All About Gin - Part 1: The History and Foundation of the Classics
Typing that title, I knew we’d get some raised eyebrows - “really? The most diverse in the world?” I know, I know - I’m not a fan of hyperbole either. But here’s the thing - by its very definition (and history) gin is uniquely situated amongst all major spirits to cover the most wide range of flavors. Which then is a little funny when we think of the common pigeonholing of gin as “that-spirit-that-tastes-like-pine.” Nothing could be further from the sweet, or savory, or spicy, or citrusy, or flowery, or __________ (insert a flavor here) - but always junipery - truth!
We’re taking it upon ourselves to highlight all the fantastic aspects and uses of gin (yes, a good Gin & Tonic is fantastic - but there is also so much more!) Over the next few weeks we’re going to dive deep into all kinds of gins, and all kinds of gin cocktails. Today we begin with this post talking about some classic gin styles: Genever, Old Tom, London Dry and Plymouth. And, over here, Patrick Smith covers the other gin classic: The Martini.
SO, WHAT IS GIN?
So let’s begin where a distiller would - with the juniper. Generally speaking, gin isn’t distilled FROM juniper, but is usually distilled WITH it. In the most common form of gin production, the base of the distillate can be almost anything, though often it is a grain mash. During the second round of distillation juniper is added either directly to the distillate (to be steeped and re-distilled with it) or placed in a compartment in the still so that the re-distillation vapors pass over it and pick up juniper flavors along the way. Finished spirits with juniper flavor added cannot be considered a true distilled gin.
Why juniper? It seems almost any dive into a flavorful ingredient of a spirit will result in a similar answer - medicinal properties. Going back more than a thousand years juniper was thought to hold healing essentials for all kinds of maladies. The word “juniper” itself can be interpreted to be health-related in nature. Stemming from the latin roots for “youth” and “producing”, suggesting the evergreen characteristics of the Juniper Tree, the term can also be interpreted to hint at the once accepted life prolonging traits of the plant.
As knowledge and industry did their thing - medicinal tonics, once the sole expertise of monks and clergy, made their way to herbalists who were more dedicated to melding all kinds of flavors and properties together. As herbalists gave way to more industrious spirit producers more interested in taste and intoxicating qualities, spirits and liqueurs with all kinds of used-to-be-medicinal plants became bar and dinner table staples. The medicinal plant presence in these bottles served a two fold benefit to the producer: it legitimized the product as something that’s healthful and it served as the perfect mask for the rough tasting qualities of the alcohol (more rudimentary pot stills of the time were not yet able to produce highly refined spirits).
The part of the juniper plant that is used for gin flavoring is the berry - and more specifically oil from the seeds of a mature berry. But juniper wasn’t the only botanical present in the gins of yesteryear, nor is it today. All kinds of local and traded botanicals were used to produced an enormous variety of flavors. Using a wide arsenal of botanicals for gin flavoring is again prevalent today (though in much more refined fashion) and has been large source of love and controversy (more on this in Part II).
With all this in mind, do we have a definition for gin? Well - yes, but it’s a bit loose, and thus in defining a gin, we’ve had to become pretty comfortable with nuance . Generally speaking today’s gin is a neutral spirit (distilled from virtually any source), and further distilled with juniper and other botanicals (ranging from coriander, to orange peel, to Angelica root, to etc., - these can be almost anything). This definition is at the heart of why we call gin the most diverse spirit. This freedom of botanicals use allows for some incredibly varied flavors, ones very far removed from the pine taste gin is commonly associated with. No other spirit has such freedom in its production.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Though slightly arbitrary, as juniper flavored spirits produced prior, we accept Genever as the first proto-gin that’s similar enough that we feel comfortable listing it in the gin category. Genever (Jenever) comes from the Old French word for Juniper Tree as this spirit evolved in The Netherlands, Northern France and Belgium. As it was distilled in a pot still to a lower proof, this original genever had more in common with a light, unaged whiskey then it does with the gins of today - but it did have juniper as a required component. Made from a grain mash that was easier to produce then the more effort and resource requiring grapes - genever flourished with the masses.
We often think of gin as the quintessential British spirit, but it was The Thirty Years War against the Dutch that seeded the roots of the not yet born spirit. The British dubbed it “The Dutch Courage”, half-jokingly attributing the superior battlefield prowess of the Dutch forces to the genever they drank.
