What is gin, exactly?
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade defines gin as “A spirit with a main characteristic flavor derived from juniper berries produced by distillation or mixing of spirits with juniper berries and other aromatics or extracts derived from these materials and bottled at not less than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof).” The vagueness of this legal definition allows distillers significant room for creativity, and they take it.
Jason Somerby, one of the proprietors of New Alchemy Distilling in El Dorado, California, points out that, in addition to many new distillers choosing to use less juniper flavor in their gins, there are also around 50 different juniper varietals available to distillers today, unlike times past. Most traditional gin distillers use an Italian varietal cultivated specifically for use in flavoring gin. Most of the newly emerging varietals are wild foraged. Delving even deeper into the nuances, Jason shares that he and his team have been surprised that “the origin of the berries seems to matter as much as the specific varietals, in terms of flavor.”
Laura and Tara also note that the way in which juniper flavor is extracted from the berries and then used in the gin-making process is equally varied. All of these potential variations in ingredients and process, and the resulting spirits, have led to the establishment of subcategories within the overarching category of gin as a spirit.
New World–style gins use a greater range of botanicals than the traditional Old World–style, juniper-forward gins. London Dry gin, with its classic combination of coriander, citrus peel, angelica and, of course, juniper, falls into the latter category. Most of the “Navy Strength” style gins also fall into the Old World category.
Jason identifies the craft beer movement as a pivotal precedent for small artisan distillers. “In the 1990s, there were a handful of producers manufacturing beer on massive scales. As new craft breweries appeared, they were able to resurrect old and unique beer recipes, as well as experiment with new recipes, where the big guys with mass production infrastructure never could.” The same, he says, is true in distilled spirits and, specifically, gins: “Whole production lines made to continuously produce traditional, heavy juniper-based gin in big industrial stills called ‘continuous stills,’ opt for increased production numbers vs. high-quality and tasteful product.”
He goes on to posit that these mass-production stills are unable to take “true heads, tails and cuts,” key steps of the distilling process. More often than not, the spirit is stripped of all flavor, leaving a completely neutral spirit to be flavored after distillation. Craft distillers, using smaller-scale equipment with more opportunity for distiller “manipulation,” are more able to retain many of the nuances of the botanicals during distillation.
Where was gin first distilled?
Genever is the Dutch name for juniper, and also the malty, Scotch-like spirit with massive amounts of herb and spice undertones that is gin’s ancestor. The spirit originated in Holland and/or Belgium, somewhere around the 1500s, when juniper and sugar were added to a base spirit. As the Dutch East India Company increased its dominance over world trade routes, more and more exotic ingredients were added.
Sailors traveling between ports traded genever, and when British troops joined Dutch soldiers in the Thirty Years War, the spirit earned the nickname Dutch Courage, helping soldiers muster up the “spirit” to fight.
The British government, in an effort to keep the economic benefits derived from all of this “courage” imbibing closer to home, began to subsidize the distillation of a genever-like spirit from grain. The new product, dubbed “gin,” was significantly different than genever, in part because of the lack of quality raw materials, and also because of a lack of technical skill in the distillation process. So, to be precise, what we now know as gin was born in England.
How is gin made?
Gin is produced in varying manners. One way is to first distill a neutral base spirit, technically a vodka, then add botanicals, allowing them to infuse until the desired flavor is obtained. In other methods, various botanicals are actually distilled as part of the base spirit. The resulting spirit may or may not then be infused with additional botanicals, and may or may not have water or sweetener added.
According to Laura and Tara, each botanical reacts differently to the distilling method in which it is used, and even the timing of its addition into the process, lending differing flavors or notes accordingly. Laura reminds me of the artistry involved: “The distillation process is an art form for the makers; a lot of trial and error occurs in determining which methods of distillation can extract the specific essence desired.” Tara adds, “Sometimes they discover something magical by accident, too. It often it happens that way.”