Gin is one of the most diverse categories of spirits, thanks to its long history and global reach. The classic London Dry style is defined by certain rules, while contemporary gins are more freeform. Others like sloe gin and Old Tom are flavored with sweeteners. So before you pick up a bottle at the liquor store, it’s important to know what you’re getting. While tasting bottle after bottle is, of course, the best way to master any spirit, here’s (generally) what each type of gin tastes like.
Juniper defines the gin industry, whether distillers feature it front and center or seek to mellow its influence by balancing it with other tastes. London Dry gins usually take the former route, giving the starring role to juniper. “What’s exciting about London Dry gin is that it actually is juniper forward. It is what gin was created to be,” says Natasha Bahrami, owner of The Gin Room in St. Louis and the self-proclaimed Gin Girl. “A London Dry gin in it’s most fantastic form has a boldness, a body to it that can stand up in a cocktail, in a Gin and Tonic or a beautifully wet Martini. It allows botanicals to be shown, yet it doesn’t allow any one botanical to take over the flavor of the spirit.”
Second to juniper, coriander is the most widely used ingredient in London Dry gin, adding a range of flavors from citrus to spice to sweetness. While citrus peels are also common, Bahrami explains that this zest is secondary as far as essential elements as compared to botanicals that act as fixatives or binders. These include grains of paradise, which is a type of pepper, cubeb pepper, orris root and angelica. Blended together, the result is a foresty, citrusy, spicy and herbal flavor that pairs perfectly with the bittersweet flavors of tonic. Chris Isham, beverage manager at Public House, puts it most poetically: “Imagine immersing yourself in the finest of outdoors area and taking in scents of towering fresh pine and douglas fir, or relaxing for a picnic in the grass catching whiffs of bright rolling mint, wild juniper, and tantalizing roses or lavender.”
Until recently the 18th-century distiller Plymouth, located on the southern tip of England, had protective status for its unique style, but the brand gave up that status in 2014. “Plymouth in all technicalities is a London Dry gin,” Bahrami explains, though it does stand out as “slightly less juniper-forward and a little bit softer bodied. It was really one of the first movers in the contemporary gin category, where juniper was no longer being used as the exciting, dominant profile.”
The brand has built up loyalty among its drinkers through its pleasing, juniper-light flavor. “Plymouth gin tastes like your typical London Dry with an herbal-orange twist,” says Jeff Duckhorn, head distiller of Graton Distillery and maker of D. George Benham’s Sonoma Dry Gin. “It’s best described as a London Dry with orange and herbal spices cranked up, overshadowing a normally juniper-forward profile.”
While Plymouth was one of the first brands to diverge from the London Dry style, creative experimentation has spread all over the globe. Some people refer to a “Western” or “American” style of new gins, but “Contemporary Gin” encompasses new styles made from Germany to America to Japan. Juniper must still technically be the dominant botanical, but other botanicals play a much larger role in the flavor, sometimes totally overshadowing the juniper taste.
In California, for example, where Benham’s Sonoma Dry Gin is made, Duckhorn infuses gin with unique local flavors. “The citrus influence is undoubtedly strong through the use of locally sourced ingredients such as Meyer lemons and Buddha's hand,” he says. “Among the other botanicals included in the gin, peppermint also really shines here and intertwines itself with the citrus, creating a mouthfeel and taste similar to something infused with lemon balm.”
“A London Dry gin has to have a neutral spirit as its base,” says Bahrami. “[Contemporary gin] allows distillers to use rye bases and barley bases and not completely distill out all of the flavor profile from that grain.” Those bases not only add direct flavor but also give some contemporary gins a much richer flavor and texture overall.
Similar to London Dry gin, which is usually bottled between 40 and 50 ABV, Navy Strength gin intensifies the flavor profile of the essential London Dry style by raising the proof to 114. “The higher proof on them really allows the botanicals to shine much more,” Bahrami says, adding that Navy Strength is especially useful for bartenders, allowing them to get full flavors out of the drink without watering it down too much.
Old Tom Gin
“Old Tom Gin is a sweeter style, but it still replicates a similar taste to a juniper-forward London Dry,” Duckhorn explains. Invented during the Gin Craze when awful homemade bathtub gin needed to be sweetened in order to be palatable, Old Tom gin is defined by its time spent aging in barrels and the addition of sweetener, which can range from sugar to honey to anise. “Just because Old Tom gin has sugar added, doesn’t mean it’s sweet, but often it comes out slightly sweeter than London Dry gins, which do not allow any added sweetener,” Bahrami says. Duckhorn especially likes Old Toms made with licorice root, which he says, “reminds me of soft licorice twists, accompanied with that added juniper flavor.”
Barrel Aged Gin
Some modern producers have taken to aging their gins in barrels without sweetening them, creating a drier, woodier expression that may remind you of whiskey. But Bahrami says the best of these aged gins don’t let the oak take over the flavor of the gin. Instead, the barrel, she says, “Is almost like the finishing botanical. It’s meant to be used to accent the botanicals in the gin. It mellows out the gin and allows the botanicals in the gin to shine even more, and it also adds light wood notes.”
Like contemporary gins, genever is made with a non-neutral base, traditionally a malt spirit made in combination with barley, rye, wheat or corn. “That malt profile and grain bill, the same way with whiskey, is going to be important to a genever,” Bahrami says. “Genever is a malty spirit that has juniper as its dominant botanical and often has hops and perhaps other light botanicals, but juniper and hops are the main focus. It almost tastes like a beautiful, malty white whiskey.”
Making treasure from trash, sloe gin utilizes the bitter sloe berries that grow in backyards all over England. Made on a neutral base or a base of London Dry, the spirit may include influences from the juniper and other botanicals, or it may focus on the berry itself. “It’s almost like a slightly fruity, juniper-based gin spirit,” Bahrami says.