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What Is Gin: An Expert Guide For Everyone

Gin is found all over the world, but many people, even those who love gin, don’t understand what makes gin such an exceptional, versatile, and internationally renowned spirit.

Here we share our knowledge about some of the most common gin-related questions, including “what is gin made from?” and “how is gin made?” while also delving into different ways to make gin, the varying ways gin is distilled, as well as into gin’s rich history and intriguing future.

 

What is Gin?

Most of us recognize gin by its distinct flavor and aroma, but don’t know what gives the spirit that distinct flavor and aroma. The answer: juniper, a small, berry-like botanical. In fact, a beverage can’t be called gin unless it has juniper in it. 

While there can and often are other ingredients in gin, many of which we describe below, and while juniper’s sometimes barely detectable, the berry is the cornerstone of true gin.

 

Gin vs. Vodka: The Difference Between Gin and Vodka

Before continuing, it’s worth taking a moment to discuss gin vis a vis vodka. The two spirits are often confused for one another, and this makes sense – they’re both clear liquids and are often used to make similar drinks, such as martinis or gimlets. But vodka and gin are very different indeed. 

The most important difference between gin and vodka is ingredients: vodka is made from distilled potatoes, rye or wheat. Gin, on the other hand, is made by distilling malt or grain and infusing it with juniper berries and other botanicals. 

Gin’s a more complex beverage than vodka, both in terms of how it’s made, what it’s made with, and the diversity of flavors it offers. 

 

How Is Gin Made?

There are many ways to make gin, but most begin with a base alcohol that’s distilled. This liquid is then blended with juniper, and other botanicals.

These natural ingredients steep, or macerate, in the alcohol, releasing their flavors before being distilled again, resulting in a fusion that ends with a smooth yet intricate spirit. 

We’ll explore how gin is made in more detail later. First, we’d like to share a few notes on what’s in gin.

 

 

Gin Ingredients:

While we’re discussing botanicals, now’s a good time to answer the question, “What is gin made of?” The answer: the possibilities are endless. Truly. 

While all gins include juniper, various brands and types of gin contain a diverse potpourri of botanicals, herbs, and fruits. Here are some of the most common gin ingredients.

Juniper Berries

We should first note, just for clarity, that juniper berries aren’t really berries. They’re technically fleshy cones, more related to a pine cone than a blueberry. These “berries” are picked and then crushed or chopped before being blended with the base alcohol, releasing their fresh, citrusy essences.

We should also mention that soil, climate, and minerals all impact the juniper’s flavor, which explains why even similarly distilled gins can taste remarkably different – just one of the many reasons gin is such an adaptable tipple.

Coriander

Sometimes referred to as Chinese parsley, Coriander is the second most common gin botanical, after juniper. Sometimes referred to as Chinese parsley, coriander became so essential to gin because of its spiced nut essence that imparts the spirit with more body. 

Angelica Root

Another prominent gin botanical, sweet Angelica Root adds a bit of sweet levity and wholesome earthiness to gins, creating a more approachable flavor profile that’s fit for everyday drinks and special occasions.

Orris Root

Sourced from the iris flower, Orris root adds a clean, spring-like sweetness to gin, somewhat similar to the Angelica root, but it’s far rarer because the roots must first be dried for five years. Therefore, orris root it’s often found in higher-end brands, such as Hendrick’s Midsummer Solstice Gin.

Lemon

Lemon’s signature tartness may make it seem like a one-note ingredient, but lemon’s far more profound than many realize: It brightens the infusion, creating a more delicate and docile spirit by toning down the juniper that puts many people off gin. If you’re new to gin or prefer a breezier experience, seek out gin brands with lemon, such as Malfy’s Gin Con Limone.  

Orange

As with lemon, orange tempers the gin’s pungent juniper, which is why many gin brands, such as Perfume Trees, leverage dried orange peels when distilling their gins.

Cardamom

You may not think that a gingery, autumnal spice like coriander would go well with resinous juniper, but the two botanicals have been used hand-in-hand for centuries. Somehow these two zesty flavors are mellowed when brought together, creating a smoother, sweeter gin. 

