Mother's milk, mother's ruin. Madam Geneva. In some ways, you can think of gin as a juniper-flavored vodka. Gin is a colorless, usually unaged, spirit. It's ordinarily made by distilling or redistilling fermented grains with juniper berries and other aromatics (also known as botanicals).
A Brief History of Mother's Ruin
You know gin. You know where gin's from right? Italy, of course.
Gin, it seems to me, is exactly the type of great idea that lends itself to being "discovered" by all sorts of people. By some accounts, Italian monks were adding juniper to hooch a millennium ago. And it makes sense, if you think about the origin purpose of many liquors and liqueurs—namely, medicine. Juniper berries are a natural diuretic and have been used for medicinal purposes for centuries, throughout Europe and in parts of North America.
What we currently know as gin, however, dates to about 16th century Holland. Pharmacists sold a medicine made of barley wine or a rough-tasting malted-barley spirit. To make the medicine more aromatic and palatable, they would sometimes redistill the barley spirit with juniper berries or other aromatic botanicals.
During the Dutch War of Independence (1568–1648; also known as the Eighty Years War), English forces in Holland discovered gin and enjoyed it before battle. The English dubbed gin "Dutch courage." Gin became so popular among English troops that they brought it back with them after the war. By the middle of the 1700s, you might recall, the English government had become pretty tax-happy; not only were they famously imposing levies on tea exported to its North American colonies, but they also heavily taxed spirits imported into the mother country. At the same time, though, the government allowed unlicensed production of gin, which led to a period called the Gin Craze, when the City of London experienced an extended period of public drunkenness.
Eventually, the government cracked down, imposing expensive licenses on gin production and duties on gin retailers. This led to riots and open flouting of the law. A story arose from this period of a saloon keeper setting up what amounted to a gin vending machine. Under the sign of a black tom cat, he installed a pipe outside the house, and made a slot in the wall. The pipe and the slot extended into the house, and the pipe was attached to a funnel. If you put a coin into the slot and called out, "Puss!", the saloon keeper would reply, "Mew!" This was your cue to put your mouth onto the pipe. The saloon keeper would then pour a dram of gin into the funnel, through the pipe, and into your waiting maw. This, the stories tell, is the origin of the name "Old Tom Gin." It's also a story drunks would tell each other, so believe as much of it as you choose.
As time went on, the gin craze wore off. The invention of the column still in the 19th century introduced a new technology to gin distilling, allowing gin makers to produce a higher-proof neutral spirit, allowing the juniper and other aromatics to dominate the flavor profile.
What Is This Stuff, Anyway?
Gin is ordinarily made by distilling or redistilling fermented grains with juniper berries and other aromatics.
Gin may also be made by simply adding the essence or flavors of juniper and other aromatics to neutral grain spirits. This is known, both in the United States and European Union, as compound gin. The stuff that bootleggers drank during Prohibition—namely, bathtub gin—was a type of compound gin. If you see recipes for 'homemade gin' (such as this Ian Knauer recipe from Gourmet.com), they typically entail infusing juniper berries and other aromatics in vodka; they are also, therefore, compound gin. I won't be talking much about compound gin in this article, except to say that it is a legal category of gin that you might see for sale on the bottom shelves in certain liquor shelves. Unless you're making compound gin at home, stay away from it; it's normally not very good.
If a manufacturer has made gin by distilling or redistilling fermented grain with juniper berries, both the US and EU permit that manufacturer to label the product as "distilled gin" to set it apart from cheaper compound gin.
In the United States, gin must be bottled at no less than 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume, or ABV). In the European Union, the bottling strength is no less than 75 proof, or 37.5% ABV.
The precise blend of aromatic botanicals in a particular gin is usually a closely guarded secret. Some gin brands trumpet their main botanicals in their marketing and PR materials and on their websites, but even so, they never reveal everything, and they never reveal the proportions they use of each ingredient.
Even so, a few choices are common to nearly all gins: juniper, coriander, and citrus peel. In this section, I'll look at the most common aromatic ingredients and discuss the role each one plays in determining a gin's overall flavor. Obviously, the main flavor in most gin is juniper, that piney spice that gives gin its Christmas-tree character. But a well-crafted gin has complex undertones of citrus, flowers, and warm spices. Each producer balances those flavors in their own way, which makes gin a fascinating spirit to study. Here's a look at some of the major aromatics in gin:
- Juniper berries: Not a berry at all, but a seed cone from a conifer tree. Juniper is what gives gin its signature piney taste. And I'll make a strong statement here: any product marketed as gin that lacks this taste, or that pushes it into the background, isn't much of a gin in my estimation, but more of a flavored vodka. When I want gin, I want strong juniper flavors. (Wondering about juniper? Check out this Spice Hunter column »)
- Coriander seed: The seed of the plant most Americans know as cilantro. The seeds add a citrus note to gin, and are sometimes also used in wheat beer for the same purpose. (More on coriander here »)
- Angelica root: Also used to flavor vermouth, Chartreuse, and Benedictine, angelica is sweet and musky. The flavor is akin to juniper, so it's used mostly to complement and enhance the piney quality of gin.
- Orris root: The root of a type of iris, orris root contributes a subtle violet note to gin. Most gins, especially most great gins, have a soft floral quality in the background that counterbalances the pine. Some gins, especially the Dutch product Nolet Silver, emphasize their floral qualities.
