The Gin market is booming and there seems to be new micro- and artisanal distilleries popping up everywhere. But what do we actually know about these craft Gins?
There are, in fact, so many new Gins on the market now that going into a bar and simply asking for a G&T is like going to an Italian restaurant and asking for pasta. There’re so many Gins available you need to have some scale for understanding what you like or at least be prepared to be educated by the barman. And at the same time, the barman needs to know the products available, how to serve them, which tonic to use, how to choose the garnish, which Gin goes with certain cocktails, which glass to use and how much ice to add… Sounds confusing, right? But it doesn’t have to be.
In the UK, it all heated up in 2007, when two founders of Sipsmith distillery came back from the USA feeling encouraged by the number of micro-breweries there and felt they would be able to make high-quality Gin carefully produced in small batches by an experienced distiller. Risking everything, they sold their homes and quit their jobs and got on with it. They were the first craft Gin distillery to apply for a licence to open a distillery in London for nearly 200 years. It took the council two years to rewrite some by-laws and finally grant the licence. Since then, more distilleries have opened in London and several licences have been applied for. Sipsmith has become a great success and encouraged many others to follow their lead. But with so many new Gins on the market, it is time for the humble G&T drinker to get a bit savvier about what’s on offer.
Let’s start from the beginning – what is Gin?
Gin is the British version of Holland’s national spirit Jenever, which is more like whisky with juniper flavour. Jenever actually means juniper. It is made in a similar way to malt whisky as it uses malt grain mash and is aged in barrels; the result tastes similar to bourbon. Not one of my favourites but, served properly, it is not too bad!
The base is a clear neutral spirit, basically vodka. Usually if a distillery can produce great vodka then it should be able to make a good Gin too. With vodka you have nowhere to hide and the process is very tricky. Many Gin distilleries have at least one vodka included in their product range. Think of it as the equivalent of the new-make spirit you have when making whisky – it gives you a better understanding of the core product.
I have had several questions regarding the botanicals – what are they? Botanicals can be anything from roots and fruits to herbs and spices. As previously explained, the very core of the Gin has always been juniper, and that flavour needs to be predominant for the product to be considered as Gin. However, other botanicals are added to give each Gin its unique characteristics. Common ones are coriander, cardamom, orris root, nutmeg, cinnamon and lemon and orange peel. Each distillery has its own secret recipes with botanicals that may be anything from exotic fruits to seaweed, heather or silver birch.
A good Gin normally has six to ten botanicals, although there are some exceptions, such as The Botanist Gin from Islay. It has a remarkable 31 botanicals, of which 22 are proudly from the island itself. No two Gins are the same, as the same botanicals can be sourced from various parts of the world. So even if two distilleries have identical recipes, if the botanicals are from different places, the taste will also be different. That is one of the reasons there is plenty of room for each brand to play around with the flavours.
The making of Gin
There are several ways to re-distil the base spirit with the botanicals. You can use pot stills or column stills. The botanicals can be left in the neutral spirit overnight to macerate before re-distillation or, alternatively, they can be put into the gin basket which the alcohol vapour will pass through during the re-distillation. According to EU regulations, Gin must be minimum of 37.5 % ABV, while in the USA the required minimum is 40% ABV. I won’t bore you more on this, but should you wish to get technical, check more on here.
The main types of Gin
Another frequently asked question is why so many Gins have London Dry Gin on the label. It doesn’t mean the Gin is actually made in London but refers to how it is made. The name is legally defined: London Dry Gins must be distilled to at least 70% ABV, must not contain any artificial ingredients and cannot have any flavours or colourings added after distillation. Think Beefeater London Dry or Sipsmith London Dry as examples, although there are many others.
Old Tom is a sweeter Gin and uses sugar in the re-distillation process. Otherwise it is similar to London Dry. You can try Hayman’s Old Tom or Poetic License Old Tom Gin to get the idea.
Dutch Genever (or Jenever), as previously explained, has a bourbon-like taste and uses ageing barrels. Bols Genever is one of the most common choices.
