Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date, including 5 questions on bourbon and 5 questions on rye whiskey.
Gin holds an interesting position in the hierarchy of popular spirits, and a reputation that has notably morphed throughout its existence. Today, many consumers think of posh, exotic craft cocktails alongside the thought of “gin,” whereas mid-century Americans may have thought of it exclusively as something that made up G&T’s or martinis (yes, the martini is a gin drink, not a vodka drink). Still earlier, gin was demonized in 18th century London as a destructive social vice that was tearing apart the fabric of society—quite a bit different image than the elegant, “fancy” spirit so many associate it with today.
Somehow, that’s fitting. Gin is a shapeshifter, and a bartender’s friend—always has been. It can have sharp, angular flavors, but it can also be used in a staggering variety of ways. There are sweet gin drinks and bitter ones, fruit bombs and spicy drams. There’s never a shortage of ways to explore new gin flavor profiles either, because practically anything can be used as a botanical in making gin. Juniper is the one constant, but even that element ranges from “in your face” to “barely there” in terms of prominence. It’s a deceptively wide-ranging spirit, and perhaps the most versatile of them all.
Here, then, are five questions one might commonly have on the subject of gin.
The short answer to this question is “yes, but barely.” Most any distilled spirit meet the basic, minimum requirement in the U.S. to be labeled as “gin” as long as the “characteristic flavor from juniper berries” is involved, and the product is bottled at a strength of at least 40% ABV (80 proof). This in in stark contrast to other styles of spirits in the U.S. such as bourbon, which have considerably more specific and involved legal definitions.
In effect, this means that both neutral spirits simply mixed with juniper flavoring and spirits traditionally redistilled with botanicals qualify to bear the term “gin” in the U.S., which is part of why you can find bottom-shelf gin bottles for $5.99 at the corner package store. Note, however, that only gin produced through the redistillation of botanicals (the traditional, and more expensive method) can specifically be labeled as “distilled gin.” This is something you’ll want to keep an eye out for, if you’re shopping the bottom shelf in the gin aisle.
Other terms, such as “London dry gin,” “Hollands gin” and “Old Tom Gin” do indeed have important connotations within the gin world, but they don’t have specific legal definitions of their own in the U.S. We’ll explain each of them in more detail below.
Before the invention of the column still, gin would have been distilled in pot stills like everything else, yielding a heavier and more characterful spirit that would retain more characteristics from the fermentable materials from which it was made, much as whiskey does. Today, however, the vast majority of gin is initially distilled in large column stills to a very high proof, creating a neutral base spirit. This means that practically any source of fermentable sugars can be used: Corn, wheat, rye, beets, grapes, potatoes, barley, sugar cane, you name it. It doesn’t matter what is used, because the product will be distilled to such a high level that it will be almost entirely neutral.
That neutral spirit is then redistilled in a pot still, typically to which a “gin basket” or “botanical basket” has been attached. This is a chamber at the top of the still that is porous and filled with gin botanicals—the array of herbs, spices, citrus peels, etc that flavor the gin. As the hot alcohol vapors pass through the basket, they then extract flavors from the botanicals, yielding a newly flavored distillate. The resulting spirit is typically dry, but can have a wide variety of new flavors as a result of the botanicals used in the process.
That’s how traditional gins are made. Compound gins, on the other hand, are cheaper offerings that are produced by merely mixing neutral spirits with flavor essences or extracts, or steeping botanicals in the spirit rather than redistilled the spirit with those botanicals. This method of gin-making is often characterized negatively, as a cost-saving measure, even though it’s also capable of having good results.
In the end, gin always comes back to juniper. But why is this one flavoring so important? And what do juniper berries really taste like?
Answering that first question involves delving back to the advent of distillation itself, as early as the 13th century. Before this point, juniper berries (not true berries, but the seed cones of juniper trees) had already been used for centuries as flavorings in meat dishes or wine, but with the invention of distillation they also became flavoring elements in some of the first “hard liquor” ever produced, which would have been the product of alchemical trials often intended to be used as medicine. As we wrote previously on this subject:
Many 15th, 16th and 17th century spirits likely did bear some resemblance to gin, given that juniper berries were one of the earliest and most widely used flavorings for neutral grain spirits. As the decades advanced, various regions likewise began to develop their own styles of spirit. The French and Dutch developed brandewijn, meaning “burnt wine” although it’s literally distilled wine, which would eventually be called brandy. The Russians left the juniper out of their neutral grain spirits, and it developed into vodka. The Irish and Scots developed poitín and then whisky. And the Dutch created genever, the juniper-accented spirit that the English would refer to as “Madam Geneva,” and eventually just “gin.” As with modern gins, the products created by the Dutch were infused with a variety of botanicals, from the signature juniper to spices such as clove, coriander, caraway and anise.
And so, by the time that “gin” arrived in the U.K., where it would become famously associated, it was already traditionally a juniper-based spirit. Despite that, there’s always been great leeway in terms of the variety of botanicals used in these traditional gins, and if the juniper provides the “backbone” of the spirit then the other botanicals are like an ensemble cast of supporting players. Commonly used herbs, spices and fruit peels for botanicals include lemon, orange, lime and grapefruit, along with anise, angelica root, orris root, licorice, cassia, cinnamon, saffron, grains of paradise, nutmeg, cubeb, sage, baobab, frankincense, coriander, nutmeg and numerous others.