Licorice

Licorice is probably as divisive as juniper itself. It’s sweet and bitter, sour and salty, all at once. That said, while not everyone will appreciate a licorice-infused gin, those who do will revel in the ways licorice and juniper interact, somehow becoming more than the sum of their parts. They’re lush, sharp, and resolute without being overpowering. 

Chinese Cinnamon

Ground up cassia bark, sometimes called Chinese cinnamon, provides a warm, piquant undertone that provides gin a full-bodied flavor that’s particularly suited to winter months.  

Black Pepper

Again, a simple ingredient that imbues gin with a deceptively elaborate tinge, black pepper can transform a muted gin into a livelier version of itself. Oftentimes black pepper’s blended with lemongrass, as well, to create a more nuanced flavor profile.

Cucumber

Light, sweet, and undeniably refreshing, a little cucumber goes a long way in taming gin’s juniper. If you’re just starting out with gin, or if you’re looking for an invigorating gin cocktail on a hot day, we suggest either buying a cucumber-infused gin or simply adding a slice or two to your next cocktail. 

 

What Is the History of Gin?

Gin has been around for centuries, but it’s impossible to say with absolute certainty where and when gin began. We do know that Greek physician Pedanius Dioscorides lauded a mixture of juniper and wine to cure a common cold remedy in 70 AD. 

This suggests blending juniper with alcohol was already a well-established tradition by then, though at this point the spirit was more about utility than enjoyment. 

This tradition of blending juniper and wine remained over the centuries: a 1055 AD reference notes that monks Solerno, Italy, drank juniper-infused wine. Whether that was for fitness or fun, however, remains unknown. But a method and usage similar to the Greek was found in the Netherlands circa the 16th century. 

It was then and there that the Dutch mixed juniper and wine to create a medicinal spirit called “Jenever.” Later, during the Eighty Years War, the English sipped what they called “genever” before battle – an apocryphal story that allegedly led to the term “Dutch courage.”

“Genever” became increasingly popular in the United Kingdom in the years after that conflict, though by this point it was sometimes referred to as “Geneva,” and later, “gen” and, finally, “gin.” In fact, the first usage of “gin” dates to the 1714 book The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Publick Benefits, in which “gin” is described as liqueur of juniper berry.  

By then gin had exploded all over England, thanks in large part to the government allowing DIY gin-making. This resulted in a prohibitive movement against the beverage. But gin couldn’t be – and cannot be – held down. It continued to flourish in England, and, in the late-19th century, made its way to the New World, where upper class Americans enjoyed gin in much the same way British people did: with tonic. 

Gin became even more popular in America during Prohibition, when homemade gin flourish in the underground scene, particularly in the jazz movement. (For more on gin and music, please visit our Gin Observer playlist.)

Later, once alcohol was again legal in the U.S., gin became most Americans’ go-to drink until the 1960s, when vodka took over.

Today we’re experiencing a gin renaissance all over the world. The classic spirit’s once again gaining popularity in places such as the United States and the U.K., while earning new fans in emerging markets such as Turkey and India. And all over the world we’re seeing new, innovative brands and production methods – all of which shows that the history of gin is still being written. 

 

What are the Types of Gin?

As you may have gathered, there’s no one type of gin. There are many types of gin – a fact that makes it even harder to answer questions like “How is gin made?”, “What is in gin?”, and of course, “What is the best gin?”  

That latter inquiry is up to you to discover on your own, hopefully with a bit of guidance from what we’ve learned. To start you off, here we explain the difference between the major types of gin, the differences in flavor, process, and ingredients. 

It’s a reliable reference for planning events, dinners, or other occasions, and we highly recommend bookmarking or copying and pasting for easy access.

London Dry Gin

The most common type of gin, London Dry Gin derives its name, unsurprisingly, from its origins in old London. But that doesn’t mean that London Dry Gin is from London. Not anymore, at least. Nor does London Dry Gin denote flavor.

In short, the designation London Dry Gin is about how the gin is made: it has very little sugar – less than .1 gram per liter – which results in a dry taste. It also has no color and must, by law, be predominantly juniper-flavored. That means no overpowering botanicals or other ingredients to mask or suppress the classic gin flavor. It’s for this reason that devoted gin fans often prefer London Dry Gins.  Yet there are some distinctions worth noting. 