Compound Gin doesn’t include a re-distillation process and uses flavourings. The essential oils are extracted from the botanicals, mixed into water and then added straight into the base spirit. It is harder to find examples of this, but Hendrick’s is a type of Compound Gin as their main botanicals, cucumber and rose petals, are too delicate for the re-distillation and are added after the other botanicals have been redistilled with the base spirit.
Sloe Gin is made from sloe berries from blackthorn trees, which are relatives of plums. The frozen berries are added into the Gin and left for months. When ready, the liquid will be strained and sugar syrup can be added. Sloe Gin is considered a liquor; however, it can be as high as 30% ABV.
How to drink it
When talking about Gin, I feel it is necessary to mention the importance of the tonic. For a quality G&T you should use high-quality tonic, such as Fever Tree, as the tonic can make a significant impact on the taste of the Gin itself. Always ask the barman for the tonic bottle to keep for your next drink as most Gin bars rip you off by only using half of the tonic and charging you for another bottle next time. This way you can also be sure they use good-quality tonic. The glass should be filled with ice all the way to the brim, as it will keep the drink fizzy and more aromatic for longer. The ideal glass is a highball or, even better, the cabernet glass, as this allows room to swirl the drink to enhance the botanicals. Things are going to plan when the ice makes a crackling sound when you pour the Gin on top of it (yes, it is also important how icy the ice actually is).
Don’t forget to garnish your G&T. Hendrick’s got radical by introducing cucumber as garnish instead of the usual lime wedge, and since then, the garnish has been used to highlight the botanicals in the Gin. As examples, Brighton Gin is served with a slice of orange, Napue Gin is recommended with rosemary and cranberries, Sipsmith goes well with lime and Makar Gin has a peppery flavour, so to compliment that I’d recommend using sliced jalapeno peppers… and so on.
There are over 700 Gin-based cocktail recipes, so if you are new to the spirit, the chances of you finding a drink you like are very high. Most classic cocktails are Gin-based: good old Martini, Italians love Negroni, Gin Fizz is very simple but delicious, Tom Collins is similar to Gin Fizz but garnished with a cherry and an orange slice, Singapore Sling, French Martini for the sweet tooth… the list is endless. Even the Bloody Mary used to be Gin-based, and you may find that in many cocktails vodka has tried to hijack the role as the base spirit! Check the recipes section for alternative ways to drink Gin.
If you are looking for something really funky, tea lovers could try adding four good-quality Earl Grey tea bags into a bottle of Gin. Leave for few hours then pour and mix with tonic as you would for normal G&T. This is sensational and gives a whole new meaning to the phrase G&T(ea).
Most of the new craft Gin distilleries are creating such a great balance between the botanicals that the final spirit is also great served on its own, neat or on the rocks. With Gin, the sky is the limit, so why not try to create your own recipes and drink combinations.
Off the Sauce
Have you ever heard Gin being called a depressant or mother’s ruin? Well, this has an element of truth. It is based from the late 1700s and early 1800s, when drinking too much Gin had a negative impact on everyone’s daily lives. There used to be unlicensed distilleries around the UK, and it is estimated that there were at least 15,000 drinking establishments in London alone, of which at least half were Gin shops. Heavy drinking taking place daily caused family issues, money problems and plenty of crime. So the key is always to drink responsibly and drink plenty of water during any night out.
Sum and substances
Gin choices can be overwhelming at first, but with a little research, you will get there. Let the barman advise you about different Gins; sometimes you might even have something local available and we love to support local.
The market is growing so there is no time to get bored; be adventurous and try new craft Gin brands and their new twists with special Gin cocktails. I would also recommend visiting a distillery to get a better understanding of the process and the different botanicals. It is also a great day out and fun to sample the product at source.
Currently, 93% of the Gin sold in the UK is produced domestically, while 28% of the Gins consumed worldwide are exported from the UK. Who knows, maybe British Gin will be the ‘new Scotch Whisky’?