Which of course leaves one last thing unanswered: What does juniper specifically taste like, really? This is often a source of confusion and misinterpretation to gin drinkers, or those who think they don’t specifically enjoy gin because of the flavor of juniper. It is often described by these drinkers as “piney,” with the aroma and flavor of pine needles, but this is a surface-level description that only partially captures the flavor of juniper. Although it is true that there’s a resinous quality to most types of juniper berries, they can also be quite fruity, with blueberry or violet-like flavors, combined with citrus and distinct earthiness. All together, these flavors make up what we think of as “juniper”—it’s a lot more than just “pine.”
As with most categories of spirits, there are numerous substyles within the overarching label of “gin.” Unlike some of those other spirits, though, most of these subcategories are just loose ideas of a style without specific, concrete definitions. Here are the major gin terms you’ll likely be seeing in the market.
London Dry Gin
Today, this is a very nebulous term that is often used as a marketing tool more than anything. “London dry” gins don’t necessarily even hail from London or the U.K., as many small U.S. distilleries will use the term to describe their products. One thing the term does typically imply is a substantial backbone of juniper flavor and likely a corresponding bitterness, supported by traditional gin botanical flavors. “London dry” has become more of an offhand keyword to mean “traditional” over time, especially in the U.S. market, and you can usually expect gins labeled this way to be classical in their flavors.
Prominent examples include the likes of Beefeater, Tanqueray and Bombay.
Most of the gin bottles you see would qualify as “London dry.”
New Western gin
This is another unofficial label that has more or less been coined by spirits writers rather than the distilleries themselves, to describe the way that modern gins have diverged from the profile of common styles such as London dry. “New Western” gins are defined by their relative lack of juniper prominence—although some juniper will always be included—and correspondingly greater reliance on other botanicals. In layman’s terms, these “other botanicals” almost always seem to include particularly strong citrus profiles, and these gins will often advertise or talk up the prominence of citrus flavors such as orange, lemon, grapefruit and lime. They’re also often considerably sweeter, with some pushing so far in this direction that they blur the lines between “gin” and flavored vodkas. New Western gins have become very popular in the U.S., where many small distilleries produce them as tempting bait for the ever-prominent sweet tooth of the American spirits consumer.
Notable brands that fit the bill in the U.S. include the likes of Aviation Gin and New Amsterdam.
Old Tom gin
“Old Tom” gin is fairly subtle in its departure from the norm, being an older style that had faded away from popular knowledge during the Prohibition era in the U.S., only to be revived in the craft cocktail culture of the present day. There’s not a lot that specifically defines it, aside from the fact that Old Tom gins are generally a bit sweeter and softer in their presentation, especially when compared to the piercing qualities of London dry gin. The botanicals themselves typically pack less of a punch here, being more reserved and gentle, while the base spirit is left with a bit more character and inherent sweetness. Some Old Tom gins are aged in wood, imparting them with additional coloration and flavoring, while others are also sweetened after distillation. They’re still not particularly common, but there are several popular, widely available commercial brands, should you want to try out the style of gin recommended for classic cocktails such as the Martinez.
Two notable Old Tom gin brands are Ransom Old Tom Gin and Hayman’s Old Tom Gin.
Sloe gin originates in England, where the British steeped gin with sloes, the fruit of Prunus spinosa, a relative of plums. Sugar would be added to extract the juices of the sloe via maceration, meaning that sloe gin is accurately classified as a liqueur rather than a base liquor, but it still retains the legal right to call itself “gin” in the U.K., being an exception to the usual rules thanks to historical precedent. Unsurprisingly, the flavor of sloe gin therefore combines typical gin-driven botanicals with more of a juicy, stone fruit flavor that fits the red coloration. They typically have lower proof points thanks to the steeping and extraction of juice—the European Union mandates a minimum of 25% ABV (50 proof). Naturally, this style of quasi-gin is often called for in cocktails and mixed drinks where its red coloration would be welcome.
In the U.S., similar types of gin derivatives may be made with other fruits, including the Aronia berry or beach plum, which are more commonly available than sloe.
We’ve written about the deadly phenomenon of the Gin Craze before in much greater detail, which you can read about here. Suffice to say, the Gin Craze was a period of intense, unsustainable alcohol consumption in 18th Century London, driven by a wide array of factors, which devastated the city between roughly the years 1720-1751. It mirrored the similar, runaway liquor consumption that devastated the U.S. in the early 1800s.
The Gin Craze was essentially a perfect storm of elements that all promoted the vast consumption of poor quality gin in London, coming at a time when the populace largely had never been exposed to inexpensive, widely available liquor. It began with the British government cracking down on the importation of foreign French brandy, coupled with legislative incentives to create a booming, unlicensed distillery industry in the U.K. These unlicensed, unregulated distilleries understandably didn’t then turn their efforts toward making whisky or brandy, spirits that take years to age and bring to market. Instead, they produced something that could be turned around and sold in no time at all—gin.
At the same time, London was swelling into one of the world’s first truly urban, anonymous cities, with residents of the English countryside flocking in from all directions in search of work or fortune. What they found instead was poverty and gin, now the cheapest alcoholic beverage available—cheaper than beer, even. Many of these being people who had never really consumed hard spirits before, and cut off from family, friends and the support structures of their rural communities, one thing quickly led to another, creating hundreds of thousands of gin addicts. Even the gin itself was foul, incredibly potent and often outright poisonous. It’s not hard to see how a major public health crisis occured.
Within a few decades, gin had understandably taken on an infamous reputation in the U.K., and consumption began to slow as industry became increasingly mechanized and dangerous for drunken laborers. Combined with government crackdowns on gin production and sales, it finally put an end to this particularly soused period in British history.
Still, the country’s love affair with gin itself was never truly dimmed. In the centuries to follow, the spirit continued to evolve, regaining its reputation and becoming an enduring cocktail tipple as we know it today.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.