Gin has known many names: Mother’s Ruin, Kill-Grief, Dutch Courage, Bunter’s Tea — at one point it was even thought of as a cure-all tonic for most medical ailments. Through its existence, it’s been wildly popular, relegated to the back of the liquor cabinet and celebrated as a cult commodity. No matter your feelings on the juniper-heavy spirit, gin has an inarguable place in drinking history, not to mention the cocktail hall of fame. Without gin, there is no Martini. Without gin there is no Negroni. Without gin there is no Bramble. A world without gin is not a world we want to live in.
The History of Gin
Historians have yet to pinpoint the exact moment when a man or woman first decided to infuse a neutral spirit with juniper, but they are fairly sure it happened in either Holland or Belgium. While there is a written reference to gin’s predecessor, genever (or jenever), that dates to a 13th-century encyclopedia, the earliest known recipe for genever doesn’t appear until the 16th century. By the mid-17th century, however, genever was firmly established, with distilleries proliferating across Holland. The Dutch weren’t sipping Martinis at their leisure, mind you. They were drinking for their health. In its original form, genever was primarily sold in pharmacies as a cure for gallstones, stomach pains and gout.
In 1688, Dutch monarch William of Orange invaded England, taking over as king and bringing with him Holland’s genever culture—or, as the British would take to calling it, gin. To earn favor among the aristocracy, the new king deregulated distilling in England and levied a tax on imported spirits and beer. The corresponding spike in demand for domestic spirits, along with new laws that said almost anyone could make the stuff (provided they bought their grain from William’s buddies), resulted in the ugly birth of one of the world’s most refined drinking cultures. Much of what was produced during this period was barely potable, often flavored with turpentine rather than juniper. This back alley gin was cheaper than beer but packed a much heftier punch, basically sending the country into a public health crisis, as depicted in allegory in William Hogarth’s prints "Beer Street" and “Gin Lane” (left). Essentially, the poor parts of London transformed into the foulest, most debauched, deadliest frat party the world has ever seen.
But if there’s anything uglier than a multidecade gin party, it’s what happens when someone tries to shut it down. Parliament passed the Gin Act of 1736, which imposed heavy taxes on gin, making the spirit unaffordable for the poor. The law was met with riots, violence and a mass uprising. The British government eventually backed off, abolishing the law in 1742. In 1751, the government passed new compromise laws that regulated and licensed the country’s retailers without being economically punitive. The new rules had a side effect of improving the quality of England’s gin, and on the whole, fewer distillers flavored their product with turpentine.
It’s important to note that most modern day gin tastes nothing like the gins of yesteryear. Until the 1800s, the spirit was made primarily in pot stills (large-bellied copper affairs that resemble a genie’s magic lamp). Pot-distilled gins are rough, funky and almost chewy. In 1830, though, Aeneas Coffee perfected the column still, an ultra-efficient distillation system that revolutionized liquor production across the board. Even early column-distilled gin was likely much closer to the clean, crisp, nuanced gins we know today.
How Is Gin Made?
Gin’s dirty secret is that it’s essentially the original flavored vodka. There are three primary ways to make the stuff: pot distilling, column distilling and the compound method.
Compound Method: The simplest approach to making gin. All you need to make compound gin is a neutral spirit such as vodka, along with some juniper berries and a selection of other botanicals (such as citrus peels, coriander seeds, saffron, grains of paradise and angelica root). Put your spirit in a jar, add the botanicals, screw the lid on tight and leave it alone for a week or two. Strain out the solids and you have gin. Sure it doesn’t have a fancy label from an artisanal producer, but that doesn’t mean it’s not as good. (The quality of your base spirit greatly affects the final product.)
Pot Distilling: For pot distillation, neutral grain spirit is made in a pot still. Then the liquor is distilled a second time along with juniper and other aromatics. Pot distilling typically produces a heavier, fuller-bodied gin that’s closer to the original Dutch style.
Column Distilling: Unless you are a very adventurous gin explorer, it’s likely you’ve only ever had column-distilled gin. The method produces smooth, crisp, refined gins with delicate aromatic qualities. In column distilling the aromatics are often suspended above the liquid, so technically it’s the vapors that are being infused, rather than the liquid itself. Once distilled and infused, the gin is typically diluted down. It comes off the column still between 145 and 150 proof, so distillers lower it to 80-100, before it’s bottled.
Aging: Though the Dutch likely aged their genever in barrels to some degree, most modern gins were sold unaged, until recently. Over the past decade, though, several producers have experimented with aging gin in wooden barrels for various amounts of time. The result is a brown spirit with unique characteristics, not unlike an aged tequila or rum.
