Gin is a highly purified distilled spirit predominantly flavoured with juniper (Juniperus communis – heady pine-like aromas with deeper woody & green notes) and other flavouring ingredients.
Gin is made by fermentation of agricultural products (typically grains, grapes, potatoes, or other sources of fermentable sugars) to produce alcohol which is then purified to make a neutral (almost tasteless) spirit at over 96% Vol. via rectification (multiple distillation processes often in a column still or industrial plant process). Rectifying removes most of the character from the fermentation of the agricultural products used, producing a highly purified spirit similar to vodka.
The characteristic flavour of gin is imparted by the next, key step in production; compounding with macerated botanicals often followed by further distillation to flavour or infuse the spirit with juniper & other naturally aromatic ingredients. Gin is typically bottled for consumption as a dry spirit of over 37.5% Vol. that has been principally flavoured by juniper supported by the other botanicals that make up the herb bill.
Gin is also often used as a base spirit to produce flavoured gin-liqueurs & country cordials, typically home-made (sometimes to preserve harvest gluts) by infusing distilled gin with fruits, spices, herbs & sugar to create often brightly coloured bitter-sweet spirit drinks & liqueurs (e.g. Épine (Blackthorn), Beech Leaf Noyau, Damson Gin, Lovage Cordial).
Alongside gin, the popularity of flavoured gin liqueurs has increased significantly in recent years and many similar recipes are also produced commercially.
Sloe gin is the most well-known example of a gin-based liqueur, to the extent that it is the only product of its type that can legally be referred to as ‘gin’ rather than the technically more accurate term, ‘gin liqueur’ if it is bottled at over 25% Vol. with over 100g of sugar present per litre (<100g sugar, but >15% Vol. the term ‘spirit drink’ is used instead).
What is the history of gin?
Gin originated in continental Europe as a medicinal tincture (alcoholic infusions or alembic distillation of herbs) made by monks and alchemists to treat numerous afflictions as early as the 11th century.
Although juniper infusions in wine are probably much older. Juniper was one of many aromatic ingredients cultivated in Roman gardens by Holitors whose role was to tend & harvest herbs. To make medicinal infusions with them in both water & wine.
Close relations to gin, such as Dutch jenever & French genièvre were common in Southern France, Flanders & the Netherlands produced predominantly from fermented grains by multiple pot distillations in the presence of juniper and other botanicals (often described as tasting like a cross between whisky and gin – traditional examples including barrel-aged versions are still produced today).
Eventually gin (corrupted from genever to geneva to gen to gin!) made its way to the British Isles, gin along with French brandy was taxed heavily and as such was smuggled across the channel under the cover of darkness. Much of the Sussex & Kent coastline was home to smugglers or ‘owlers’, often known to, if not openly supported by the local folk & even the authorities and clergy in some cases!
If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet, Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street, Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie. Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by. Five and twenty ponies, Trotting through the dark – Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk. Laces for a lady; letters for a spy, Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by! Extract from The Smuggler's Song (1906) - Rudyard Kipling
Sussex ‘free traders’ were latter day Robin Hoods as they saw it, taking from the wealthy Crown to support their struggling coastal communities. Smuggled geneva was much prized, ‘genuine crowlink gin’ brought ashore by local gangs at Seaford, Crowlink or the Birling Gap commanded much higher value. Local folk were happy to turn a blind eye and let ‘the gentlemen go by’ unseen. This avoided being called in to give evidence by the Revenue as well as seeing them rewarded with a tithe of the smuggled booty.
Gin purportedly found widespread adoption in Britain by virtue of the extreme courage it gave the Dutch in battle during the Anglo-Dutch wars. Facilitated by King William of Orange after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 who legalised unlicensed gin production, which was often flavoured with turpentine, & imposed heavy duties on imported French brandy.
