Gin is a white spirit that is flavored predominately with juniper berries and other botanicals (a varied assortment of herbs and spices). The spirit base of Gin is primarily grain (usually wheat or rye), which results in a light-bodied spirit.
Genever is a sub category of Gin, made primarily from “malt wine” (a mixture of malted barley, wheat, corn, and rye), which produces a fuller-bodied spirit similar to raw malt whisky. A small number of genevers in Holland and Belgium are distilled directly from fermented juniper berries, producing a particularly intensely flavored spirit.
The chief flavoring agent in both Gin and Genever is the highly aromatic blue-green berry of the juniper, a low-slung evergreen bush (genus Juniperus) that is commercially grown in northern Italy, Croatia, the United States and Canada. Additional botanicals can include anise, angelica root, cinnamon, orange peel, coriander, and cassia bark. All Gin and Genever makers have their own secret combination of botanicals, the number of which can range from as few as four to as many as 15.
Distillation of Gin
Most Gin is initially distilled in efficient column stills. The resulting spirit is high-proof, light-bodied, and clean with a minimal amount of congeners (flavor compounds) and flavoring agents. Genever is distilled in less-efficient pot stills, which results in a lower-proof, more flavorful spirit.
Low-quality “compound” gins are made by simply mixing the base spirit with juniper and botanical extracts. Mass-market gins are produced by soaking juniper berries and botanicals in the base spirit and then redistilling the mixture.
Top-quality gins and genevers are flavored in a unique manner. After one or more distillations the base spirit is redistilled one last time. During this final distillation the alcohol vapor wafts through a chamber in which the dried juniper berries and botanicals are suspended. The vapor gently extracts aromatic and flavoring oils and compounds from the berries and spices as it travels through the chamber on its way to the condenser. The resulting flavored spirit has a noticeable degree of complexity.
Classifications of Gin
London Dry Gin is the dominant English style of Gin. As a style it lends itself particularly well to mixing. London Dry Gin is the dominant Gin style in the United Kingdom, former British colonies, the United States, and Spain.
Plymouth Gin is relatively full-bodied (when compared to London Dry Gin). It is clear, slightly fruity, and very aromatic. Originally the local Gin style of the English Channel port of Plymouth, modern Plymouth Gin is nowadays made only by one distillery in Plymouth, Coates & Co., which also controls the right to the term Plymouth Gin.
Old Tom Gin is the last remaining example of the original lightly sweetened gins that were so popular in 18th-century England. The name comes from what may be the first example of a beverage vending machine. In the 1700s some pubs in England would have a wooden plaque shaped like a black cat (an “Old Tom”) mounted on the outside wall. Thirsty passersby would deposit a penny in the cat’s mouth and place their lips around a small tube between the cat’s paws. The bartender inside would then pour a shot of Gin through the tube and into the customer’s waiting mouth. Until fairly recently limited quantities of Old Tom-style Gin were still being made by a few British distillers, but they were, at best, curiosity items.
Genever or Hollands is the Dutch style of Gin. Genever is distilled from a malted grain mash similar to that used for whisky. Oude (“old”) Genever is the original style. It is straw-hued, relatively sweet and aromatic. Jonge (“young”) Genever has a drier palate and lighter body. Some genevers are aged for one to three years in oak casks. Genevers tend to be lower proof than English gins (72-80 proof or 36-40% ABV is typical). They are usually served straight up and chilled. The classic accompaniment to a shot of Genever is a dried green herring. Genever is traditionally sold in a cylindrical stoneware crock. Genever-style gins are produced in Holland, Belgium, and Germany.
The United Kingdom produces mostly dry Gin, primarily from column stills. British gins tend to be high proof (90° or 45% ABV) and citrus-accented from the use of dried lemon and Seville orange peels in the mix of botanicals. British gins are usually combined into mixed drinks.