Where Is Gin Made?
Netherlands and Belgium: The birthplace of gin is mainly known for gin’s maltier predecessor, genever. Genever starts out, as scotch does, as a multiday, fermented mash. The mash is distilled to create a neutral spirit, then distilled again with botanicals like juniper. Finally, it is blended with an unflavored spirit and occasionally aged.
England: If you’ve only ever had one gin in your life, there’s a strong chance it came from England. The country’s London Dry gins largely defined the modern gin style. Notable English distilleries include Bombay, Plymouth, Beefeater, Broker’s and Boodles.
Scotland: Scotland might be known for its whiskies, but on the downlow, it’s also a major player in the gin game. As of last year, Scotland was producing 70 percent of all gins made in the U.K., including everything from mainstays like Hendrick’s and Tanqueray to new craft brands such as The Botanist, Makar and Caorunn.
United States: Over the past decades, gin has gone from pariah to celebrity in the U.S., and it has been a major driver of the craft distillery boom. While many distillers focus on traditional London Dry styles (like Junipero and Berkshire Mountain), others are experimenting with native botanicals (like St. George and Death’s Door).
Japan: The Japanese have a reputation for attention to detail, whether they’re distilling whisky or hand-stretching the perfect noodles for a steaming bowl of ramen. The award-winning distillery Nikka was lauded in 2017 for producing the best whisky in the world (Coffey Malt Whisky), and the brand recently started producing one of our favorite new gins. It uses four Japanese ingredients never before seen in gin, including yuzu, kabosu, amanatsu and sanshō pepper. With gins from both Suntory and Kyoto’s Ki No Bi distillery on the way, expect to see a whole new class of gins made with these bright, exotic botanicals.
London Dry: Heavy on the juniper and citrus, London Dry gins are the closest thing gin has to an industry standard. Despite the name, London Dry gins don’t have to be made in London. To qualify, gins need to be distilled to at least 70% ABV (they are typically diluted for bottling to 40%-50% ABV). No artificial flavors or colors are allowed, and distillers may add no more than 0.1 grams of sugar per liter after distillation. Examples: Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire and Broker’s.
New American/New Western: There’s no definitive requirements or any legal standards associated with New American gin, but the term commonly refers to modern gins that use much less juniper than the London Dry style. Examples: Bluecoat, Greenhook Ginsmiths and Aviation.
Plymouth: Softer and less dry than London Dry gin, Plymouth gin is made with a lot of root-based botanicals and by law can only be made in Plymouth, England. As of this writing, there is only one producer of Plymouth gin in the world: Plymouth Gin Distillery.
Old Tom: This popular 18th-century style is currently experiencing a renaissance in the U.S. Old Tom is sweeter than London Dry gin but dryer than genever. While there are no hard and fast rules about how Old Tom should be produced, it’s typically made in a pot still with a sweeter palate of botanicals and occasionally a malty base spirit with added sugar. It can be clear, but is sometimes aged, which imparts a warm copper color. Examples: Random, Hayman’s and Anchor.
Genever: The proto-gin, genever is a malty, whiskey-esque take on the spirit. Juniper is present, but more subdued than in modern gin styles. Legally, genever can only be made in the Netherlands, Belgium, two northern French regions and two German states. Examples: Bols, Boomsma and Diep9.
Navy Strength: While most gins clock in at 40-45% ABV, Navy Strength gin takes the strength up to 57% ABV. This high-proof gin was the spirit of choice for the British Royal Navy in the early 19th century. If a sailor spilled it on the ship’s gunpowder (as he might after a few swigs), the extra-high proof ensured the gunpowder could still be fired. Examples: Perry Tot, Plymouth Navy Strength and Leopold’s.
Barrel-Aged: In the 18th century, distillers often transported gin in barrels, accidentally barrel-aging it in the process. Modern producers have taken up the practice anew, aging gin in oak barrels for color and complexity. Examples: Few, Citadelle and Corsair.
Sloe Gin: Unlike classic gin in almost every way, especially in its deep purple tint, sloe gin is flavored with sloe berries and added sugar, resulting in a spirit that’s closer to a fruit liqueur than the rest of the gin category. Examples: Plymouth Sloe, Spirit Works and Hayman’s.
Can I Drink Gin Straight?
While you almost never hear someone order gin straight up or on the rocks, a bone-dry Martini is just garnished, chilled gin. And as craft gins continue to find success, a growing number of gin enthusiasts—none dare call them ginthusiasts—are making the argument that gin can and should be drunk neat. As vermouth-phobic stockbrokers have long known, gin can be delicious simply stirred with ice and strained into a glass or served over ice. It can be especially good with a twist of lemon or lime wedge, depending on the dominant botanicals of the individual gin.
