Welcome to Gateways To Drinkery, where The Takeout offers an entry-level course on our favorite libations, and some suggestions on where to start drinking them.
The lowdown: Winston Churchill’s martinis were nothing more than chilled tumblers of gin, and James Bond called for a shaken rendition that was “three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet.” The gin and tonic was invented to fight malaria, and the Ramos gin fizz is a masterpiece of cocktail engineering (and not at all fun to make). Despite all this historic romance, though, gin elicits something of a love-it or hate-it reaction. For some, it’s bracing, elegant, and crisp. For others, it reeks of Pine-Sol and Christmas tree.
Luckily, we live in a golden age of distilled spirits, and everyone can have their gimlet and drink it too. The category has expanded in recent years, moving away from the idea that gin is a one-dimensional product with a single polarizing profile, to a world where gin can evoke a whole bevy of fruity, floral, spicy, and savory flavors.
Gin, broadly speaking, is a spirit with only one requirement—that it be flavored with juniper berries. There are no rules on what alcohol makes up the base spirit, and no stipulation on where the spirit is made. Though juniper is expected to be the predominant flavor, nearly all gins add supporting herbs, roots, fruits, and spices—collectively called botanicals—to round out the taste, and many modern brands eschew the pine-flavor profile altogether.
Gin’s ancestry can be traced back to the early whiskey and brandy coming out of 15th-century Europe. These spirits were rough, so adding spices or fruit helped mask its natural taste. Juniper had been used since ancient times as a medicine—it’s a diuretic, and was believed to help fight everything from upset stomachs to the plague—and the first marketed juniper spirit appeared as early as 1572 in the Netherlands. Known as “genever” (Dutch for “juniper”), this early spirit was made with malted barley, leading to a taste closer to juniper-flavored whiskey than to the typical gin of today.
Genever crossed the North Sea to England in the 1600s, and grew in popularity when William Of Orange (a Dutchman) was crowned king of the empire. As part of his plan to weaken France, William placed high tariffs on imported brandy and loosened laws to allow more domestic distilling. Genever—now shortened and Anglicized to gin—could be found in every tavern and inn across London, and by 1720 the city was high on a “Gin Craze.” With water unsafe to drink, and gin cheaper than beer, the city’s poor succumbed to drunken addiction, and unscrupulous sellers drove the price down farther by doctoring inferior grains spirits with toxic flavorings like turpentine and sulphuric acid. Shop signs read “Drunk for a penny. Dead drunk for twopence. Clean straw for nothing,” and the scourge of gin became known as “mother’s ruin.”
London got its act together eventually and quelled the inebriated masses, but the connection between gin and the city remains. With the invention of the “column still” in the mid-1800s, it became affordable to make a more neutral base spirit without any of the malt barley character, and the clean, crisp London dry style—with its focus squarely on the juniper—was born. Today, London dry remains the gin of choice in most recipes, but many modern distillers have turned to so-called “New Western” or “contemporary” gins that de-emphasize the juniper flavor in order to bring other botanicals to the fore.
The taste: Gin’s supposed to taste like juniper berries, but when was the last time you ate a handful of those?
Juniper is a conifer common to Europe and North America with green, prickly needles and bright bunches of violet berries. These “berries” aren’t a true fruit, though, but are tiny pinecones with scales too small to discern. Fresh or dried, this spice is used on meats and in sauces to add a deep flavor of sticky-sweet pine resin, but when diluted (as in gin), juniper also gives up hints of green vegetable, peppercorn, and especially citrus.
Beyond juniper, classic London dry gins add botanicals that accentuate the spice’s secondary notes. Commonly, these include lemon peel, orange peel, or coriander seed (for citrus), angelica root (for earthiness), and orris root or cubeb (for pepperiness).
In softer, contemporary gins, however, the ingredient importance is flipped. Juniper can be tamped down by increasing the accent flavors, or can be hidden altogether by introducing dominant, far-out botanicals like fruits, flowers, or aggressive spice (including anise, cumin, cardamom). Though by law juniper must be used to some degree, many of these newer styles have no discernible juniper flavor at all.
