Information about the history, making and styles of gin abounds. So much so, we consider that gin deserves to be an ‘ology’– a subject of study, or branch of knowledge.
Gin is a clear, strong, neutral spirit that derives its predominant flavour and aroma from the berries of the common juniper, Juniperus communis. That being said, juniper berries aren’t actually berries, but fleshy female seed cones that impart to gin a piney, resinous, slightly bitter and mildly citrus flavour. The feature that binds all gins together, is the juniper berry, beyond that, every distiller of gin uses their own botanical recipe, comprised of various herbs, spices, flowers, and fruits. Commonly used botanicals include coriander, angelica, citrus, cardamom, anise, liquorice, orris and cassia to name but a few. Many gins incorporate botanicals that are native to their country of origin, that’s certainly the case with many Australian gins which take pride in featuring Australian native herbs, berries and spices.
The crafting of gin
Gin starts as a neutral grain spirit of at least 96% alcohol by volume. This spirit is usually made from barley or corn, and is colourless, odorless, and flavourless. If you were to dilute this spirit, it would resemble vodka, but gin parts company from vodka once it’s been infused with juniper. The primary methods to create gin can be broadly summarised as follows:
Pot distillation, also known as steeping, is a process by which the base spirit is distilled in a pot still, then the liquor is distilled a second time along with juniper and other aromatics. Some steep or macerate the botanicals before distillation, which helps to fix the flavours in the liquid and give a higher intensity of flavour. Gins produced via this method are typically heavier and maltier than other styles of gin and are usually aged in wooden casks.
Column distilling or vapour infusion is a new-age method to manufacture Gin in large quantities at a faster rate. The process produces a very concentrated spirit that gets redistilled a second time with the addition of juniper berries and other botanicals in a ‘gin basket’ positioned within the head of the still allowing for flavour extraction as the heat from the vapour rises and the botanical-infused vapour condenses into the spirit. This method yields a gin lighter in flavour than the older pot still method.
Vacuum or cold distillation – the presence of a vacuum lowers the boiling temperature of alcohol, enabling distillation to occur at a lower temperature than in a pot still. This preserves the oils and delicate flavours of distillates, meaning fresher ingredients can be used without being ruined by heat.
Individual botanical distillation – the botanicals are steeped in separate stills with a neutral spirit, either through ‘steep and boil’ or by ‘vapour infusion’ methods, and the resultant alcohols are then mixed and diluted with distilled water to reduce the consequent strength. Proponents claim the method enables greater control of each botanical flavour; traditionalists argue the loss of interactions between the botanicals results in a dis-jointed flavour.
The Compound method is quite possibly the easiest method to make Gin. Also known as ‘bathtub gin’, in reference to the vessel in which batches were illegally made during American Prohibition in the 1920s. Through this process, the botanicals are added and infused into the base spirit without any redistillation and then filtered out before bottling.
Gins can vary drastically in colour and flavour. While most are destined for the cocktail glass, some are best consumed straight or on the rocks. Getting your head around the vast array of Gin styles can be rather overwhelming, so we’ve prepared a brief summary:
London Dry – very dry, light bodied and pungent. London Dry has a balanced bouquet of juniper and citrus with some floral notes acquired from the botanicals that are added during the second or third distillation. This style is great for classic martinis, gin and tonics, and Aviation cocktails.
Plymouth – must be made in Plymouth. A close cousin of the London dry gin, but slightly less dry due to the higher proportion of root ingredients which soften the juniper and bring forth a more earthy, vegetal feel to it. It can be used anywhere a London Dry Gin is used.
Dutch Genever – first distilled in the Middle Ages for medicinal purposes, this is the original style of gin from which the modern-day gin was born. It encompasses a bold, full flavour – heavy on malt, creamy and almost buttery, with a nutty flavour. Can be used creatively in cocktails, or simply sipped straight or chilled.
Old Tom – another close cousin of the London dry, but sweeter and fuller-bodied. Described as an intermediate gin style between London Dry and Genever. Sweet and earthy. Good for Tom Collins, gin Rickeys, and Martinez cocktails.
Navy Strength – with an ABV of at least 57%, this gin style packs a punch. Its flavour profile is crisp and clean with hints of citrusy juniper.
Flavoured/Infused Gins (e.g. Sloe) – as the name suggest, these gins are essentially infused with different flavouring and aromatic agents such as sweet fruits to provide a visual element and enhance the taste.
Contemporary style is a work in progress, so there’s no agreed upon set of rules. However, many Contemporary gins are characterised by the rebellious trait of turning down the juniper in favour of pushing other botanicals to the foreground. Being experimental in approach to flavours often renders them a popular choice for inventing new cocktails.
