Gin: the ultimate guide, by Jared Brown
Drinks historian, writer and Sipsmith master distiller, Jared Brown, on everything you need to know about wonderful, wonderful gin
Read our best gin guide to learn about gin drinks, what gin is made from, how to make gin cocktails and distilling gin from master distiller Jared Brown...
What are the different types of gin?
London dry gin
Characterised by soft pine and citrus in the nose and on the palate, nothing can be added after distillation except water and neutral spirit. Tanqueray, Sipsmith, Star of Bombay and The Botanist are all London Drys.
Old Tom gin
Made with exponentially more liquorice and no savoury botanicals, it comes across as a sweetened gin. The first commercial Old Tom was sold in 1812. Cheap imitations were sweetened with sugar after distillation. An 1823 British dictionary of slang explains that Old Tom took its name from the vessel it was stored in, a large barrel nicknamed Old Tom. There are a few brands available, such as Hayman’s.
Until very recently, this was an appellation, and could only come from Plymouth, UK. It has more sweet citrus notes than London dry. It’s both a type and brand in itself.
Which botanicals are used to make gin?
Some common botanicals used in gin include:
Not berries at all, they are the female seed cones of the juniper bush. The scales are fleshy and merged together giving them the appearance of berries. The best come from the Mediterranean as juniper needs that specific soil and climate to produce the best flavour.
Orange and lemon peels
Harvested and dried in the Mediterranean, these peels bring a range of flavours to the foretaste of gin from marmalade and cream to bright fresh citrus.
Making up equal volume to the juniper in many gin formulas, coriander seeds bring lemongrass and black pepper notes (depending on the variety). These flavours generally appear in the aftertaste.
The root of the Florentine iris flower imparts subtle violet notes.
Bolder than its close cousin cinnamon, cassia highlights the warm spice notes of the juniper.
More complex than cassia, it adds rich, round, warming spice notes.
The seeds are common in Indian cuisine, the candied stems are a lost English confection, but it is the roots that are used in gin. Angelica is considered a binding agent, bringing balance to the other flavours. It’s a very complex botanical: herbaceous, sweet, savoury, and peppery with hints of celery.
A kilo of sugar in the still wouldn’t effect the flavour of the distillate as sugar stays behind in distillation. A tiny bit of liquorice, however, gives a distinct sensation of sweetness. An old Yorkshire crop (think Pontefract cakes), it’s now primarily grown in India and on the Arabian peninsula. The bulk is sold to the American tobacco industry to sweeten their products.
A still is loaded with neutral spirit, water, and botanicals. It’s briefly warmed, then allowed to steep, releasing the flavours of the botanicals. How long bontanicals are steeped varies between gins.
The temperature of a liquid is raised until it reaches its boiling point (78.3°C for beverage alcohol). The alcohol vapours rise up the still and are then condensed back into liquid form. This separates the beverage alcohol from other substances.
Gin that is made without adding any neutral spirit after distillation. Only a few gins today are made this way, Sipsmith is one of them. The majority of gins are made from gin concentrate where less than 25ml of liquid of botanical distillate goes into each bottle. The rest is neutral spirit and water.
Historically considered an inferior technique, cold compounded gin is made by adding flavourings to neutral spirit and bottling it rather than adding flavours through distillation.
Where does gin originally come from?
Gin was born in 1689, when King William of Orange dropped taxes and licensing from distillation to curtail French brandy imports and use up grain surpluses. Overnight, London began its transformation into a city of distillers and within decades you could find a working gin still in one out of every four habitable structures.
Punch houses and gin palaces thrived. However, not all of these early distilleries were selling safe alcohol. Beginning in 1736, parliament stepped in with a series of acts meant to place Madame Geneva in her coffin. While these acts never succeeded in quashing gin production, they did curtail bad production and helped to shape gin as we know it today.
Gin had humble beginnings. It was first distilled with a single ingredient to flavour it: juniper, specifically juniperus communis imported from the northern Mediterranean. It was imported to the UK for centuries before gin was born and was in huge demand during the plague, when people thought the deadly illness was spread by bad odours and that juniper would ward these off (unaware that juniper oil is a flea repellant).
However, after the birth of gin, distillers quickly introduced other botanicals: citrus peels; angelica, liquorice and orris roots; cinnamon and cassia; coriander seeds and many other ingredients. By the mid 19th century there were over a dozen gin styles. Today we’re familiar with three: London Dry, Plymouth, and Old Tom, but back then, they also made table gin, cordial gin, fine cordial gin, cream of the valley, plus others – all long lost and forgotten.
In 1820, the last distillery opened in London. Distilleries closed or relocated over the ensuing years until London was left with only Beefeater in Kennington and Thames Distilling in Southwark, that is until 2009 when the first new license was issued to Sipsmith Independent Spirits. A raft of new micro-distilleries quickly followed. London is distilling once again and gin is now produced up and down the country.