England pushed the evolution of gin along when William of Orange (a Dutchman) became King of England in 1689. French brandy was the drink of choice in England at the time, but relations with France were souring. In a move to hurt France financially, French brandy importing was made near impossible, and this opened a place in the market for genever to grow.
What is amazing is how fast it spread. In the first half of the 1700s gin was everywhere - according to some sources, it was sold in 1 out 5 houses in London! Such mass consumption came to be known as the Gin Craze and carried with it some disastrous consequences. The additives that were used to make the oft-poorly produced spirit more palatable were often toxic and gin related fatalities soared. 1751 saw introduction of some regulation and standardization to reign in the Gin Craze. A combination of taxation and licensing ended the Gin Craze and a more defined gin drinking culture emerged.
The Gin Palaces: gin drinking establishments for the working class that did not serve food became the centers satisfying gin demand. The now licensed producers filled Gin Palaces with their somewhat more consistent and slightly more refined gin. The most well known of these came to be called Old Tom gin - and you can read all about it the Old Tom section below.
Finally we get to the 1830’s and the advent of the Column Still. This was the game changer for gin. The column still allowed for highly controlled distillation as well as distilling to a much higher proof - quite shortly leading to the more known flavor profiles of 20th century gin. We go into much more detail about this step of gin evolution in the London Dry section.
SO - on to the fun part! Let's explore some classic gin categories:
As noted previously, the road to gin is a long one, and drawing a line of where/when Gin begins isn’t so easy to do. With this in mind, we draw this complicated, but not all together arbitrary line at Genever: the oldest of of gin ancestors still available today. By most measures and most palates, genever is very much a gin - but there are some key differences.
Genever is thought to have began its life in the 1400s, but official records are first found stemming from the 1500s. Bols, the most familiar genever brand worldwide is recorded to have purchased juniper berries for genever production as far back as 1664 - helping strengthen Bols claim to the title of the oldest still operating distillery in the world. At this point in distillation history, column stills were not yet invented, and therefore it was near impossible to produce a highly purified distillate (neutral spirit) as expected for a modern day gin. This distillate was often double, triple or even quadruple times distilled in a pot still to remove impurities, and this yielded a substance that’s fairly close to a light, unaged whiskey - or to use the term of the day: malt-wine.
What does this all mean for genever’s taste? And how similar is the genever of today to that of the 1500’s? Though from the beginning genever was distilled or flavored with juniper berries, the malt-wine was by far the dominant flavor of the spirit. It helps to remember that at this point, the use of the juniper was still largely sought for it’s supposed medicinal properties. In all likelihood, genever of half a millenia ago, tasted like an herbal, lightly sweet, light whiskey with a juniper hint. Due to lack of any sort of standardization, the balance of all those tastes probably varied significantly from producer to producer and from batch to batch.
Today’s commercially available genever borrows quite a bit from it’s own descendant: gin. Typically the pot still produced malt-wine is added to a neutral spirit (one distilled with juniper and other botanicals, it is similar to the kind that would be used for a proper gin). There are two main categories of genever to help differentiate what the imbiber is getting into: Oude and Jonge.
Oude (or Old) signifies a genever that is closer in style to the traditional genevers and thus has a much higher malt-wine content - over 15%. Jonge (or Young), refers to more modern genevers that are less sweet and have much lower malt-wine content, presenting as a style of genever that’s much closer to gin. It’s important to highlight that these terms have nothing to do with the aging of spirit. There are more specific subtypes then these two, and even provisions addressing aging, but the two we covered are the main umbrella families of genever.
Even though modern genevers are mostly comprised of a spirit similar to conventional botanical gin, the malt-wine is a strong presence, and any genever tastes quite different from gin. The body is fuller and the malt-wine notes steer the flavor profile a bit into the whiskey direction making genever a fantastic gateway “gin” for whiskey lovers.
Malty, thick and complex - this spirit from one of, if not THE, oldest distilleries in the world is our favorite bottle to showcase all there is to love about genever. A versatile spirit that is a great sipper on its own, but easily plays the role of a gin or a whiskey in many cocktails - think of a cocktail that sits perfectly in between a Negroni and a Boulevardier. View more about Bols here.
