During its several centuries of life, the gin industry has picked up a lot of odd terminology. As opposed to whiskey and vodka, which have languages of their own dominated by distilling methods, gin’s vocabulary is mostly rooted in 18th-century England—which requires a shocking amount explanation, even if you speak the language. If you find yourself confused whenever you read a gin label, learning these gin terms will set you right.
Perhaps the most common and least understood label in the liquor store, London Dry doesn’t necessarily indicate the gin was made in London. The style is indeed popular in the English city, where it’s been made since the advent of the Coffey still in 1832, which was able to produce quality, unsweetened “dry” gin. No matter where it’s made, the style is heavy on juniper and usually includes a bittering agent like quinine.
The juniper berry is the defining characteristic of London Dry gin, as well as styles of gin made around the world, thanks to the low-lying bush’s ubiquity across the Northern Hemisphere. When young, juniper tastes of resin and woody pine, but gains a particular green citrus flavor as it ages—the berry’s peppery notes made it a reliable substitute for black pepper dating back to the Roman Empire. All of those flavors are represented in juniper-heavy gins, which meld with other rich, woodsy notes. While there is no clear, legal definition of how much juniper is required by percentage of ingredients or weight, it must be the “dominant” flavor according to EU regulations.
Gin gains its woody, grassy, fruity and spicy flavors from infusions with seeds, berries, herbs and roots, which are either steeped in the mash before distillation or filtered through the vapor during distillation. Juniper is the most common and only legally required botanical, but other common botanicals include coriander, citrus peels, orris and angelica root, cinnamon and its cousin cassia, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg and ground almonds.
The most common botanical after juniper, coriander (also known as cilantro or Chinese parsley) adds a range of notes from spice to citrus zest to an orange-like sweetness to many gins.
While flavors like citrus may stand out when tasting a gin, the most important botanicals are called fixatives, which structurally bind the flavors of the gin together and create the spirit’s distinct body and character. Examples include grains of paradise, cubeb pepper, orris root and angelica root.
During the British Raj, soldiers took quinine—a bitter extraction from cinchona bark—to treat and prevent malaria. They found that mixing it with gin, water and sugar made the medicine go down easy. When they eventually replaced that quinine and water with tonic made from the same bittering agent, the G&T was born. While cinchona is used as a botanical in some gins, you can pair nearly any gin with tonic thanks to the simpatico chemicals in gin and quinine.
Some refer to newer riffs on gin as “New American” or “Western” gin, but these gins come from all around the world, from Japan to Germany to Australia. Distinguished from their prestigious London Dry peers, contemporary gins often scale back the juniper in favor of highlighting other botanicals, sometimes featuring local, foraged ingredients or unique flavors like lavender and sarsaparilla. Unlike London Dry, which must be made with a neutral base spirit, contemporary gins can be made with more flavorful bases like rye or barley, which come through in the final taste. The style grew popular in the aughts, gaining recognition on the coattails of the craft whiskey and cocktail boom. But don’t think contemporary gin is just a gimmick. The style has become as respected as its global kin, wooing drinkers with heavier citrus, alternative bases, and unique botanicals.
Genever is the Dutch precursor to gin (the word translates to “juniper”) and dates back to the 13th century, making it about 500 years older than the British gin we know today. Genever isn’t as defined by its botanicals as gin, though juniper is present. Like contemporary gins, genever uses a non-neutral base such as malt—usually augmented with barley, rye, wheat or corn—which adds an extra layer of flavor to the infused botanicals. One style, oude, is aged in barrels.
Another precursor to London Dry (though English in origin as opposed to genever), Old Tom is a sweeter and maltier style of gin. It originally grew popular before modern distilling techniques allowed for the creation of palatable distillates, so the added sugar was non-negotiable.
Gin and the British Royal Navy go hand in swashbuckling hand (see Navy Strength below), so it makes sense that a major British port would develop its own unique style of the spirit. These days, the brand Plymouth Gin is the only one to produce the style (in Plymouth, where it must be made by law). Earthier, softer on the juniper and less dry than London Dry, Plymouth-style gin is worth a spin when you aren’t particularly craving a piney juniper bomb. While Plymouth was protected by a regional designation until 2014, the distillery gave up that protection, banking on customer loyalty to maintain its sales instead.
This overproof gin is akin to barrel-strength whiskey or overproof rum. Originally popular on Royal Navy ships because the flammable liquid wouldn’t damage gunpowder stored nearby (it could still be fired even if soaked with the high-proof liquid), Navy Strength gin has become a highly regarded category in its own right, with distillers working hard to ensure that clean, nuanced flavors shine through even at the higher proof. The style is best used in cocktails where the stronger flavors are balanced and mellowed by mixers.
Sloe Gin isn’t a type of gin at all, but rather a liqueur made with gin and sloe berries. With a plum-like fruitiness and almondy character, sloe berries add a rounded burst of acid and sweetness (amped up by added sugar to make the drink a liqueur) to gin’s botanical plethora.
Barrel-Aged Gin (aka Yellow Gin)
You might get a shock picking up your first glass of barrel-aged gin to find it’s darker than whiskey. The brown tone may initially be disconcerting, but that’s just the color of sweet oaky spice infused into the spirit. Barrel-aging gin isn’t a newfangled invention either; it dates back to the 18th century when gin was shipped around the globe in barrels.
When genever first entered England with the entrance of Holland’s William of Orange, Londoners went ballistic (you would too if you’d been drinking nothing but wine and mead for centuries). Because anyone could produce gin locally without facing import taxes, all sorts of seedy producers popped up, flavoring their gin with turpentine and generally flooding the market with a ton of subpar, high-octane booze. The influx of gin into London sparked an infamous rager, known as the Gin Craze, that lasted for decades.
Like Old Tom, Bathtub Gin saved drinkers from a whole lot of undrinkable swill as it was made with enough sugar to drown out harsh flavors of acetone. But instead of driving all of London to drink in a mad fury, Bathtub Gin was the bootleggers’ response to Prohibition. Dark as that period was for U.S. drinkers, the era of bathtub gin ushered in one of our favorite sweet gin drinks, the Bee’s Knees.