Soon huge amounts of ‘gin’, probably often of questionable quality and safety (some was flavoured with turpentine or distilled with sulphuric acid to give a sweet flavour with analgesic properties from diethyl ether) was flooding across the country. Gin consumption increased dramatically spreading rapidly & ultimately quite catastrophically to even the poorest in society. Despite several subsequent attempts to put the gin genie back in the bottle, laws were changed, or taxes levied only to be met with rioting.
It took many years before the country began to emerge from a debilitating gin craze that gave inspiration to Hogarth’s famous painting of the debauchery & destitution to be found in ‘Gin lane’. In 1751 the Gin Act was successfully passed, and gin production became much more tightly controlled, with licenses costing £50 only the wealthiest distillers were able to afford them & gin prices rose.
At the same time propaganda & marketing promoting beer as a healthier, happier soon-to-be cheaper alternative to gin was taking effect and the craze finally subsided as both supply & demand was reduced.
The height of the Industrial revolution in Britain brought with it many rapid technological advancements. In 1808 the distillation process was significantly improved with the advent of the Coffey still which was able to efficiently produce a highly purified spirit.
This modernisation led to the birth of London Gin, a dry, light & fragrant spirit flavoured with natural botanicals, that became a world-renowned style & method of production still held in high acclaim today. Gin’s sinful image as mother’s ruin was soon forgotten as it rose to prominence once again.
What is pink gin? Plymouth Gin was the drink of choice for British Royal Navy officers while the crew were given rum rations. Around the mid-1800s serendipity struck when Pink Gin was created by mixing gin with angostura bitters, used as a remedy for sea sickness, presumably to make it a little more palatable. Sailors soon got a taste for it and brought it home to the mainland, heralding a new era of mixed drinks soon to be enjoyed by the wealthy & the rising middle-class industrialists.
As cocktail hour moved ever closer to lunchtime & decadent gin palaces sprang up across London and further afield. Often as gilded & gas-lit contrast to the darkness and poverty adjacent. Gin cocktails began to regularly feature in high society events amongst the wealthy.
The ascendency of the British Empire with the naval protection afforded to trade routes exported gin across the world, including to India where it met a life-long companion in the form of tonic water.
The bitter quinine in tonic water extracted from cinchona bark was valued for it’s medicinal & anti-malarial properties. Sugar & gin was added to the tonic water to help the medicine go down, which it most certainly did.
In the intervening years a plethora of gin cocktails were created across the globe in what can only be described as an international golden age for mixology.
In 1920 prohibition took hold across America as the 18th amendment was passed. Demand for gin soared again, and much was smuggled from Canada and across the Atlantic or produced illicitly.
With high demand, organised crime saw an opportunity, supplying many small household operations to make their own ‘bathtub gin’. Greedy gangsters would steal and re-distil industrial alcohol creating ‘rotgut’ which remained contaminated with methanol killing thousands in an unwelcome throwback to the perils of the unlicensed 17th century gin craze. Such constraints & spirits of dubious quality only served to spur on the creativity of bartenders, perhaps necessary to disguise the taste! The Prohibition-era is known for the creation & popularisation of some of the greatest, enduring cocktail recipes.
In the end Federal enforcers didn’t have the resources to ensure prohibition. So many people were drinking & flouting the Volstead Act that it was observed America had ‘prohibition in law, but not in fact’. The regulations had created opportunities for vicious gangsters to make money from violence and fear causing great harm. In 1933 the act was changed to give the decision on prohibition to individual states.
The Great Depression meant tax revenues were perilously low & many states almost immediately voted to end prohibition, celebrated by many with the first legal, real beer in over a decade!
The love affair with gin & cocktails reached a peak in the 1950s, but in Britain, after World War II, both began to slowly decline in popularity. Beer & whisky were on the rise and the survivors had other things on their minds as a new generation of Baby Boomers were born.
Cocktails had a revival in the 70s with the disco drink’s scene. Galliano & other cocktail cabinet staples of the time were mixed often at room temperature into sweet, colourful creamy drinks before boogieing the night away.