OLD TOM GIN
Moving along, to the next stage of gin-volution we arrive at Old Tom Gins. Genever traveled to England slowly but steadily, but, as we covered above, a mix of socio-political events expedited the-not-yet-gin to the forefront of british zeitgeist in the 1700s. What followed was a flourishing of moonshine-like, not-quite-gin production that was vital but dangerous - resulting in many juniper-spirit offshoots, but also fatalities due to impurities and dangerous additives. Eventual regulation cooled the worst aspect of the “Gin Craze” days and gave birth to the seeds of gin standardization.
Old Tom Gin came about around the same time as the column still was being perfected, but was not yet available to most gin producers - and thus the product was still a bit on the rough side. The 1830s saw gins flavored with all kinds of botanicals (often with citrus and anise) to make the spirit more palatable. A more upscale version of these gins came to be called Old Tom gins with the most clear difference being the addition of sugary syrup to sweeten, and thus mellow the alcohol.
Much like with the spirit itself, nothing about Old Tom is very clear (most of the time). If we try to draw any real generalizations, they will all be followed with parenthesis marking the exceptions. Even the name doesn’t have an agreed upon origin (though the most accepted version credits the name to Thomas Norris who in turn may have named this line of gins after his mentor Thomas Chamberlain of Hodge’s distillery). So let’s, for the purpose of this article, think of Old Tom gins less as a specific spirit, and more as the spirit of a spirit - the bridging of genever to the more modern London Dry gin. It’s probably a little sweeter, it may be a little aged, it’s almost definitely not made in a column still. Within those constraints, it’s free to be whatever it wants.
We think of Old Tom as the first Wild West of gins (the second being the current Contemporary/New Western gins - much more on these in our soon to be published Part II) - and with this in mind, we present three very different Old Toms that cover a wide spectrum of all that these gins can be.
If you’ve had a cocktail with Old Tom gin in it, there is a high chance it was this one. Going against the common assumption, this gin isn’t very sweet. It boasts complex flavors full of juniper, coriander, cumin, honey and vanilla. It is produced in a copper pot still, and aged somewhere between 6 to 12 months in French wine oak barrels. A mixology favorite for it’s perfect fit for cocktails like the Tom Collins or the Martinez. Learn more about Ransom here.
On the flip side of the coin from the Ransom Old Tom, the Hayman’s Old Tom gin is quite sweet (we recommend using fewer other sweet ingredients when using this one in a cocktail), and not at all aged. Hayman’s has a great track record of being especially dedicated to historically accurate recipes, and this one is no exception. Distilled in a copper pot still and mellowed with sugar, this Old Tom gin is very much of the kind you could expect to imbibe if you order an Old Tom in a Gin Palace in the 1800s. Learn more about Hayman's Old Tom here.
This third Old Tom interpretation finds us in the “you-can-have-it-all” territory: a sweet and aged Old Tom, properly made in a pot still, with plenty of cocktail potential. No Mistake Old Tom Gin is a limited release from the Citadelle range. Their interpretation of this historical style involves the use of Caribbean brown sugar, which is caramelised and added to aged Citadelle Reserve – then spends further time in barrels. The sweetness enhances some of Reserve’s already quite floral aromas, adding soft caramel and vanilla notes, and leading to a surprisingly fresh and juicy palate, accompanied by some spice. This makes it ideal for sipping on its own, but there’s clearly mixing potential too. Learn more about Citadelle's No Mistake Old Tom here.
LONDON DRY GIN
Progress has a way of disrupting comfort - and just as the sweeter herbal gins of the previous century reached a stable level of popularity, the column still showed up on the scene, changing the spirits world forever. Patented by Aeneas Coffey (the same one referenced by all these Nikka spirits) in 1832, the column still allowed for much finer control of distillation, as well as distillation to a much higher proof. Suddenly, impurities and unwanted astringent flavors were a thing of the past if the distiller so desired. This changed gin forever: the London Dry Gin was born.
The two column still allowed for continuous distillation with distinct points at which botanicals could be infused into the distillation process. The more pronounced flavors of juniper, citrus and herb finally had a clean center stage from which to shine. This new, elegant and safe spirit couldn’t stay a British secret for long - and witch changing trade regulations - it was soon traveling the world, satisfying the thirst of the newly-minted gin-loving consumer.
