An Introduction to the Fascinating World of Gin

Exploring the Aromatic Styles in Gin

Gin and tonic with lime and rosemary on a slate board.
Ivannag82/ Getty Images

You know that it's the main ingredient in a classic martini and it's vital to the iconic gin and tonic, but do you really know gin? It's a diverse distilled spirit that is noted for its pine flavor thanks to juniper berries, which are the main ingredient. Yet, there are a variety of styles of gin, from the famous London dry gins to old-school styles like genever and Old Tom to modern gins like Hendrick's that stretch gin's definition.

Gin is fascinating and the botanicals in each bottle give you a new experience with every sip. It is also essential in the bar and a liquor that offers bartenders infinite mixing possibilities. If you enjoy the taste of gin and are exploring the liquor's many popular cocktails, you'll definitely want to know a little more about how it's made.

The Creation of Gin

Gin was created by Dr. Franciscus Sylvus, a Dutch chemist, in the 16th century. His original intention was to make an elixir that would cleanse the blood of those suffering from kidney disorders. Sylvus named his creation genièvre, French for juniper.

Mass production of gin in England soon followed. King William III used his grudge against France to ban expensive liquor imports from that country and made gin affordable for the masses. 

Since that time, gin has spread to a worldwide following. Though the English and Dutch are best-known for making gin, it can be produced anywhere.

The Making of Gin

Gin is a light-bodied distilled spirit that is made of a mash of cereal grain, usually corn, rye, barley, and wheat. It naturally has few congeners, which are the impurities often associated with hangovers

Gin ranges between 40 and 47 percent alcohol by volume (80 and 94 proof), though the majority is bottled at 80 proof. Navy-strength gin is typically the strongest and can top 100 proof.

Producers cannot, by law, qualify their gin by age and it's rare to find a gin that has spent any time in a barrel for aging. That is why most gin is clear, though some get a slight golden color due to certain methods used to incorporate the flavors into the gin.

The Botanicals

The primary distinction of gin from the other base liquors are the botanicals used during the distillation process. The method is not an infusion. Instead, the botanicals are introduced in the still while the liquor is being made to create a very concentrated and well-rounded flavor.

Gin's dominant flavor and aroma notes are contributed by juniper berries. These must be included in order for a liquor to be classified as gin. The juniper is responsible for that "pine" flavor that makes gin unique.

Every distiller of gin uses their own botanical recipe, comprised of various herbs, spices, flowers, and fruits. Beyond the juniper, the botanicals can vary greatly from one style or brand to the next. This lends to each gin's unique flavor profile. Unlike other spirits such as vodka or tequila, every gin you pour can be an entirely new experience.

Among the most common botanicals used are almond, angelica, anise, cassia, coriander, fennel, and lemon and orange peels. Some gin recipes use just a handful of different botanicals while others use 30 or more. You will find brands that divulge their full list of botanicals and others that keep it a well-guarded secret.

London Dry Gin

London dry gin is the best-known and most widely produced style of gin in the world today. Many people consider it the benchmark when it comes to defining gin. It is definitely a juniper-forward gin.

This is a very dry gin and its flowery and aromatic characteristics are a result of adding the botanicals during the second or third distillation. The vapors from these flavoring agents reach the alcohol as they pass through a specialized still with an attachment called a gin head.

London dry gin is often preferred for making martinis. It is the most versatile of gins and the most popular style that can be used in a variety of cocktails. If you are only going to stock one gin in your bar, a London dry is the best choice.

This style is where you will find the biggest brand names in gin, such as Beefeater, Bombay Sapphire, and Tanqueray. It is also the most common style for affordable gin brands, which can save money but are generally not mixed into the fancier, martini-like cocktails. In general, you get what you pay for in gin, so it's important to think about what type of drinks you're mixing before buying a bottle.

Plymouth Gin

Plymouth Gin is a clear, slightly fruity, full-bodied gin that is very aromatic. This style of gin originated in the port of Plymouth on the English Channel. Only one distillery, Plymouth, Coates & Co., has the right to produce Plymouth Gin today, so it is both a style and a brand name.

A few cocktails call specifically for Plymouth Gin. Among those are the pink gin and merry Christmas recipes, though it can be poured into other drinks as well. It is typically a good choice for recipes that include fruits.

Old Tom Gin

Old Tom gin is a sweeter version of London dry gin. Simple syrup is used to distinguish this older style of gin from its contemporaries and many include notes of citrus.

Old Tom was the original gin used for the popular Tom Collins and the gin of choice for much of the 19th century. If you're exploring classic cocktails, you can often get a taste of the original recipes by pouring Old Tom rather than a London dry.

Not too long ago, Old Tom gin was unavailable in the United States and could be found almost exclusively in the United Kingdom. In recent years, however, there have been a number of U.S. distilleries that have been producing this gin. Look for brands like Anchor, Gin Lane, Hayman's, Ransom, and Spring44.

Genever

Genever, or Schiedam gin, is the Dutch and Belgian version of gin. This is the original style of gin and it predates and inspired all other gins. It was first distilled for medicinal purposes and was the original gin used in many of the classic American cocktails of the 19th Century, rivaling Old Tom as the star of the bar.

This variety is distilled from malted grain mash, in a manner that is similar to whiskey. It tends to be lower proof (70 to 80 proof) than it's English counterparts. Bols Genever is the best-known brand with worldwide distribution, though there are others worth exploring as well.

Genever is often aged in oak casks for one to three years and comes in two styles. Oude (old) genever is the original style with a straw color and it is relatively sweet and aromatic. Jonge (young) genever has a drier palate and lighter body.

The Dutch still prefer to drink genever straight, often using a small tulip-shaped glass specifically designed for it. It is also quite fun to mix into cocktails, such as the hot gin punch and aura in me

New Western Dry Gin

The name "New Western Dry Gin" (or "New American Gin") began to be used in the early 2000s. It describes a number of modern gins that have pushed the boundaries of the spirit's definition, which relies on the dominance of juniper.

In this era, many American craft distillers released gins that concentrated on flavors other than juniper. This led to a debate as to whether these brands could technically be classified as a gin. The New Western Dry Gin moniker was adopted by the majority of the bartending community worldwide to distinguish these gins from more traditional styles.

Popular brands included in this style are Hendrick's (cucumber-forward), G'Vine (grape-forward), Dry Fly, Aviation (fruity and floral), and Small's. Many of these gins are produced with modern cocktails in mind and have a great appeal to consumers who are not fond of a heavy pine in their gins.