Holland and Belgium produce Genever, mostly from pot stills. Genevers are distilled at lower proof levels than English gins and are generally fuller in body. Many of these gins are aged for one to three years in oak casks. Some Genever producers now market fruit-flavored genevers, the best known being black currant. Dutch and Belgian genevers are usually chilled and served neat.
Germany produces a Genever-style Gin called Dornkaat in the North Sea coast region of Frisia. This spirit is lighter in body and more delicate in flavor than both Dutch Genever and English dry Gin. German Gin is usually served straight up and cold.
Spain produces a substantial amount of Gin, all of it in the London Dry style from column stills. Most of it is sold for mixing with cola.
The United States is the world’s largest Gin market. London Dry Gin accounts for the bulk of domestic Gin production, with most of it being produced in column stills. American Dry gins (often termed “soft” gins) tend to be lower proof (80° or 40% ABV) and less flavorful than their English counterparts (“hard” gins). This rule applies even to brands such as Gordon’s and Gilbey’s, which originated in England. America’s best-selling Gin, Seagram’s Extra Dry, is a rare cask-aged Dry Gin. Three months of aging in charred oak barrels gives the Gin a pale straw color and a smooth palate.
Gin – Origins and History
Gin is a juniper berry-flavored grain spirit . The word is an English shortening of Genever, the Dutch word for juniper. The origins of Gin are rather murky. In the late 1580s a juniper-flavored spirit of some sort was found in Holland by British troops who were fighting against the Spanish in the Dutch War of Independence. They gratefully drank it to give them what they soon came to call “Dutch courage” in battle. The Dutch themselves were encouraged by their government to favor such grain spirits over imported wine and brandy by lack of excise taxes on such local drinks.
A clearer beginning was a few decades later in the 1600s when a Dr. Franciscus de la Boë in the university town of Leiden created a juniper and spice-flavored medicinal spirit that he promoted as a diuretic. Genever soon found favor across the English Channel; first as a medicine (Samuel Pepys wrote in 1660 of curing a case of “colic” with a dose of “strong water made with juniper”) and then as a beverage.
When the Dutch Protestant William of Orange and his English wife Mary became co-rulers of England after the “Glorious Revolution” drove James II from the throne, he moved to discourage the importation of brandy from the Catholic wine-making countries by setting high tariffs. As a replacement he promoted the production of grain spirits (“corn brandy” as it was known at the time) by abolishing taxes and licensing fees for the manufacture of such local products as Gin. History has shown that prohibition never works, but unfettered production of alcohol has its problems too. By the 1720s it was estimated that a quarter of the households in London were used for the production or sale of Gin. Mass drunkenness became a serious problem. Panicky attempts by the government to prohibit Gin production, such as the Gin Act of 1736, resulted in massive illicit distilling and the cynical marketing of “medicinal”. A combination of reimposed government controls, the growth of high-quality commercial Gin distillers, the increasing popularity of imported rum, and a general feeling of public exhaustion gradually brought this mass hysteria under control, although the problems caused by the combination of cheap Gin and extreme poverty extended well into the 19th century. Fagin’s irritable comment to a child in the film Oliver —”Shut up and drink your Gin!”—had a basis in historical fact.
Starting in the 18th century the British Empire began its worldwide growth; and wherever the Union Jack went, English-style gins followed. In British North American colonies such celebrated Americans as Paul Revere and George Washington were notably fond of Gin, and the Quakers were well-known for their habit of drinking Gin toddies after funerals.
The arrival of the Victorian era in England in the mid-19th century ushered in a low-key rehabilitation of Gin’s reputation. The harsh, sweetened “Old Tom” styles of Gin of the early 1700s slowly gave way to a new cleaner style called Dry Gin. This style of Gin became identified with the city of London to the extent that the term “London Dry” Gin became a generic term for the style, regardless of where it was actually produced.