By the 90s, gin had fallen in popularity, largely seen as the choice tipple of great aunts. Yet during this time vodka exploded into a vast category of flavoured spirit drinks & sweet alcopops. Perhaps a sign of what was to come with the current flavoured gin boom & continued growth in the ready to drink categories. It wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that gin & gin cocktails made their comeback in earnest.
At the time HMRCs licensing guidance was to regularly refuse any applications to license stills under 1800 L without reasonable grounds for special dispensation. Many assumed such discretion would only be granted for scientific or medical reasons, but when a small commercial distillery challenged their refusal and won the appeal, it opened the doors for other independent distillers to apply and soon the craft gin craze began in earnest.
Why has gin become so popular again?
Gin is a special, storied spirit with a rich, but often dark history. Tales of unchecked popularity & deadly indulgence belie a sophisticated & versatile spirit with widespread appeal.
Due to the huge numbers of combinations of aromatic ingredients that can be used alongside juniper as a flavouring, gin is one of the most diverse categories of spirits.
Is gin a fad? Perhaps like all fashions gin’s popularity will continue to be cyclical, but with better controls in place to tax consumption & ensure safe production the unique qualities of gin can shine through. The high purity of the base spirit means almost all the flavour comes from the botanicals & the herb-bills used. Leaving distiller’s free to create limited only by their imaginations. In turn this provides endless inspiration for bartenders to create cocktails and for consumers to enjoy a huge variety of choice & discover new flavours.
Is gin the healthiest alcohol? Whilst no alcohol is healthy in excess, gin like vodka, is amongst the driest & cleanest of spirits containing much less of the higher alcohols or congeners present in spirits like dark rum, whisky or brandy that can contribute to feeling hungover (yet such congeners do make for interesting maturation chemistry & flavour development in spirits when aged in oak barrels).
Despite often being made from fermented grains or sugars gin & vodka are naturally free from any sugar or gluten (although you should be aware that may not be true of gin or vodka based flavoured liqueurs or spirit drinks), unless added after distillation.
Yet, unlike vodka which is by design almost flavourless, gin’s flavour spectrum is practically endless. Even super-premium vodka when consumed neat is appreciated more in terms of the differences in texture rather than flavour. When drinking gin you needn’t be so constrained, the flavour profiles on offer are so diverse that there is a gin out there for everyone to love, and for the gin connoisseurs, there will always be more unique ingredients, provenance & innovative production processes to explore.
Distillers showcasing unique, often hyper-localised flavours created by using regional or signature flora has recently resulted in another explosion of interest in provenance, innovative small-batch craft gin producers & the gins they produce.
What are the different types of gin?
- Compound Gin – e.g. Bathtub Gin, Tappers Gin –
- Distilled Gin –
- London Gin – e.g. London Dry Gin –
- Regional Gin – e.g. Sussex Dry Gin –
- Sloe Gin –
- Old Tom Gin –
- Navy Strength Gin –
- Flavoured Gin –
- Flavoured Gin Liqueurs –
What is good about a London Dry Gin?
- Minimal added sugar allowed.
- No added colourings or flavours after distillation.
- All natural botanicals used in flavouring.
- Juniper-forward, dry & aromatic. Vast majority of flavour & character imparted from botanicals used in herb-bill.
What are the different methods used to make gin?
Read on for an overview of the various methods used in gin making both traditionally & in modern times, including some of the associated pros & cons involved.
- Pot distillation – Single vapourisation/condensation process. Minimal purification of the distillate. Retains character from fermentation or maceration. Depending on design, high vapour speeds can be achieved, excellent flavour transfer, rate of production, not suitable for producing neutral spirits in isolation.
