You can mix up expert G&Ts all day or casually drop the word “botanical” into cocktail conversation, but that doesn’t mean you are a gin expert. To really understand the spirit, you have to get familiar with all eight styles in the big, happy, junipery family. Here’s every type of gin you need to know.
What is it: London Dry is the original style of gin that took over the U.K. market way back in the 17th century. It’s called London Dry not because London is particularly dry or even because it must be made in London, but rather because it is a drier style that replaced the sugared swill that grew popular in London during the Gin Craze.
Defining characteristics: London Dry must be made with a neutral base and bottled at at least 40-percent ABV (37.5 percent in the EU). Juniper must be dominant among botanicals.
What it tastes like: A full range of juniper flavors (from peppery to nutty, but often described as piney), with coriander and citrus in supporting roles.
What is it: A style of London Dry gin, produced in the town of Plymouth, England. For years, the gin brand Plymouth claimed protective status over the style, but it has since given up that protection and rejoined the general London Dry category.
Defining characteristics: Plymouth is made under the same requirements of London Dry but has a unique soft taste that distinguishes it.
What it tastes like: Scaling back on the juniper, Plymouth tastes of orange and baking spice, and it’s softer on the palate than other London Dry gins.
What is it: A global category that includes American gins as well as bottlings from around the world. The category does not require that distillers use a neutral base, allowing the flavors to vary more.
Defining characteristics: Contemporary gin is essentially defined by its lack of definitions, opening up all possibilities to distillers as long as they still include juniper and distill to at least 40-percent ABV. Bases like rye and barley are common in addition to grain neutral spirit, and those flavors are reflected in the gins. Botanicals local to each distillery or unusual ingredients are also common.
What it tastes like: Anything and everything. Peppermint, pistachio, kumquat, yuzu, corn, cilantro—it’s all fair game.
What is it: An overproof version of London Dry originally used by the British Royal Navy because it wouldn’t inhibit gunpowder from lighting when damp with gin.
Defining characteristics: Navy Strength gin must be bottled at 114 proof or higher.
What it tastes like: Like high octane London Dry. Distillers must balance the usual flavors at the higher proof, but the taste is essentially the same, albeit hotter.
Old Tom Gin
What is it: A sweetened gin originally dispensed illegally from bars through tubes protruding from exterior walls marked with black cats (aka tom cats). Today, it’s sold in bottles like any other gin.
Defining characteristics: Old Tom gins are sweetened and often barrel aged, but distillers use both of these factors to varying degrees. Gins range greatly in sweetness and barrel influence.
What it tastes like: While Old Toms must include some sort of sweetener, many distillers use the additive to round out the profile of the gin rather than make a sweet spirit like a liqueur. Expect the juniper, citrus and botanical notes of other gins except with a lip-smacking, honeyed mouthfeel.
What is it: Barrel-aged gins are technically part of the contemporary category, but are plentiful enough to warrant consideration on their own.
Defining characteristics: Barrel-aged gins spend some amount of time in a barrel, from a couple months to up to a year (but rarely more than a few months, since the barrel quickly overpowers any other flavors if the gin is rested any longer).
What it tastes like: Although some aged gins are oaky, others show flavors like orange, ginger, caramel, vanilla and pepper.
Genever (or Jenever)
What is it: A Dutch ancestor to modern gin.
Defining characteristics: Juniper-forward like London Dry, but made with hops and a non-neutral spirit as the base, usually malt combined with barley, rye, wheat or corn.
What it tastes like: Juniper and hops, like a hybrid between white whiskey and gin.
What is it: A gin-based liqueur flavored with sloe berries (relatives of plums) common in England.
Defining characteristics: Traditionally made by soaking sloes in gin and sugar (to help extract the flavor), sloe gin must be at least 25-percent ABV by EU regulations, making it an easy dessert sipper and useful cocktail ingredient in drinks like Sloe Gin Fizzes.
What it tastes like: Deep, jammy and tart fruit, like cherries combined with plums on overload. If it’s made with a London Dry base, sloe gin may also have flavors of juniper, citrus, etc.