A Man’s Primer on Gin

Gin is perhaps the most versatile of the distilled spirits. Sure, whisky is delicious. With a world full of smoky single malts and spicy ryes (not to mention bourbons, and the underrated yet very fine selection of Irish whiskies), who would need to stray? But gin has a wonderfully complex flavor profile that is unrivaled by any other spirit.

At its core, gin is a neutral spirit that has been flavored with juniper, and often a variety of herbs, spices, flowers, citrus, and other flavors. Lemon, orange, and lime, as well as coriander, cardamom, and allspice, are all common. Right from the get go, gin is gifted with an almost infinite range of possible flavors and profiles. Enjoy citrus? Rose and cucumber? Oak and malt? Rosemary and thyme? There’s a gin out there to match your taste. And, for the same reasons, there is a perfect gin for every cocktail, liqueur, and mixer.

Many great men through history have enjoyed gin: Winston Churchill, FDR, Ernest Hemingway, etc. Read on to discover what they already knew, and how to become a gin aficionado yourself.

How Gin is Made

The final flavor of gin, unlike most other spirits, relies less on the base spirit or the aging process than it does on the additions made by the distiller during production. Let’s take a stroll through the process of how gin is made:

1. Obtaining the neutral spirit.

Some distilleries will actually just source an already-distilled base spirit from another distillery. Others will use leftover base spirit from other liquors they make in-house. And still others will go through the process of creating their own from scratch. As with other liquors, the basic process consists of:

  • Creating a mash. Grain, water, and yeast are combined and heated, then allowed to ferment to create a low-alcohol “beer.”
  • Distillation. The “beer” is strained, put into a still, and heated. Since alcohol has a lower boiling pt-still or on plates in a column still), and is collected as the pure, neutral spirit.

2. Flavoring with botanicals.

Next, herbs, spices, citrus, flowers, and other flavorings are added to the neutral spirit to steep in a kind of boozy tea. All gin contains juniper berries (that’s what makes it gin, after all!), but the unique recipe of other botanicals is what makes each gin special. The time and technique vary – some distillers just dump everything in and strain it out later, others create mesh teabags, and still others will actually hang the botanicals inside the still to allow just the vapor to pass through. No matter how they accomplish it, what the distillers are doing is allowing the alcohol to strip out the essential oils and retain the flavorings.

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Most commercial gins undergo a final distillation at this stage. They’re run through the still one more time, which allows the spirit to retain the flavor of the botanicals, while getting rid of any color that it has taken on. Gins that skip this step, such as homemade gin, are referred to as “compound gins.”

The History of Gin

Italian monks in the eleventh century produced an elixir of juniper berries steeped in alcohol to combat the Black Death (while not particularly effective, one would think that sipping a martini while dealing with the plague might have at least taken the edge off a little). The Dutch were distilling genever by the mid 1600s, and shared it with their British comrades in the Eighty Years’ War (where it was known as “Dutch Courage”).

As happens with many battle-born food and drink proclivities, the British soldiers brought their taste for the Dutch gin back home with them, where it soon caught on like wildfire. The Dutch-born King of England, William of Orange, relaxed restrictions on home distilling, and increased tariffs on imported booze, leading to a meteoric rise in gin’s popularity. Low prices and widespread availability (fully more than half of the drinking establishments in 1730s London were “gin joints”), coupled with lax oversight, meant that London’s poor were in a perpetual stupor. William Hogarth famously captured the scene in his engraving, “Gin Lane.” The mid-1700s saw quality controls enacted, and the invention of the column still led to the refinement of the spirit into the gin with which we are familiar today.

Fast forward to Prohibition in America, and bootleggers found that the easiest spirit to emulate was gin. By steeping juniper, herbs, and spices in “alcohol” (whether actual moonshine, rubbing alcohol, medical alcohol, or even petroleum products) in a tub, bootleggers made bathtub gin. They often combined bootleg spirits with mixers (juice, soda, sugar) to cover up their horrendous flavor, and so was born the modern cocktail.

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