An introduction to gin, the original flavored vodka

Sean Ludford is a new contributor to TaylorEason.com and a veteran in the wine and spirits industry. He has over two decades under his belt, swilling (er… tasting) beer, wine and plenty of spirits. Read his bio or visit his website, BevX.com and be impressed.

Now introducing the next ultra hot category in the spirits world (drum roll, please), gin! Are you tired of hearing that? Have we beverage writers cried wolf far too many times? The truth is that I would love to proclaim gin to be the next great trend. The problem is that gin is just too controversial, too personality driven, and far too misunderstood.

Gin is the perpetual bridesmaid, even failing to be promoted to the maid of honor role, and seemingly eons away from being the star of the show. Ironically, the spirit that is defined by its mélange of botanicals has never been able to snag the bouquet. However, when all things are considered, gin is the ideal spirit for our time. It’s well suited for the cocktail renaissance that we now enjoy, the category’s newcomers are primarily in the premium arena that satisfies the quality spirits trend, and the subject of gin is great fodder for analysis and debate. So who cares if gin is the next “hot” thing? Ricky Martin was once hot and I don’t recall that working out so well.

Sometimes a topic or category is defined by its detractors but gin is undoubtedly measured by its enthusiasts. Gin drinkers are manic and fiercely loyal, which is not to say that they are above experimentation. Gin drinkers are more in love with their chosen style of gin; a preferred brand is simply the purveyor of their chosen style. The other side of the coin is equally true. Gin lovers are more opposed to certain styles than even a committed gin hater. Gin is the polarizing and partisan drink of our time.

Bourbon drinkers may prefer a wheat heavy recipe to a rye centric formula, but they tend not to rail against the other. Scotch whisky lovers may prefer the smoky peaty drams of Islay but they will cheerfully sip a malty, sherry infused Speyside with vigor. Gin forces one to choose sides.

Bartenders Love Gin

Gin’s greatest advocate is the modern bartender. I talk to bartenders all of the time. It’s an occupational hazard as a writer in the drinks business. Besides, I love talking to bartenders. They are typically the most eclectic, interesting, opinionated, and entertaining people on the planet.

People think that they don’t like gin. This is a common refrain among the gin enthusiast mixologist set. “I think that if people approached gin as they approach coffee and tea, they’d realize the complexities and nuances that each brand offers,” explains Dominick Venegas who has manned the bar at several of San Francisco’s hottest drink spots. “People need to be out trying these different styled gins like you would a whisky or tequila. I’m sure it took a few times for people to get into those, but their palate adapted! We need to educate the public!”

Peter Vestinos, Beverage Development Director for the Wirtz Beverage Group, sees it like this, “Unlike vodkas, which all taste the same which is like nothing, gins can vary greatly from producer to producer depending on their set of botanicals. So just because you don’t like one gin doesn’t mean you don’t like them all.”

Gin & Mixology – Going beyond the G&T

Gin is not the neutral palate that vodka so willingly provides but it is a terrific base. Using gin versus vodka in your cocktails is akin to using a flavor stock in your sauce as opposed to water. “You can pretty much replace gin in any cocktail that calls for vodka and end up with a more distinct and ultimately better result. I’ve even put it in a Bloody Mary” explains Charles Joly, Chief Mixologist, The Drawing Room, Chicago.

It’s fascinating to report that every serious bartender with whom I quizzed on gin confessed to tricking patrons with gin cocktails. They all shared stories of the customer who boldly stated a disdain for all things gin and responded by building them a gin cocktail without revealing the secret ingredient. In most cases the customer was stunned to learn that they were enjoying a gin cocktail. Of course, you have to be pretty talented and confident to pull this off but it does demonstrate the unfounded aversion to gin and the power of providing your clients with a great experience. That newly minted gin drinker has undoubtedly told that story a dozen times and can’t wait to return.

Creating Gin

Gin producers have there own set of rules and practices and every one of them is convinced that their method is superior. It’s the great chili cook-off of the spirits world.

Gin is typically made from neutral spirits that are infused with a concoction of botanicals starting with juniper and often including coriander along with any number of herbs and spices such as: ginger, orange peel, cardamom, angelica root, nutmeg, clove, cassia bark, and nearly anything else one could imagine.

