The clocks go forward on March 29th, which is sure to irritate anyone who values the hour lost in bed, and indeed Flavour Flav. This date is remarkable for other reasons though – in 1848 for example, it was a day Niagara Falls stopped flowing, due to an ice jam apparently. Remarkable, eh? Meanwhile, in 1973, it was the day the last American troops left Vietnam – we can’t be sure of that, we weren’t there, man. All of which is interesting, but has no relevance to this feature on gin, even our efforts of a Ho Chi Gin joke fell short. All we can say is, for us at least, the extra daylight promises those longer, warmer days, when we mix up more gin-based drinks. So we thought we should celebrate by writing about gin. That’s it, warmer weather, this is the only link we’ve got, it turns out World Gin Day is in June.
Regardless, we think it’s time we gave you a guide since we’ve covered many other spirits and gin is enjoying a renaissance. Indeed, there’s been a lot of talk of the botanical beverage for a few years, those with the inside track keen to alert us we’re in the midst of a modern gin craze. New brands brimming with new botanicals are hitting the shelves on an almost monthly basis, a lot of them being produced in the UK, so it’s fine time to be a fan.
According to EU legislation gin is made from 96% highly rectified spirit and must ‘taste predominantly of juniper’. Taste is subjective so the assertiveness of juniper aroma and flavour is a talking point in the purist’s debate. It must also have a minimum of 37.5% abv, and at its most basic, gin can include flavourings.
To be more specific about the styles you’ll see on labels, we have:
Distilled Gin: Importantly this is made by redistilling the rectified spirit with juniper berries and other natural ingredients. Flavourings can be added after this process but again it must taste predominantly of juniper and be 37.5% abv or more.
London or London Dry Gin: Goes a step further in that it is the same as distilled gin but no other flavourings or sweeteners can be thrown in after it’s distilled. This is what designates it London Dry, it can actually be made anywhere though. It takes its name from the era when column distillation ensured the often ropey London gins of the 18th century were replaced by highly rectified, crisp and dry gin.
Old Tom: Popular before highly rectified spirits from the column still arrived in the 19th century, this includes a dose of sugar which was added to cover up the compounds created in rudimentary stills. It’s a style that died out in the face of London dry but is enjoying re-appraisal, albeit with more discerning recipes. Hayman’s is one of the most successful, Jensen’s Old Tom is also an interesting approach, we also recommend the Tanqueray Old Tom limited edition.
Genever: The Dutch juniper spirit that gave rise to gin is protected by geographic indication and is produced in the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Producers use low alcohol grain spirit moutwijn and highly rectified spirit. There are two classifications, jonge, which has a lower percentage of moutwijn, and oude, with higher, ‘mout’ being malt which is like a new make whisky. You’ll also find corn wine. All very different to the UK styles but Bols is a useful place to start and the 6 year old Corenwijn Jenever has won plenty of plaudits.
Botanicals are the core flavouring agent for gin and can be roots, fruits, herbs or spices, they enable producers to differentiate their spirit. The botanicals used, both in number, quality and style depending on where they are sourced from, as well as the technical methods used to impart their flavours all provide opportunity. Here are a few more commonly found in gins:
Juniper: The most crucial botanical in gin. Plant nerds reckon juniper was knocking around 250million years ago so there’s a chance Palaeolithic men (cavemen) were sprinkling it over a bit of roast lamb. Speculative stuff, but we do know Sumerians tickled their tongues and cured tummy trouble with juniper nearly 6000 years ago because they wrote stuff down. Assyrian pharmacies definitely stocked it on shelves with anise and caraway, and Egyptians recorded its curative capabilities in their papyri (paper) along with wicked dance moves. Fast forward to the 16th century and we discover the medicinal investigations into juniper and distillation have collided, with the Dutch distilling their genever to cure indigestion but mostly to help them have a laugh. From linctus to social lubricant, juniper became the star at the bar in the two centuries that followed, and today remains the dominant flavour in our gins. So what the hell is juniper? Well, it’s not a spaceship, nor is it a bathroom accessory and while it is the surname of a woman in a Donavan song, here we refer to the tree or shrub. Gin producers are specifically interested in the berries, which are actually cones and contain organic compounds alpha-pinene, also found in rosemary, and myrcene, also in hops, and cannabis. Don’t do drugs. Distillers are after the essential oils found in these berries and it can take up to three years for the berries to mature before they are hand harvested by fastidious farmers. Usually selected from the mountains slopes of Macedonia and Tuscany, junipers are hardy bushes and grow wild around the world. And it is juniper that imparts the pine aroma and bittersweet flavour profile that has become synonymous with gin. Indeed, such is their significance they are recognised as essential additives under EU law.
Coriander: Second in their importance for gin makers, when dried the essential oils impart earthy thyme, floral notes and crucially a citrus top note in gin.
Liquorice: Earthy notes are here, but crucial for its glycyrrhizin which carries sweet flavours across in distillation.
Orris root: A light violet aroma, this ingredient is mostly used as a fixative.
Angelica root: Brings an earthy quality to gin and marries other botanical ingredients. It’s related to poison hemlock so needs careful sourcing.
Citrus peels: Lemon and orange are both commonly used in flavouring gin, rather than the flesh the distiller looks to extract the more potent oils from the skin. The style of citrus can vary, in Beefeater it’ll be Seville Oranges, in Plymouth sweet orange.
