I’ve been intending to expand this blog to include gin for some time now, and it only seems appropriate to use today’s World Gin Day as the perfect prompt to launch this new effort. The gin market has never been so full of new and exciting makers, so it’s high time to track down the best of them – indeed, last year the UK put away 40 million bottles of the stuff.
In many ways, gin was the obvious next commodity to grasp the ‘craft’ label and enjoy an explosion of interest, consumption and start-ups under every railway arch. It’s a relatively simple product to make – at its heart it’s just botanicals soaked in alcohol – but with such a range of flavours to explore, everyone can produce their own very personal take.
As with whisky, my first encounter with gin was back in my student days and was far from positive. Of course, it wasn’t helped by the fact that it was cheap gin mixed with cheap tonic, but the biggest problem was that my palate at the time considered the only spirit worth drinking to be Southern Comfort (ideally mixed with pineapple juice) – it’s fair to say I had a sweeter tooth, drink-wise, than gin requires.
Over the years I’ve taken the occasional sip to see if my tastes had evolved, but the national obsession with adding tonic to gin meant that all I really learned at that time was that I really don’t like tonic.
And then, the last time we were in Islay – primarily for whisky, obviously – the folks at Bruichladdich introduced me to their Botanist gin, happily without the traditional tonic. It’s not an exaggeration to describe the experience as revelationary, as my mind (and my palate) finally got gin.
Even then, I hadn’t truly appreciated the sheer variety of gins until we started researching the Great Gin Guide for Kavey Eats last Christmas. There is such an astounding range now on the market that there must be a gin for everyone. Even my Southern Comfort-loving younger self!
What Is Gin
The name ‘gin’ ultimately comes from the Genever – the Dutch word for juniper. Although the Dutch claim to have invented gin is contentious, it is certainly true that they were the ones to introduce the English to the juniper-infused spirit.
Gin has a fairly relaxed legal definition; it’s a neutral spirit which has been flavoured with any number of botanical extracts, and with a ‘predominant flavour’ of juniper. There are three legal classes of gin, but this is determined purely by the production method:
Gin (without modifiers) is made simply by adding natural flavourings to the neutral spirit – technically you could soak a handful of juniper berries in vodka and call it gin – without any additional processing. Because it doesn’t require any extra work, this is the cheaper, ‘entry level’ version (the blended malt of gin, if you will) – indeed, the prohibition-era bathtub gin was made in precisely this way.
Distilled Gin is made by re-distilling the neutral spirit ‘in the presence of’ natural botanicals; those botanicals can either be in the spirit itself, or suspended in a ‘gin basket’ at the top of the still, which allows the flavour to be extracted by the alcohol vapour produced during the re-distillation. Incidentally, the vast majority of gin distilleries are actually gin re-distilleries, in that they don’t produce their own base spirit and the only distillation that occurs is this flavour-extracting step.
Finally, London Gin (also called London Dry Gin) is a subset of the Distilled Gin. It may not have more than a tiny amount of sugar added, which leads to the ‘dry’ term sometimes added to the name, and unlike with Distiller Gin, no flavouring or colouring can be added after the distillation.
Although gin has a long history of being paired with tonic (not to mention a thousand and one other cocktails), it’s impossible to properly explore the flavour and aroma of anything if you mix it with something which so drastically alters it. It would be like trying to review whiskies by adding coke to every dram.
In fact, I’m going to go further and implore you to at least try gin straight – or at least mixed with something with a less significant flavour of its own. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with adding tonic if that’s how you like to drink your gin, but it’s worth getting to know both ingredients on their own first.
So with all that said, my reviews will be focused on straight gin.
Gezondheid! (which seems an appropriately Dutch translation of Slainte)
Good gin is fabulous with nothing in it, definitely the way to taste the botanicals. Southern Comfort, albeit without pineapple juice, was a feature of my early student days an unfortunately I became very unwell after drinking too much. I’ve never touched it since! Look forward to reading your reviews.
Pete, I’ve always liked London dry gin, so am looking forward to your reviews.