The London Dry is by far the most common type of gin around today. It’s important to note that though for a large chunk of its existence London Dry had to be produced in London, today it is recognized as a distinct style that can be produced anywhere. In direct contrast to the wide-ranging characteristics of genever and Old Tom gin, The London Dry style has a very distinct set of traits: crisp, dry and very much juniper driven. Sure, there is plenty of flavor variation even within those constraints - but this variation is much narrower then its ancestors and you always can tell a London Dry apart from most other varieties.
It’s hard to overstate how much London Dry changed the spirits world - it came about just as cocktail recipes were starting to be properly recorded, and it steadily replaced the base spirit in many colloquial cocktails that called for more wild spirits of the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s hard to imagine what kinds of cocktails we would be drinking today without the London Dry - no Negroni, Gimlet, Gin & Tonic or Martini as we know it. [We traced the evolution of The Martini - the cocktail most dedicated to showcasing gin, and Patrick wrote all about it here]
So, with our reverence for The London Dry Gin in mind, here are our picks to showcase this classic style:
Probably one of the most recognizable bottles in the world. An 1860’s recipe that’s played a big role in defining the London Dry style, this gin hasn’t changed much in the 160 years it has been around. In true London Dry fashion, it’s all about the juniper - some notes of citrus, coriander and sweet licorice round out the flavor -- but the juniper is always center stage. This gin is a workhorse - perfect in any classic cocktail. The Gin & Tonic was more or less invented to help the British military consume their quinine dose to fend off malaria - and the patriotic Beefeater bottle with Yeoman of the Guard carries its roots on the label today, just as it did back then - and combined with it's name, remains, proudly British. Learn more about Beefeater here.
Fords Gin, while a fairly new one to the market, seeks to be as accurate to the historical style as possible. Instead of embracing the modern trend of using local botanical, Fords sticks to the imperial method of the 1800s of sourcing botanicals from their traditional sources. A touch more floral then Beefeater, Fords is still very much a juniper rich London Dry. With more detectable citrus zest, spice and lavender, this gin isn’t afraid to get a bit more complex and reward the sipper with more depth. But it was formulated for cocktails, and that’s where it shines: we recommend it in a dry martini or an aviation -- but it’s hard to find a wrong cocktail for this gin. Learn more about Fords here.
Illustrating the fact that a fantastic, proper London Dry need not come from London, Russell Henry shines high and dry (but not that kind of dry…) from California. The pine notes are very present here, but juniper is still king with some sweetness, citrus and cardamom notes supporting the generally light body spirit. Fantastic for the bone-dry lovers. Check out more about Russell Henry here.
Hope you’re ready for a very short section - and it’s not because there isn’t much to say about Plymouth style gin! It’s just that for us, the cocktail mixing obsessed, it hews very close to a London Dry, and the debate on what makes Plymouth gin its own category (other then Place) is a bit too esoteric for our pay grade. But - many recipes DO call for it specifically - so, what is it?
Plymouth, England holds the honor of being one of the earliest places to produce proto-gins in the form of early gin flavored spirits and thus has always had a close connection to gin history. As gin evolved and transitioned to column still distilling, Plymouth gins followed the course. So expecting Plymouth Gin to be quite similar to a London Dry is reasonable. Best we can tell, there more pronounced earthy note from angelical root is just as essential to Plymouth Gin as juniper.
A softer gin then the ones we covered in the London Dry category, this one is great when a more neutral taste is what you’re after. The underpinning notes of juniper, citrus and earthiness make it great for complex flavor cocktails like a Negroni. Produced on and off since the 19th century, Plymouth was often the brand of choice for many a British officer. See more about Plymouth gin here.
This is the end of Part I covering the more classic gin iterations. Follow this link to Part II, in which we cover the more modern gins of today’s gin-surgence. This is where the definition of gin really pushes its boundaries, things get controversial - and super delicious!
NOTE: Gin history and classification is vast and convoluted. I've tried here to distill it to its bare essentials which, like old time gin production, is always an imperfect endeavor. If you have any further questions or comments, feel more then welcome to reach out to me (Mish) at firstname.lastname@example.org