Gin is a spirit that’s easily approached, yet not always readily understood. With just one basic requirement – a predominance of juniper berries – it’s ripe for experimentation, leading to plenty of tasty variations.
Picking one is the enjoyable bit – but to inform your choice, it helps to learn some more about a spirit that’s equal parts ubiquitous yet enigmatic.
In the most basic of terms, gin is simply a distilled spirit with a focus on juniper berries. However, juniper on its own is not very palatable, so other botanicals are added to make a gin that appeals.
Aromatic architecture: how gin is 'built'
Gin production starts with a clear spirit, usually 96% ABV (alcohol by volume), which can be made from pretty much anything containing sugar such as grains, sugar beets, corn, potatoes or sugar cane. The aromatics are then introduced to the neutral spirit in one of several ways:
- distilled together with the neutral spirit
- infused with the neutral spirit, and then distilled together
- a concentrate of the aromatics is made first, then distilled with neutral spirit
- each aromatic is distilled separately, and then combined
- maceration, which steeps the aromatics in the neutral spirit
The result of the second distilling is then combined with water to attain the desired level of alcohol.
Most gins are typically around 42% ABV. Both the mouthfeel and the concentration of flavours suffer below 40% ABV, but it makes the gin more affordable as taxes are levied by percentage of alcohol.
The seven types of gin
London Dry Gin (also called Traditional gin) is a method of production, not a specific taste. It puts juniper in the centre of the spirit flavours. It does not have to come from London. A good example is Gordon’s Dry Gin, the number one seller around the world for 50-plus years made in Fife, Scotland.
Navy Strength Gin must be at least 57% ABV. The higher alcohol allows for a higher percentage of essential oils, and therefore more flavour. Some contain such a high percentage of essential oils that they will go cloudy when you add a mixer; this is not a fault.
Aged Gin: traditionally gin was transported in wooden barrels, so was affected by wood. This is now being revived and many gins are aged in wood (both new and used) for varying amounts of time, taking on colour and a distinctive flavour.
Old Tom Gin: history tells us that pure spirits a few hundred years back were not very pure, and a little sugar was added to make them palatable. This is another gin that went out of fashion for a very long time, but is being revived now.
Infused or flavoured gin is distilled gin further macerated with botanicals. A good example is Hendricks, infused with rose petals and cucumber, which therefore cannot be called a London Dry Gin. The most famous of all in this category is Sloe Gin, where sugar and sloe berries are added after the distillation. Sloe gin takes on colour from the berries and has a distinctly sweet/astringent note.
Genever, the forerunner of gin, hails from Holland and is made from malted grains, much like a whisky, and then distilled again with the aromatics. It’s bold, forward and strong.
Plymouth Gin originally had to come from Plymouth, England, though this regulation no longer applies. There’s now only one distillery and Pernod Ricard owns the brand name, making it impossible for any other distiller to replicate it.
Aromatics equal flavour
Aromatics can include spices, herbs, bark, roots, vegetable or fruit – the combinations are endless. A typical gin will often include cardamom, coriander, cinnamon, angelica root, pepper, allspice and citrus.
The incredible explosion of craft gin distilleries all over the world has led to the trend of including native aromatics from the region where it is produced. In Australia it is not uncommon to find native pepper berries, wattle seeds, finger lime, Davidson plum, etc in craft spirits.
The importance of a perfect mixer
Typical mixers for gin include various kinds of tonic, grapefruit, yuzu and soda, with the quality of the mixer adding or subtracting half of the final flavours.
The most popular gin-based mixed drink, the gin and tonic, was originally conceived to get people in malaria-affected regions of the world to consume quinine. The best tonics are made with real extract of cinchona bark, which is a slow and expensive process. Since tonic water comprises the vast majority of any G&T, it’s worth paying extra for quality.
How do you pick the perfect gin?
Most gins have at least 12 botanicals, or more. The combinations between method of distilling, size of the final cut, quantities of each botanical and ratio of botanicals to alcohol, means there are hundreds of thousands of options. Go beyond the big brands and try a few boutique craft gins.
Talk to your barkeeper or independent bottleshop owner, and follow their advice.
You don’t have to settle on one favourite, or follow the herd – find your own go-to gin. Sweet or dry? Pure, on ice, in a mixed drink? Aged, or fresh and young? Classic, or a craft gin packed with the flavours of the region where you are? The possibilities are endless.
If it helps you begin your gin journey, here are my five favourites.
In a gin and tonic, I love Berry Bros. and Rudd’s No.3 London Dry Gin – three fruits (juniper, sweet orange and grapefruit) and three spices (angelica, coriander and cardamom)
In a Martini: Gippsland’s Natural Distilling Co. – their Hemp Gin is absolutely awesome
In a Gin Fizz: as a long drink, this calls for a strong gin. Archie Rose’s Distiller’s Strength Gin (52.4% ABV) works perfectly – I love the unusual botanicals such as fresh pears, rose petals, elderflower and distilled honey direct from their local beehives.
Straight up: in Australia, I love Tasmania's Hartshorn Sheep Whey Gin (yes, it's made from sheep's whey, is packed with sugars ready to be fermented and distilled), served straight up with a salt rim on the glass.
Over ice: Old Tom by Kangaroo Island Spirits
At the end of a meal: Tasmania’s McHenry Old English Sloe Gin. The sloe berries were brought to Tasmania with the very first settlers and are foraged around the distillery.