First, London Dry Gin does not include much, if any, sugar. Nor are there any artificial flavors or colors. Using a neutral alcohol and more subtle botanicals, London Dry Gin lets the pungent juniper take the lead and provide the dry bite for which gin is known. Common brands include Tanqueray and Gordon’s.

Plymouth gin

Another English gin, Plymouth gin hails specifically from the town of Plymouth – much like American bourbon must be made in the U.S., specifically Kentucky. 

 

 

As for the characteristics of Plymouth gin itself – it’s a bit sweeter than the London Dry and does boast a strong juniper presence, the berry here is softer. Rather than leading the flavor, the juniper wafts amid an earthy, organic undertone that makes Plymouth gin a popular base for gin and tonics. 

Genever

If modern gin had a grandfather, it would be genever. This was the first type of gin made in England, after the English learned about gin from the Dutch. [See the earlier history of gin.] 

Thus, as a prototype of sorts, genever employs bare bones botanicals such as fennel and literally mashes them with austere malted rye, barley, or corn, or sometimes a combination of the three.  

Whichever alcohol the distiller prefers, genever’s fermentation creates a heavier, more malty gin than London Dry. But genever’s also smokier and more luscious than London Dry, making this rough but charming spirit an excellent option for people who also enjoy scotch. 

Old Tom Gin

Old Tom Gin falls somewhere between London Dry and Genever. It’s sweeter than London Dry, thanks to the addition of sugar, but drier than geneve, resulting in an affable yet sturdy gin.

Hugely popular among the wealthy in 18th-century England, Old Tom Gin fell out of fashion in the 19th and 20th centuries but has found new fans among today’s craft gin enthusiasts.

Sloe Gin

Sloe Gin’s unmistakable red hue stands out from other see-through gins, and so does its distinctly floral flavor. Both, of course, are from sloe gin’s namesake sloe, a small, plum-like fruit also known as blackthorn and which is typically added to an already made gin. 

 

First debuting in England in the 17th century, sloe gin enjoyed centuries of popularity among the upper classes before falling out of favor. It’s gained new adherents in recent years, though. In fact, sloe gin is so desirable that a cohort of U.S.-based distillers have appeared, using beach plums or local aronia to create their own sloe gins. 

Milder than many types of gin, Sloe gin traditionally has 15-30% ABV, though the E.U. says something must be at least 25% ABV to be deemed “sloe.”

Barrel-Aged Gin

Barrel-aged gin is just as the name suggests: gin that’s steeped in a wooden barrel – just like genever was made in the olden days. 

 

This process provides barrel-aged gin with the profound smoky quality most often associated with scotches, but with a smoother finish than the genever option – and all with that juniper-rich flavor that’s a beacon for gin lovers. 

We thoroughly endorse using barrel-aged gin to add more depth to your favorite gin cocktail. 

Navy Strength Gin

The name “Navy Strength Gin” is a bit misleading, and the story a bit labyrinthine. 

Basically, “navy strength” is any botanical-forward gin of at least 57% ABV, and the term itself has a dubious connection to the circa 18th century British Royal Navy. 

You see, sailors back then avoided watered down gin by testing it: they would mix gin with gun powder and light it on fire; if the flame was clear, the gin was strong enough to drink – it was, one could say, “navy strength.” 

It’s unlikely sailors actually used this term; rather, “navy strength” was invented as a marketing term in the 1990s to sell higher-ABV beverages – a fact that takes a bit of the romance out of the term, yes, but does nothing to dilute the fact that these gins can leave you soaked in no time. Drink responsibly, sailor.

Contemporary Gin 

Again, the name here is a bit of a telltale, but contemporary gins set themselves apart by elevating innovative flavors above traditional juniper. Some contemporary gins may be more peppery or floral notes; others may rely on citrus or earthen herbs. Whatever the ingredients, contemporary gins are determined to push the spirit into new realms, often with delicious results. Some reliable contemporary gins include rhubarb-infused Malfy Gin Rosa, tart KOVAL Cranberry Gin Liqueur, and the savory yet floral Broken Bones Ljubljana Dragon Gin. 