If you’d really like to test your palate with a nice pour of straight gin, we suggest looking for bottlings infused with the botanicals that you already enjoy on a regular basis. If you’re into citrusy, lemony notes, then Malfy Con Limone, Portobello Road and Four Pillars Rare Dry Gin are all good bets. If you like a little spice and are into an exotic edge, grab a bottle of Junipero or Berkshire Mountain Greylock Gin. If you’re on a budget, New Amsterdam Gin only costs about $13 a bottle and tastes lovely with a swath of lemon or orange peel to accompany it. All of the above should be served over a big cube of ice, as sipping any gin neat will be pretty hardcore for the taste buds.
Notable Gin Cocktails
Martini: This clean, mean and pristine classic cocktail is the ultimate way to experience gin’s host of nuanced flavors.
Gin & Tonic: Spritzy and refreshing, this was the daily tipple of soldiers working for the British East India Company in the early 19th century. We say don’t reserve it for summer, though. The gin and tonic is fashionable year-round.
Tom Collins: If the brutality of tonic water is too much, try a Tom Collins, a simple mix of gin, lemon juice, sugar and soda water.
Gin Fizz: Think of the Gin Fizz as a next-level Tom Collins. Along with sugar, soda water, gin and lemon juice, it contains a shaken egg white that produces a creamy, foamy head.
Bee’s Knees: Though the honey and lemon juice in this Prohibition-era cocktail were originally meant to cover the flawed flavors of low-grade gin, they can also work wonders with a quality spirit.
Aviation: Crème de violette, a violet-flavored liqueur, gives this classic cocktail a beautiful, hazy purple hue.
Gimlet: Even the gin averse can appreciate this sweet, citrusy classic. The cocktail first appeared in the Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930, but British sailors were drinking a version of the Gimlet to fend off scurvy well before the recipe was printed. Essentially a Daiquiri with gin instead of rum, it’s easy to make and refreshing to drink anytime of year.
Pegu Club: No one knows exactly when this gin Sour was invented, but we do know where it was first served. During the days of the British Empire, Englishmen would open up exclusive clubs in all of their territories as a place to socialize over a stiff drink. One such club in Rangoon was dubbed Pegu Club, and this mix of gin, Cointreau, lime juice and bitters was first served within its walls. There’s even a bar in NYC named after the delightful drink.
Last Word: Perhaps the most underrated gin cocktail (and one of the most overlooked cocktails in general), the Last Word is easy to make but looks impressive as hell. It was first created at the Detroit Athletic Club during Prohibition, but it fell out of fashion somewhere in the mid-twentieth century—until bartender Murray Stenson resurrected the cocktail at Seattle’s Zig Zag Cafe in 2004. Equal parts gin, Green Chartreuse, maraschino liqueur and lime juice, it’s one of the most beautiful and delicious classics you can drink.
Gin in Culture
- F. Scott Fitzgerald prefered to drink gin over other spirits because he believed it could not be detected on his breath. (It’s amazing what you’ll believe when you’ve had enough gin.) Fitzgerald’s favorite way to drink it was in a Gin Rickey, a drink that appears in his novel, The Great Gatsby.
- In Snoop Dogg’s second single, “Gin and Juice,” the west coast rapper extols the pleasures of “rolling down the street / smokin’ indo / sippin’ on gin and juice / laid back.” Snoop doesn’t specify his preferred juice in the lyrics, but orange juice or grapefruit juice both work delightfully.
- “Gin blossoms” is a slang term for rosacea, a skin condition that causes a flushed, red skin rash. Though rosacea is not actually linked to gin consumption, it has a similar appearance and is often mistaken for generic alcohol flush. The Gin Blossoms (an Arizona ‘90s rock band known for the songs “Hey Jealousy” and “Til I Hear It from You”) got their name from a photograph of actor (and enthusiastic gin fan) W.C. Fields with the caption, “W.C. Fields with gin blossoms.”
- Julia Child lived to be 91 and attributed her longevity to a diet filled with red meat and gin (in moderation). Her preferred gin cocktail was a Reverse Martini (one part gin, five parts dry vermouth).
Quotes About Gin
- “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire." - Winston Churchill
- "I exercise strong self control. I never drink anything stronger than gin before breakfast." - W.C. Fields
- "A perfect martini should be made by filling a glass with gin then waving it in the general direction of Italy." – Noël Coward