- Citrus peels: Mainly lemon and orange, although sometimes lime instead of or in addition to the orange.
- Cardamom pods: One of the most complex aromatics in gin, cardamom is spicy, herbal, and citrusy, with a somewhat resinous character. Cardamom adds forest aromas to complement the juniper; it also tastes somewhat of ginger, and adds some of the warm spice notes you attribute to gingerbread. (The Spice Hunter covers cardamom here »)
- Cassia bark: Sold in the United States as cinnamon, cassia is actually a relative of true cinnamon. But never mind that. What cassia contributes to gin is a hint of cinnamon and some of the same warm spice notes that arise from cardamom. (The Spice Hunter covers the cinnamon/cassia conundrum. »)
- Grains of paradise: Like cardamom and angelica, grains of paradise is a highlight ingredient in gin, used to complement and reinforce the forest aromas of juniper and the citrusy notes of lemon and orange. (More on grains of paradise here »)
- Cubeb berries: Cubeb is sometimes called a Java pepper, but it's not really spicy hot; the flavor is more like a cross between allspice and black pepper. Cubeb also plays the role in gin of providing notes of warm spice.
How Gin Is Made
You may have heard of Old Tom gin, for example, or Holland gin, or London dry gin. In some cases, these designations are legally defined and protected (London dry gin, for example); in other cases, they're geographically protected (Plymouth is an example); and in still other cases, the names refer to historic or cultural definitions that have no legal or geographic protection at all (such as Old Tom).
As I describe each type of gin, I'll indicate whether the type has any legal or geographic protection. You may be surprised, for example, to learn that London dry gin has a legal definition but not a geographic one. If you hew to the legal specifications, you can make London dry gin anywhere, not just in London.
First, though, let's talk about how gin is made. Again, I'm focusing entirely on distilled gin here, not compound gin.
Gin starts with a neutral grain spirit of at least 96% alcohol by volume. This spirit is usually made from barley or corn, and it's colorless, odorless, and flavorless. In other words, if you were to simply dilute this spirit and bottle it, you could sell it as vodka.
The neutral spirit is diluted to an ABV of about 45% and pumped into a copper still. At this point, the aromatics are added to the still. The aromatics (juniper, citrus peel, and so on) can be added in either of two ways:
- Aromatics can be added directly into the pot of the still and left to steep in the neutral spirit for several hours prior to distillation.
- Or, the aromatics can be placed into a tray above the spirit in the still. In this case, as the spirit is heated, its vapors rise up through the tray and pick up the essences of the aromatics. When the vapors condense back into spirit, they retain the flavors and aromas of the botanicals.
Either way, the still is then heated and the spirit redistilled to make gin. The gin comes off the still at about 80–85% abv, and is then diluted to bottling strength.
Gin can be, but rarely is, aged in a wooden barrel for a short period of about three to six months. The French brand Citadelle makes an aged version, as do a few small distilleries in the United States.
- London: Also known as London dry. A legal specification, defined in both EU and US statues. London gin may contain no artificial flavors or colors; it must be distilled to at least 70% ABV; and only water, additional neutral grain spirit, and a small amount of sugar (no more than 0.1 gram of sugar per liter) may be added after distillation. London gin carries no geographic protection and may be made anywhere.
- Plymouth: Both legal and geographic. Plymouth gin is made to similar specifications as London. Plymouth gin may be made only in Plymouth, England, by law. As a style, Plymouth is slightly less dry than London and contains more root ingredients in the botanical base, resulting in an earthier flavor than London. Currently, the only manufacturer of Plymouth gin is the Plymouth Gin Distillery, but in theory, anyone could set up a distillery in Plymouth and market their gin as Plymouth gin.
- Old Tom: A historic style, with neither legal nor geographic protection. Sort of a missing link between London dry and Genever. Old Tom is mildly sweet—although not in any way cloying—and not quite as juniper-forward as London or Plymouth. Old Tom was the style originally used for the Tom Collins. Old Tom was almost entirely dead until recently, when a few small distilleries revived it. In the United States, look for bottlings from Hayman's or Ransom.
- New American / New Western: A relatively new style, with neither legal nor geographic definitions. Even the nomenclature is vague, with some people calling this style New American, and others calling it New Western. It's hard to identify this as a style at all, in fact. The only common feature about gins in this style is that they all arise from small, craft distillers—each of which hopes to put its own stamp on gin. The style began among American craft distillers, hence the name "New American," but it has migrated back to England among craft distillers there, which has led to the broader term, New Western. Some gins in this style have strong forest and pine flavors. Some keep the juniper in the mix but downplay it in favor of fruit or floral notes. And other gins in this style cut down so low in juniper that the product might as well be a flavored vodka and not a gin at all.
- Sloe Gin: A historic style, with neither legal nor geographic protection, sloe gin is a flavored gin, using sloe, or blackthorn, berries, along with sugar. Sloe gin is more of a fruit cordial or a liqueur than it is a true gin, and in fact, some bottom-shelf sloe gins are made not with gin at all but with vodka.
- Genever: The Dutch precursor to gin. Often tastes somewhat malty, almost like a whisky, with subtler juniper notes than you'll find in London dry. Genever may be a precursor to gin, and may share certain qualities in common with gin, but I think of it as a separate category of spirit, and therefore will be discussing it in full next week.