Australia, a nation with no significant history of producing premium liquor, is now at the cutting edge of spirit production, carrying off national and international awards and exporting its fabulous artisan gins around the world. With such a broad range of Australian gins available, and so many different approaches, it’s difficult to ascribe Australian gin with its own distinctive category. However, a common thread behind many Australian craft gins is the innovative use of native botanicals; and a willingness to push botanical boundaries with the likes of green ants, pig face, lilli pilly, Illawarra plum, emu apples and so many more strange and intriguing plants from the land down under. Australian native fruits, berries, herbs and spices truly do offer some unique flavours and taste sensations. If you’re curious to find out more, check out our periodic table of Australian bush botanicals which provides a guide to the native botanicals used in our products, and describes the wonderful flavours and aromas they impart.
Origins and history of gin
Gin can’t be gin without juniper right? So lets start our story with this humble conifer cone.
Many cultures throughout history have used juniper to treat an assortment of medical complaints, some even extending its use to esoteric applications such as warding off snakes and evil spirits, purifying and fumigating. Juniper berries have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs – as well as provisioning royalty and the wealthy with spices in the afterlife, it is believed that juniper oil was smeared on the bodies as part of the mummification process. The Romans used the berries to treat stomach ailments and the ancient Greeks consumed juniper berries to enhance physical stamina during Olympics events. Following the invention of distillation in the Arab world, Italian monks in the Eleventh Century used these techniques to create alcohol, which they then used to preserve medicinal plants such as juniper. During Medieval times, plague doctors wore distinctive masks with long beaks filled with juniper berries, to keep the wearer from inhaling the foul-smelling air which was thought to spread the disease.
As the art of distillation continued to advance over the Middle Ages, there are references to a spirit flavoured with genever, the Dutch word for juniper. The original genever was far from its modern-day incarnation, being produced by the distillation of malt wine to around 50% ABV. Various botanicals were added to make it more palatable and juniper berries were included due to their flavouring and supposed medicinal effects in treating ailments such gout, gallstones, and stomach complaints. Interestingly, cases of reported illnesses soared as the masses sought out this medicinal liquid, only available in pharmacies. The demand was so high, that hundreds of distilleries emerged in the city of Amsterdam alone, and here we see the first emergence of genever used for pleasure rather than medicine.
English mercenaries who aided the Dutch during the 30-year war, observed that the Dutch soldiers were extremely courageous in battle. This bravery, termed ‘Dutch Courage’ was attributed to the calming effects of the Genever. Not surprisingly, word of this magical spirit made its way across the English Channel. English distillers began to make their own version of genever, shortened to ‘gin’, but it wasn’t until the late 1600’s that it gained popularity, when Dutch-born William of Orange, claimed the English throne. He imposed a heavy duty on all imported spirits such as French brandy, but enabled the freedom to distil and sell spirits, providing they were produced from English grown corn. Gin production and consumption boomed as a result, and by the 1700’s, the ‘Gin Craze’ hit London. The social breakdown that resulted earned gin the nickname ‘mother’s ruin’ whereby mothers were said to be too busy drinking gin to care for their children.
Parliament passed five major legislative acts over the course of 22 years in an attempt to rein in the population’s consumption of gin, but it wasn’t until the enactment of the Gin Act of 1751 that consumption fell, and reputable distillers took up gin-making, producing higher-quality products. In the late 1820s, Gin Palaces, fashionable gin drinking establishments for society’s gentlemen, became the centres satisfying gin demand. The now licensed producers filled Gin Palaces with their somewhat more consistent and refined gin, but it was the invention of the distillation column in the 1830’s that moved the quality of gin into a new league and enabled the emergence of a more sophisticated type of gin known as the London Dry.
As the British Empire expanded, gin had found another use. The threat of mosquito carried malaria was of great concern to the colonists. Quinine was an effective deterrent for mosquitoes, but it tasted particularly bitter on its own. British officers in India took to adding a mixture of water, sugar, lime and gin to the quinine to make it palatable, and thus was born the Gin and Tonic.
Come the 1920’s, prohibition led to the rise of bootlegged and ‘bathtub gin’ in the US, and by the end of Prohibition in the 1930s, gin and cocktails were incredibly popular. Gins popularity increased again in the 1960s when cocktail recipes started to appear in drinks books and gin became an essential drink for home entertainment. However, by the late 1900s, people opted for beer and premade drinks in lieu of extravagant cocktails, and gin was relegated to the realms of a grandmas tipple.
Through all the highs and lows, thankfully, gin has had a ginaissance. This is in part due to the resurgence of cocktails, and gins versality therein, but also the increased availability of interesting, quality, craft gins lead by the botanical revolution.