10 Questions About Gin, Answered

Tiffany Mallery
Tiffany Mallery

Starting with its predecessor, a Dutch spirit called genever, which dates to the 13th-century, gin has a vast, rich history. It gradually spun off from the maltier, more whiskey-like genever and developed into the juniper-forward, aromatic spirit we know today.

Yet modern gin encompasses several styles, from Old Tom to Plymouth to London Dry and others. What are these kinds of gin, exactly, and what are the different techniques used to produce gin in the first place? Here, we answer these questions and more to help expand your knowledge of gin, that pillar of cocktail culture, and the base for the Martini, the Negroni, and the Gin & Tonic, among many other classic drinks.

Is there a legal definition for gin?

For a spirit to qualify as gin In the United States, it must have an ABV of no less than 40% (80 proof) and possess the characteristic flavor of juniper berries. If the product is made via distillation or re-distillation of aromatics with an alcoholic wash, it can be categorized and sold as "distilled gin." This leaves things fairly wide open to interpretation, and as a result, there are a number of different liquids that qualify as gin. Speaking of…

What is London Dry Gin?

There’s no standard style of gin, but London Dry—which doesn’t have to be made in London, btw—comes the closest. It’s defined as a gin distilled to at least 70% ABV that doesn’t contain any artificial ingredients, flavors, or colorings. The amount of sugar is also restricted (to 0.1 gram per liter, after distillation), hence the “dry” descriptor, and a more botanical flavor profile.

What is Old Tom Gin?

Old Tom Gin is a maltier, sweeter, less botanical version of gin, typically made in a pot still, and sometimes aged. Originating in England, it flourished during the 18th century. Old Tom has enjoyed a recent revival, thanks in large part to the craft-cocktail movement of the past decade or so.

How about Plymouth Gin?

Another style that first boomed in the 18th century, particularly among the British Navy, Plymouth Gin is similar to London Dry Gin but has a rounder, sweeter palate. And unlike London Dry, which can be made anywhere, Plymouth Gin production is limited to Plymouth, England. There’s just one distiller of the stuff on earth: the Plymouth Gin Distillery.

Tiffany Mallery

Is genever the same thing as gin?

Genever is essentially the Dutch “grandfather” of modern gin, from which it varies in several respects. The first genever was made from distilled malt wine, which was a little rough around the edges, so the early Dutch distillers added herbs to it, including juniper. But given its malty source, genever contains more whisky-like notes than contemporary gin, and the juniper accents are less pronounced. The earliest known written reference to genever dates to the 13th century. Today, genever can only be legally produced in the Netherlands, Belgium, two regions of France, and two states in Germany.

So genever got the ball rolling, then what happened?

The Dutch shipped their juniper-accented beverage all over the world, and England took a special interest in it, transforming its name to gin, and distilling their own versions of it for literally centuries afterward. Speaking of gin production…

How do they make gin?

Gin starts out as a neutral spirit made from grain, and acquires its main flavor from re-distilled juniper berries and other botanicals, such as anise, licorice root, citrus, coriander, and more. Some gins are aged in wooden barrels and, like whisky or rum, turn a light amber color as a result. Today, there are three main ways gin is made: pot distillation, column distillation, and the compound method:

Compound method gin is made by simply adding botanicals to a neutral grain spirit (like vodka) and letting them steep in a sealed container for a couple of weeks. Filter out the botanicals and, presto, you have gin.

Pot distilled gin typically yields a fuller-bodied product. It starts with neutral grain spirit, which is distilled a second time with juniper and other botanicals.

Column distilled gin is the most prevalent current method, whereby the aromatics are suspended above the liquid and then infused into the vapors that result from distillation.

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Courtesy Tanqueray London Dry Gin

What’s the best gin cocktail?

Some questions can never be answered, but one thing’s for sure: whether you’re making a Negroni, a Gin & Tonic, a Martini, or a Monkey Gland, you can hardly do better than to make it with Tanqueray London Dry Gin. An icon in the category, Tanqueray London Dry is crisp, balanced, and excellent in every gin cocktail, from classics to signature creations.

What about sloe gin, where does that fit in?

Sloe gin is made from the sloe berry, a small plum-like fruit that grows in England. It’s traditionally a wintertime drink and is made by steeping the berries in gin to extract their flavor. Then, sugar is added, and the mixture is filtered, resulting in a gin liqueur. Today it’s common—especially in the US—to find sloe gins with a neutral grain base rather than a gin base, which would disqualify them from the gin category. But some craft distilleries in the States do make sloe gin with gin as the base spirit.

Tiffany Mallery

What was that story about tonic, British soldiers, and malaria again?

In the 17th century, Europeans learned from indigenous people in South America that the bark of the cinchona tree could treat fevers (the cinchona was nicknamed the “fever tree”). They isolated quinine, a compound contained in the bark, as the medicinal ingredient. The British turned quinine into a powder, and gave it to troops in India to fight malaria. The quinine powder was so bitter, though, that soldiers took to mixing it with soda and sugar, thus forming a precursor to what we now know as tonic water. Eventually, they began adding gin, paving the way for the Gin & Tonic.

What was the one about scurvy and the British Navy?

This is the origin of the term “Limey” as a nickname for a British person. In 1747, a Scottish doctor named James Lind discovered that a lack of vitamin C was causing scurvy among the British Navy—and that citrus fruits would both prevent and cure the disease. British sailors and soldiers were thenceforth issued a mandatory ration of limes—many of which went into their proto-Gin & Tonics.