The method employed to introduce these herbs and spices into the spirit is another matter of great debate. Most common is the steeping method that can last from one hour to a day followed by one last distillation that is said to “fix” the flavors to the spirit. Some choose to keep the botanicals in whole form while some prefer to crack and crush the spices to release more intense flavors.

Another approach involves suspending a basket of botanicals in the still allowing vapors to pass through extracting aroma and flavor in this way. Those who use this technique exalt its delicate and pure results. In the case of cheap gins, they use a method known as “cold compounding” where flavor essences are added to the neutral spirit. The results are about as awful as you would imagine.

Gin Styles

The first “official” record of gin came in 1752 when Franciscus Sylvius cooked-up his eau de vie de genievre. Soon Genever, Dutch for juniper, was the common man’s drink of choice. Genever is semi-viscous being malty and as much about the spirit as it is about the botanicals. This is greatly demonstrated in Oude (old) Genever. Old in this instance is not an indicator of age, but rather the sub-style that accentuates the lush, malty flavors.

England first became aware of Genever when English mercenaries returned from the Thirty Years War with tales of Dutch courage, a moniker given to the spirit as it was distributed to troops prior to battle. Later that century Dutch born William of Orange seized the English throne from James II. He all but halted the importation of brandy from his catholic neighbors and levied a heavy beer tax. Distilling became popular and by 1750 the English were consuming about 20 million gallons of gin (England’s population was just about 7 million at the time).

The English Gin evolved to a crisp, dry style of London Dry that we are familiar with today. London Dry is typically bottled at a slightly high proof to better accentuate the aromatic botanicals.

Recently an American style has emerged. However, the true model of this new style is still evolving. The new American Gins follow in the London Dry mold as opposed to Genever and often have a distinct citrus focused edge.

Craft Distillers, the new frontier

Bill Owens, of the American Distilling Institute, sees gin as a natural for emerging craft distillers. Many craft distillers are drawn to making whiskey. Gin is a natural compliment to whiskey as it is best made with a grain base (like whiskey), it allows the craft distiller to be creative, and it offers cash flow. Whiskey by nature must be laid in cask for years; gin can be delivered to market rather quickly. There are roughly 50 craft distillers in the US who report to make gin in varying quantities. Clearly the revolution is well under way. The creativity in gin will mirror that of craft brewers in the past two decades.

Who cares if gin may not offer box-office good looks and a Will Rodgers like congeniality? It does offer personality to spare and incredible versatility. Perhaps it’s time for a bit of American Courage.

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  • Gregory

    Great piece, Sean. Glad to see a…spirit forward…contributor to Taylor’s site! I recently discovered Hendricks and Plymouth (yes, I’m a bit behind the gin curve) and can definitely attest to the variety and complexity that gins can offer. And, of course, how else am I going to make my Negronis?

  • Brian

    Thank you for the introductory article RE: gins. It would be worthwhile to write a follow-up article describing in greater detail some of the different types of gins and the gins that represent them.

    I drink gin pretty regularly. I’m a gin & tonic drinker – and in a G&T I like a fairly aromatic gin, like Tanqueray. I actually find that the more lightly-flavored gins, including Ten, are not as good in a G&T as the more strongly-infused gins; which are often cheaper.

    I don’t buy into the idea that gin drinkers are so dead set against other types of gins than their personal favorite. I’ll drink any decent gin in a G&T, and for a martini I think a lighter-flavored gin is actually better. Tanqueray martinis can be pretty hard to drink, especially if they aren’t good and cold. I’m a little worn out from wine snobbery, whisky snobbery, and every other form of put on airs that the nouveau riche can assume…I hope to God they leave gin the hell alone. If I have to listen to some jackass in day-glo streetwear sneakers lecture me on f-ing botanicals at the bar, I’ll go ape sh*t.

    I think gin drinkers are by nature individualists…because ultimately, it’s not a drink for the masses. The truth of the matter though, is that a well-made G&T is sublimity in liquid form.

    Best regards,

    Brian

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