 

How Is Gin Made?

The question “How do you make gin?” is a bit complicated, because there is no one way to make gin. 

Just as there are many ingredients that go into gin, there are many ways to distill spirit, and each method creates its own flavor profile.

That said, novices and aficionados both would do well to know the difference between gin distillation methods so they can learn what they like and what they’d rather avoid.

Steeping: 

The original method for making gin, steeping remains a common process, particularly for distillers who create unique brands and products. 

To do so, they start by heating ethanol in a pot still: a drum-like container that collects the alcohol and condenses it over time, creating a strong, robust base into which botanicals are infused. 

The mixture is next steeped for another day or two, becoming more and more concentrated before water is added to strike the right balance.

A few examples of steeped gin brands include Fords, Tower Hill, Pinkster, Cold River, and Brockmans. In all, the flavor is more rotund and succulent than many other types of gin.

Vapor Infused Gins:

Vapor infused gins begin much like steeped gins: ethanol is placed in a still. But rather than adding the botanicals directly to the ethanol, they’re placed in a basket above the alcohol. As the liquid warms, it releases vapors, which in turn releases the botanical blends’ essential oils. These oils then infuse the vapor, and, thus, the gin, with their core flavors.

This process is a reliable method for lighter gins with more floral flavors, such as Bombay Sapphire, which was one of the first brands to adopt this innovative process. Other brands include Etsu and Amass Los Angeles Dry Gin.

Vacuum Distillation:

Vacuum distillation is one of the newer ways to make gin and proves that this centuries-old spirit is still evolving. 

While traditionally gin’s distilled at around a boiling 78°C/172.4°F, vacuum distillation uses a relatively cool 40°C/104°F. This leaves more of the botanical essence intact, rather than fully fusing them together, providing a more blatantly multilayered beverage – and proving that you can teach an old spirit new tricks.  If you’d like to try a vacuum distilled gin, we suggest Oxley. 

Aging Gin:

Though not as common as it once was, aging gin creates a deeper, smokier flavor akin to Scotch. That’s because aged gin is stored for months in oak barrels previously used for Scotch or Vermouth, which in turn imbue the gin with these flavors, leading to a fuller, more acerbic gin.  

While there are only a few widely available aged gin brands – Beefeater Burrough’s Reserve and Bluecoat Barrel Finished Gins, for example – these are ideal for those who appreciate a vivid and kaleidoscopic beverage that makes an impression. 

 

How To Make Your Own Gin: A DIY Guide to Gin 

Some people may be wondering, “Can you make your own gin?” The answer is “Yes, kind of.” For example, you could add juniper berries to a bottle of vodka to create a very rudimentary gin. Or you could buy a basic gin and infuse it with your own botanicals. We ourselves do this for special events at home, such as a brunch or documentary viewing party. 

It’s easy to make your own gin with botanicals: 

Add the botanicals you’d like to the bottle – we prefer citrus peels in summer, cinnamon or cardamom in colder months, and experiment with chamomile and lavender in the spring.

Allow botanicals steep in the gin for at least a week. 

Use a strainer when pouring into a carafe or cocktail glass.

These creations may not be as polished as, say, Perfume Trees Gin, but they’ll be all your own, and help you discover new flavors you may not have encountered elsewhere. 

Who knows, perhaps your gin will be the next addition to the gin canon. 

One of the Best “How Gin Is Made” Videos

We have watched dozens of videos explaining how gin is made, but this one, created by Bombay Sapphire, is one of the most comprehensive and engaging around. 

  

Finding the Right Gin for You

The best way to find the “right” gin for you is to try a variety of brands and gin cocktails. We suggest searching through Gin Observer’s interactive brand directory to find one that suits your tastes and expectations. We’re continually updating to cover the ever-expanding world of gin.

As you explore the myriad gin brands, you’ll discover flavor profiles you never knew existed and, if you’re like us, you’ll discover that there’s no one “right” gin, but, rather, gins that are right for various times, moods, and memories.

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