- Column distillation – Multiple vapourisation/condensation processes. High purification of the distillate. Minimal character from fermentation/maceration. High purity, lighter, delicate spirits. Less character. Often expensive/take up a lot of space. Not always easy to vary degree of rectification. I.e. most often built for specific purpose/spirit.
- Vapour infusion or extraction – Botanicals are placed in the vapour path, rather than submerged in the boiler. If used in conjunction with a basket or similar, can reduce cleaning/maintenance. Less efficient essential oil extraction for some ingredients. Arguably less reproduceable without careful control of flow rate & particle size. Bit of a myth that it is more suitable for ‘delicate’ or temperature sensitive ingredients (in reality the alcoholic vapour is no more delicate and certainly not much cooler than temperatures in the boiler. Some ingredients are just not suited to distillation in the boiler, particularly in direct fired stills where they may catch on the elements). However, the alcohol vapour does tend to be more concentrated which means it contains less water than the boiler composition and may extract oily ingredients more readily or produce a slightly different flavour profile. Thus it can be useful to have some ingredients in the boiler and others in the vapour path. For example, citrus peels are often placed in the vapour path.
- Steam distillation -Water is charged into the still boiler & typically a column is packed with organic material for the steam to extract. The steam carries with it more volatile oils, but due to the energy distribution as well as the vigorous boiling it will ‘smear’ & carry over a greater proportion of heavier oils than many other distillation techniques. Steam distillation is one of the classic methods of making pomace brandy like Grappa from red wine pomace. It is also often used in perfumery & more recently non-alcoholic drink production.
- Compound infusion – Hot or Cold – Botanicals, most often dried, are placed into alcohol to infuse, usually macerated prior to infusion to open the cell structure and allow more rapid & complete extraction of the essential oils present into the ethanol. This can be done at cold, room or elevated temperatures and will affect the rate of extraction of different botanicals as well as the respective particle size. It is one of the most important parts of the distillation process to control for reasons of consistency.
- Concentrate or essence production – We may not like to think of a food product in such a way, but from a chemistry perspective, ethanol is a particularly good solvent for many essential oils & flavour compounds to the extent that highly concentrated solutions can be prepared. Herb bills 10-20x the normal loading can be used to create potent essences that would be quite undrinkable without further dilution. Many mass-produced commercial gins are made from concentrated essences as it is a cost-effective way to produce & store large quantities ready to be diluted with water and neutral grain spirit for bottling as required. Whilst improvements have been made it’s perhaps unsurprising that such methods can yield a relatively hot or harsh gin, probably better consumed mixed than neat.
- Blending single distillates – Producing a library of single botanical distillates has become increasingly popular within the recent craft gin movement for numerous reasons. Firstly it helps new distillers become familiar with the flavour profiles of individual botanicals and they can also be blended together to create well-rounded gin recipes. An experience many distilleries are now offering to visitors. It’s also often touted as a good method for aiding consistency, a key consideration for smaller distilleries, as it provides the opportunity to adjust a blend by simply adding more or less of each individual botanical to taste. However, some purists prefer to distil all or most of the botanicals together. Many believing that this yields a more integrated & superior spirit as a result.
- Blending essences – A combination of both processes mentioned above. Concentrated essences can be dispersed into neutral spirit and water as desired to achieve particular flavour profiles, including the use of some synthetic nature identical flavourings. Modern essences can be very convincing & quite good with the innovative processing now available at flavour houses. However, when used they’re normally quite discernible to most palates and suffer from the same heat & harshness as other concentrate methods.
- Single-step (or single-shot) distillation – Where all the botanicals are distilled together in a single pot distillation to transfer the maximum flavour into the distillate. Arguably this process is the most difficult to achieve consistency from batch to batch, but it also the produces the best spirit particularly for sipping neat. The flavours are well-integrated and often develop & benefit from a short period of rest after blending. Allowing controlled oxidation to occur provides access to other flavour compounds by formation of new terpenes, derivatives & flavonoids.