Some gins are smooth and light enough to drink neat or on the rocks, but most are designed to be used as a cocktail ingredient. Gin’s high proof and high flavor density can be an assault on the senses, but when chilled and diluted, flavors spread out and mingle, bringing subtler notes to the front.
The gateway: Gin’s so ubiquitous that if you’ve consumed much alcohol at all, you’ve probably tried it somewhere already. But if you’re a true first-timer (or a gin-hater giving the spirit another go) start with a light style that de-emphasizes the juniper, and mix it in a long drink like a gin and tonic or Tom Collins.
Hendrick’s is the perfect introduction, and is about as gentle a gin as one could imagine. Flavored with cucumber and rose, it’s sweet and smooth and bursting with bright floral and lime, but it has just enough light pine and eucalyptus to remind you it’s gin, not candy. Besides working well in all the classic cocktails, it lends itself to inventive recipes that play up the savory nature.
For something a bit bolder try either Bombay Sapphire or Plymouth. The former packs a big range of flavor (14 botanicals are used, including several pepper varieties like cubeb and grains of paradise) but delivers a light touch and a fresh juniper nose without the pine cudgel. The latter is smoother, citrus-forward, and without any hint of bitterness. Try it in a martini where the botanicals pair perfectly with the vermouth.
Finally, there are the standard-bearers of the London dry style, Beefeater and Tanqueray. Each provides the juniper wallop that purists lust after—like chewing on a pine bough—while remaining crisp and bright.
Next steps: For a classic profile, Koval (distilled in Chicago) makes a bold gin that’s got all the traditional London dry flavors, but adds to that a light secondary layer of floral and spice. Creamy (but assertive), it’s an elegant replacement in any recipe. (And, while content is always more important that packaging, you should know that the label is a die-cut number that wins awards of its own.)
Looking for something supremely floral? Consider Nolet’s Silver Dry. Made with peach, raspberry, and Turkish rose, this gin is well off the mainstream spectrum and conjures thoughts of a perfume shop or bazaar. Light with nearly no hint of juniper, it’s velvety enough to sip neat, or works in specialized cocktails that benefit from such a decadent nose. Two similar gins from G’vine are made from a base of grape spirit and double-down with additional grape flowers and vines. Ethereal and delicate, they retain a bit more classic gin character than Nolet’s, but again shine when drunk straight or in a simple mix.
St. George Terroir celebrates the local (and woodsy) botanicals of Mount Tamalpais, which is nearby the Alameda, California distillery. Bay laurel, sage, and Douglas fir summon the feeling of hiking through a dewy valley, and present a distinctly different pine flavor—more savory and herb-garden—than typical juniper. Caorunn likewise uses local flora of the Speyside region of Scotland where it is made. Distillers add rowan berry, heather, bog myrtle, dandelion, and coul blush apples to the usual collection of botanicals, but the bespoke ingredients come across subtly without standing out. Caorunn presents less like highland countryside and more as just an exceptionally well-balanced London dry.
And finally, for an authentic genever, Bols (the original dutch distillery, running since 1664) makes an excellent barrel-aged version. The malty character means it works both neat or mixed in cocktails. Truly unique (not quite a whiskey, and not quite a gin), it plays well in a funky old-fashioned, or can dig for deeper flavors than a traditional gin in recipes like the Martinez or Clover club.
Talk like an expert: The big, bold flavors of gin are due to the big, bold essential oil molecules dissolved in the spirit. If the essential oils are a bit out of balance, though, then they can precipitate out of solution when you add cold water. This effect, called “louching,” is the same one that turns green absinthe milky after a suitable water drip. Most commercial gins are filtered or cut with additional alcohol so they don’t louche, but a few modern gin makers like Chicago’s Letherbee intentionally aim for the cool effect. As compounds precipitate out, the flavor of the gin changes, allowing drinkers to enjoy their spirit in different ways: full-bodied and overproof, or soft and subtle riding on a puffy cloud.