The base of the gin is a neutral spirit, think of it as vodka, the grain can vary although wheat is highly regarded. Generally producers will dilute this 96% highly rectified spirit to 60% with water, they then add the botanicals. There follows the processes of infusing the spirit base with the botanicals and there are a number of ways this can be done. Many will re-distil using pot stills, but even here we see differences – Tanqueray London Dry for example will use a mere four botanicals and master distiller Tom Nichol will add them to a neutral wheat spirit and distil automatically. At Beefeater Desmond Payne uses nine and steeps the botanicals in the neutral spirit for 24 hours before distillation. Bombay and Hendricks use carter head stills with the botanicals suspended in the still in a basket and the alcohol vapours passing through during distillation. While Ian Hart at Sacred uses vacuum distilling. It is these methods and the botanicals used that provide the story of the gin, we’re not here to say one method is better than the other, the benefit of the variety is there are many excellent gins to try.
Many new gins arriving on the market will claim to be craft/artisan/small batch, but no one has as much stake on the claim as Ian Hart at Sacred, with his vacuum distillation kit crawling around the book shelves in his living room and generators in the shed. Even the telly is shunted to a corner, the telly for god’s sake. Is nothing sacred? The gin benefits from this micro managing, each of the botanicals vivid, with Hart’s ability to balance them ensuring this is very useful companion in a martini. You can even have a go yourself with this blending kit http://sacredspiritscompany.com/kits
Sacred Gin, buy direct, £30.33
Conceived by Simon Ford, a global go-to drinks aficionado who, after stints with some of the finest drinks producers, set up his own range of spirits (http://www.the86co.com/). His gin includes nine botanicals, jasmine and grapefruit peels amongst them. The gin’s sexy smooth mouthfeel belies the lingering bitter bounce of citrus and juniper, it really pops on the finish and as a result works splendidly in a martini – recommended ratios of five parts gin to one vermouth.
Fords Gin, The Whiskey Exchange, £29.95
The brainchild of bartending bon vivant Jake Burger of the Portobello Star in London. Burger and his team put together a bill of nine botanicals “the two main differentiators are Cassia Bark and Nutmeg which give the gin its distinctive warm finish and its depth and complexity,” he says. It’s a useful gin to have in your armoury, capable of standing up to an assertive tonic and shining through in a martini, clearly a concept driven by a man who mixes drinks for a living.
Portobello Gin, Waitrose, £25
Once the official gin of the Royal Navy, the officers enjoyed Plymouth gin while the crew sipped on a rum ration. Plymouth is a very distinctive style of gin, unlike any other and a necessary addition to your drinks cabinet. They use no bitter botanicals in this gin and the pot still method gives a rich mouth feel with the sweet citrus complimenting the bitter sweet juniper. Churchill demanded Plymouth in his martinis, and that man drank a lot, so we’d suggest it’s a ringing endorsement
Plymouth Gin, Waitrose, £25
The Scots have made interesting inroads into gin, the whisky distilling knowledge being cleverly transferred. Botanist (https://www.thewhiskyexchange.com/P-13847.aspx) is distilled by Bruichladdich and blends nine easily recognised botanicals with 22 from the Scottish island, it’s a stunning achievement, full of all the bitter sweet pine but with plenty of sweet complexity and floral heather. Carounn also uses local botanicals, five of its 11 coming from local sources including the bog myrtle and Coul Blush apple, it’s fresh but with a spicy kick.
As in, this is what’s on our desk, because, hey you guys, we drink gin instead of tea when we’re at our desk. Cowabunga dudes. But this really is on our desks and it’s all good gear:
Hernö Juniper Cask
As the name would suggest, this has the influence of juniper not only as a botanical, but also through resting the spirit in a juniper cask. Expect big juniper notes. It’s Swedish and frankly, we love most things from Sweden.
£46.65, Master of Malt
Adnams First Rate
Using the wheat, oats and barley from a beer wash at the brewery, Adnams proves it can distil equally efficiently delivering a gin that hits the nostrils with citrus pine but tickles the tongue with a touch of thyme to go with the juniper pine.
£32.33, Master of Malt
Martin Millers Westbourne Strength
This is a big gin, it smacks the mouth down with huge juniper and citrus notes, and for that reason we use it in a Negroni. It’s one gin that can stand up to the other ingredients.
£31.96, Master of Malt
There are an abundance of regional gins emerging around the UK and US right now, each pitching a local tale of artisan production. The Cotswolds effort is diluted using Cotswolds water, which is all well and good, but more importantly, this is a very tasty gin.
£34.95, Master of Malt
Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve
Taking gin in a similar direction as the chaps at Herno, this has been rested in former Lillet casks, which gives it a citrus sweet, herbal and oak complexity that allows you to chill it and serve it neat.
Experienced gin drinkers will be familiar with this brand by now, but its success is simply more reason to recommend it to those who don’t know it. A quality quintessential London dry and increasingly a brand call for all gin drinkers.
Sipsmith, Waitrose, £28
Beefeater London Dry and Tanqueray Export Strength are quality gins available at absurdly affordable prices, so we won’t have a bad word said against them. If you want to branch out though, Beefeater regularly releases limited editions and this year Tanqueray’s master distiller Tom Nichol will release a very special gin we’ve had a sneak preview of. Gordon’s Original London Dry or Yellow Label at 47.3% is a fine juniper-forward expression of the brand, and Original Bombay Dry is a lesser embraced expression we’d highly recommend.