- Multi-step distillation – Sometimes referred to as multi-shot distillation, can have several meanings. Multiple distillations, sometimes even different methods, e.g. pot distillation & vacuum distillation, can be blended or combined. Often chosen depending on the botanicals used in the recipe. E.g. Juniper & coriander may be placed in the boiler for distillation while cucumber is placed in a rotary evaporator to distil under vacuum due to temperature sensitivity. Or it may refer to a still with a partial column or dephlegmator which creates some reflux and is no longer a single stage distillation like a pot still. This is normally used to create a lighter spirit or when a distillery has specified their still for a product other than gin. Lastly it can also refer to traditional production methods e.g. Cognac method or jenever, whereby multiple, sequential batch pot distillations are used to purify & flavour the spirit. This is where the terms such as triple distilled originate from for vodka for example.
- Vacuum distillation – Distillation under reduced pressure also reduces the boiling point of ethanol & water. Vacuum distillation can be energy intensive compared to traditional methods as a high vacuum pump is used alongside heating, but it is well-suited to ingredients that are sensitive to temperature as well as producing concentrated essences.
- Super critical CO₂ extraction – Has become cheaper thus more accessible in recent years, but remains on the fringes of gin production. Super critical CO₂ reactors use high pressures & very low temperatures to turn CO₂ gas into a supercritical fluid state which acts as a ‘super solvent’ and can selectively extract oils & flavour compounds from botanicals. It’s a niche, but interesting & innovative way to access different flavour profiles. Although arguably largely unnecessary as ethanol is already an excellent solvent for most flavour compounds.
- Freeze-thaw concentration or fractional freezing or (confusingly!) freeze distillation – Likely to be the most ancient method of concentrating alcohol solutions. Repeated freezing & thawing of a ferment allows ice crystals, predominantly containing water, to be separated from the more alcoholic liquor by decanting or filtration. As this cycle is repeated it gradually increases the alcohol content to spirituous levels, but it’s important to know that it can also increase the concentration of congeners & other alcohols, by-products made by the yeast. Consequently, if the fermentation isn’t clean & carefully controlled this method can produce spirits that are unsafe to drink. It was purportedly used by the Mongols across the freezing steppes in Central Asia to produce a form of fiery spirit from airag (a sour fermented drink made from sweet mare’s milk known more commonly as kumis). More modern examples include Applejack & Ice beer.
- Continuous distillation – Often coupled with column distillation and denotes a system whereby the volume of distillate leaving is appropriately matched by the volume of wash or low wines entering. This means such processes are not limited by batch size & can be run continuously 24/7. Reducing cleaning & some maintenance, thus improving efficiency. However, typically the scale to make continuous systems viable is fairly large & likely to be an industrial or large commercial operation.
- Batch distillation – Opposite to continuous distillation above. Batch distillation is more suited to small scale production. It operates as a closed system, only open to air. Production capacity is gated by the size of the boiler which is the term most often used when comparing stills e.g. 50 L vs. 5000 L.
- Direct fired –
- Indirect fired –
- Ultrasonic infusion or extraction –
- Microwave infusion or extraction –
- Cask conditioning – Oak – Stainless Steel – Other –
What are the best mixers for gin?
|Fruit Juices||Fructose, Glucose||Citric, Malic||Polyphenols, Flavonoids|
|Wine||Fructose, Glucose||Malic, Tartaric||Tannins (polyphenols)|
|Soda||Sucrose (if any)||Carbonic|
|Water Kefir||Sucrose||Lactic, Acetic||Congeners|
|Kombucha||Sucrose||Acetic, Gluconic||Congeners, Tea tannins|
As a rule, perfecting a cocktail is not just about how the different flavour combinations work together, but also balancing the bitter/sweet and or the sour/sweet components (fattiness must also be balanced with acidity or it can become too rich, less common in cocktails, but the same process applies to salt & umami flavours). What is balanced for one person, might be too sweet or bitter for another, but it’s easy to adjust during service & shows the importance of dialogue with your customers and tasting during preparation.