Genteel middle-class ladies sipped their sloe Gin (Gin flavored with sloe berries) while consulting Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (a wildly popular Victorian cross between the Joy of Cooking and Martha Stewart lifestyle books) for Gin-based mixed drink recipes. The British military, particularly the officer corps, became a hotbed of Gin consumption. Hundreds of Gin-based mixed drinks were invented and the mastery of their making was considered part of a young officer’s training. The best known of these cocktails, the Gin and Tonic, was created as a way for Englishmen in tropical colonies to take their daily dose of quinine, a very bitter medicine used to ward off malaria. Modern tonic water still contains quinine, though as a flavoring rather than a medicine.
In Holland the production of Genever was quickly integrated into the vast Dutch trading system. The port of Rotterdam became the center of Genever distilling, as distilleries opened there to take advantage of the abundance of needed spices that were arriving from the Dutch colonies in the East Indies (present-day Indonesia). Many of today’s leading Dutch Genever distillers can trace their origins back to the 16th and 17th centuries. Examples include such firms as Bols (founded 1575) and de Kuyper (1695).
Belgium developed its own juniper-flavored spirit, called Jenever (with a “j”), in a manner similar to that in Holland (which controlled Belgium for a time in the early 19th century). The two German invasions of Belgium in World Wars I and II had a particularly hard effect on Jenever producers, as the occupying Germans stripped the distilleries of their copper stills and piping for use in the production of shell casings. The remaining handful of present-day Belgian Jenever distillers produce Jenever primarily for the local domestic market.
Gin may have originated in Holland and developed into its most popular style in England, but its most enthusiastic modern-day consumers are to be found in Spain, which has the highest per capita consumption in the world. Production of London Dry-style Gin began in the 1930s, but serious consumption did not begin until the mix of Gin and Cola became inexplicably popular in the 1960s.
Gin production in the United States dates back to colonial times, but the great boost to Gin production was the advent of National Prohibition in 1920. Moonshining quickly moved in to fill the gap left by the shutdown of commercial distilleries, but the furtive nature of illicit distilling worked against the production of the then-dominant whiskies, all of which required some aging in oak casks. Bootleggers were not in a position to store and age illegal whisky, and the caramel-colored, prune-juice-dosed grain alcohol substitutes were generally considered to be vile.
Gin, on the other hand, did not require any aging, and was relatively easy to make by mixing raw alcohol with juniper berry extract and other flavorings and spices in a large container such as a bathtub (thus the origin of the term “Bathtub Gin”). These gins were generally of poor quality and taste, a fact that gave rise to the popularity of cocktails in which the mixers served to disguise the taste of the base Gin.
Repeal of Prohibition at the end of 1933 ended the production of bootleg Gin, but Gin remained a part of the American beverage scene. It was the dominant white spirit in the United States until the rise of Vodka in the 1960s. It still remains popular, helped along recently by the revived popularity of the Martini.
The best known of hundreds of Gin-based mixed drinks is the Gin and dry vermouth combination called the Martini. (See: Webster’s Dictionary)
As is usually the case with most popular mixed drinks, the origins of the martini are disputed. One school of thought holds that it evolved from the late-19th-century Martinez cocktail, a rather cloying mixture of Old Tom-style Gin and sweet vermouth. A dissenting sect holds that it was created in the bar of the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York City in the early 20th century. The ratio of Gin to vermouth started out at about 2 to 1, and it has been getting drier ever since. The great British statesman Winston Churchill, who devoted a great deal of thought and time to drinking, was of the opinion that passing the cork of the vermouth bottle over the glass of Gin was sufficient.
The martini has frequently served as a metaphor for some of the great social and political issues of our times. President Jimmy Carter denounced the “three martini lunch” in a thinly-veiled attempt at class warfare during his election campaign. He was not reelected.
Today Gin is the true choice of a traditionalist’s ‘Dry Martini’, and still the ‘Gin & Tonic’ reigns true to this day. Alas… For so few producers, so fine an elixir…