Everything you need to know about gin and how it's made

Move over whisky, it looks like there’s a new player in town. Gin is quickly becoming one of the most popular drinks available not just here in Scotland but also in the rest of the UK.

Perhaps one of the world’s best loved spirits, gin is a drink with a complexity and history that spans centuries and can be traced back to the earliest forms of distillation.

Even frequent drinkers of the ubiquitous gin and tonic might not know a lot about the history of this wonderful drink. Here we take a look at the history of gin, its production, styles and some unusual facts about this most interesting of spirits.

Gin facts

  • Gin was originally used in British colonies to mask the flavour of quinine which was bitter and hard to drink. The anti-malarial compound was dissolved in carbonated water to create tonic water. The popularity of the drink then spread back to the UK though modern tonic water only contains trace amounts of quinine.

 

  • Nearly all juniper used to make gin is picked wild and it is rarely taken from cultivated sources.

 

  • The country with the world’s highest per-capita gin consumption is the Philippines with an estimated 25 million cases consumed annually.

 

  • A juniper berry is not a berry at all but a type of seed cone with unusually fleshy and merged scales which give it a berry-like appearance.

 

  • London Dry Gin doesn’t need to be made in London  instead it is a broad style guideline rather than a legal indicator.

 

  • ‘Bathtub gin’ was a style of cheaply produced gin, made popular during the Prohibition era in the United States. However it had dangerous, sometimes lethal, side effects when drunk due to the fact it sometimes contained methanol. Those who were exposed were often blinded (the presence of methanol in poorly produced alcohol gave rise to the expression ‘blind drunk’) or even poisoned.

 

  • Turpentine was a common addition to gin around of the turn of the century with the substance being added to generate resinous woody notes. As late as 1913, Webster’s Dictionary states without further comment, “‘common gin’ is usually flavoured with turpentine”.

 

  • If you are making a Martini, then you have to use gin, should you use vodka then you’re creating a completely different cocktail known as a Kangaroo.

History

Gin in its earliest form, known as Jenever, is credited to have been the creation of Dutch physician Franciscus Sylvius. Though, there are many earlier mentions of Jenever including one reference by British soldiers, who when supporting Dutch troops during the eight years war in 1585, were given Jenever to drink to ‘calm their nerves’ before battle – indeed this is thought to be where the phrase ‘Dutch courage’ originated from – and it was also said to be used for medicinal purposes in many Dutch towns and villages. Indeed following its widespread introduction by Sylvius, jenever was sold in pharmacies and used to treat kidney and stomach ailments as well as gout and gall stones.

It didn’t become hugely popular in Britain until William of Orange took the thrones of both England and Scotland with his his wife Mary. Following this the Dutch spirit quickly became flavour of the month with the royal court.

It’s popularity soon spread throughout England, eventually leading to what is now known as the ‘gin craze’, when the government allowed unlicensed gin distillation and placed heavy duty on importing spirit. During this time the consumption of gin led to many negative social and economic factors, prompting new names for the drink including ‘mother’s ruin’.

To curb the rampant production of poor quality gin that followed, the government eventually introduced not one, but two gin acts that saw the production of gin brought under control and outlawed any unlicensed distillation. It was during this period that the properly produced gin that we know and love today began to take shape.

Gin production

Gin is produced in a variety of ways, however over the centuries since its original production three main forms of gin production have risen in popularity:

  • Compound gin
  • Column distilled gin
  • Pot distilled gin

Pot distilled gin: This type of gin is some of the earliest forms known and is traditionally produced by pot distilling a fermented grain mash from barley and other grains, then re-distilling with flavouring botanicals to extract the aromatic compounds.

This type of gin is often matured in wooden casks or tanks and has a similar malty flavour to whisky. The oude (old) style of Geneva or Holland gin represents the most prominent style of this type of gin.

Column distilled gin: The introduction of the Coffey patented still by Irishman, Aeneas Coffey in 1830 revolutionised distilling techniques and was embraced around the world. This new form of column still allowed for the creation of a spirit with a higher proof along with a lighter and smoother character.

This style of gin is produced by first distilling high proof neutral spirits from a fermented mash or wash using a refluxing still such as a column still. The spirit is then re-distilled in a potstill alongside Juniper berries and other botanicals.

Most often, the botanicals are suspended in a “gin basket” positioned within the head of the still, which allows the hot alcoholic vapours to extract flavouring components from the botanical charge.

This method yields a gin lighter in flavour than the older pot still method, and results in either a distilled gin or London dry gin, depending largely upon how the spirit is finished.

Compound gin:  is made by simply flavouring neutral spirits with essences and/or other ‘natural flavourings’ without re-distillation, and is not as highly regarded as distilled gin, though recent improvements have seen excellent gins being produced this way.

Popular gin cocktails:

  • Martini
  • The Negroni
  • Satan’s Whiskers
  • Pink Gin
  • Gin Rickey

Styles of gin:

London Gin:  London Dry Gins must be distilled to at least 70% abv and must not contain any artificial ingredients. They cannot have any flavours or colourings added after the distillation process and can only include a minute amount of added sugar at the end if required.

Sloe Gin: traditionally described as gin infused with sloes (Blackthorn fruit) Sloe gin is made with the hand-picked berries of the Blackthorn tree. While some superstitions say the berries must be pricked with a silver needle before use, this isn’t necessary – simply freezing the berries in order to break their thick skins before adding to the gin should suffice.

Dutch or Belgian gin: also known as Jenever or Genever, evolved from malt wine spirits, and is a distinctly different drink from the more modern styles of gin.

Old Tom Gin:  The 19th century gave rise to a style of gin referred to as Old Tom Gin, which is a softer, sweeter style of gin, often containing sugar. Old Tom gin faded in popularity by the early 20th century.

About The Author

Sean Murphy

Driven by a passion for all things whisky-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over six years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink.

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