Lastly, there can be some complex solution chemistry in play when essential oils, acids & polyphenol-like molecules are present. This can result in many opportunities, to lengthen or access new flavour-profiles or even influence mouthfeel. Optimising a cocktail serve is as much a science as an art. Methodical experimentation is key, but with practice it will become much more intuitive.
Frequently asked questions about gin
Alcohol, water & juniper are the only 3 ingredients you need to make gin. Most commercially made gins also include coriander seeds & citrus peel in their recipes. Some gins contain more than 50 different botanical ingredients, but many will be in small quantities, with most of the herb-bill made up of first juniper & then coriander.
Gin is flavoured with juniper berries which contain several aromatic essential oils. The most abundant is alpha-pinene which is highly volatile and gives gin it’s characteristic pine-like taste. Too much alpha-pinene can be overpowering, particularly in a gin designed to be enjoyed neat like Slake’s Sussex Dry Gin. Slake uses a very modern distillation apparatus to carefully remove some of the alpha-pinene without compromising the spirit yield or losing the juniper character. To make a very smooth, balanced gin that show cases all the botanical ingredients used & also provide a by-product that we use to make cocktail bitters & supply to local food & drink producers.
The most refreshing way to drink gin is with 1-3 parts tonic water over plenty of ice. Garnish with something aromatic as you see fit, citrus peel or a sprig of fresh rosemary are a good starting point.
You can drink gin straight, but not all gins are created equal! It pays to find a well-crafted gin where the recipe has been balanced to enjoy neat. It can take practice to adjust to drinking higher proof spirits, but it opens the doors not only to the many craft gins and myriad of unique flavour combinations they offer, but the golden age of cocktails that produced countless, iconic short cocktails like the Martini or Bee’s Knees. Still ripe for exploration!
Depending how it is made, vodka can be produced at up to 96% Vol., but is typically bottled at 40% Vol. for consumption. Whereas gin is redistilled to around 70% Vol. and can be bottled as low as 37.5% Vol. On average, if you grabbed a bottle off the shelf in a supermarket, vodka would be stronger than gin in terms of alcohol content, but gin can taste stronger because of the flavour of the herbs & aromatic botanicals used during the distillation process.
Whilst no alcohol is ‘healthy’, Gin as a highly purified white spirit has among the least calories per unit of alcohol, but unlike Vodka, Gin has a huge diversity of interesting flavour profiles due to the aromatic botanicals used in the distillation process. Gin’s become popular with conscious consumers, who value their health and the quality, provenance & sustainability of the products they enjoy.
In the 17th & 18th centuries alcohol abuse was rife in British society, particular amongst the poor who used alcohol as a form of escapism from the hellish lives they led. Hogarth painted a particularly haunting depiction of ‘Gin Lane’ which showed a mother intoxicated on gin callously oblivious to the peril of her child. Alcoholism remains part of British society today and the spectre of Gin Lane still looms large.
Alcoholic fermentation is a naturally occurring process where yeast consumes the sugars present in agricultural products e.g. fruit juices to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. A healthy fermentation requires the right temperature & pH range as well as access to sufficient accessible sugars & nutrients for the yeast to thrive. Fermentation can become contaminated by bacteria, although this is not always undesirable, many bacterial co-fermentations exist to utilise otherwise inaccessible products or flavours.
Rectifying or rectification refers to the process of multiple subsequent distillations resulting in increasingly purified spirit or distillate. Typically for ethanol this process is industrial as the number of evaporation & condensation steps required are significant resulting in very tall columns being required to obtain the desired purity. Ethanol has similar properties to water and as such they form an azeotrope at ca. 96% ethanol, which is more stable than pure ethanol, and thus the maximum purity that can be obtained via distillation without using additives or other methods to break the azeotropic limit.