Few spirits can match gin for the sheer diversity of its potential flavors. There’s only one real requirement for gin: it has to contain juniper berries, the berry of an evergreen conifer that grows in temperate zones around the world.
Beyond that minimal requirement, the sky is truly the limit. Gin can be sweetened or unsweetened. It can be aged in barrels or bottled without ever touching a splinter of oak. It can include two dozen different botanicals or showcase the pure flavors of just one or two ingredients. Its diversity and opportunity makes the category irresistible for innovative, experimental distillers drawn by the excitement of combining flavors in new ways—and an absolute pleasure for gin drinkers to explore. If you’re ready to go headfirst down the rabbit hole of contemporary gin, here’s what you need to know.
A Brief History of Gin
While gin might be going through a renaissance (seriously, though, what spirit isn’t?), it also has plenty of history to build on. Gin’s origins lie in the Netherlands and other parts of northern Europe, where distilled beer was often flavored with local herbs and botanicals, including juniper, as well as sugar or other sweeteners.
The concoction was called genever, and it was used medicinally before it became adopted as a generally refreshing tipple. British soldiers were introduced to Genever while fighting in the Thirty Years’ War on the European continent, bringing it back to the general British publish on their return home.
Early genevers were made on a pot still, which means the base spirit still retained a fair amount of the character of its original ingredient (grain, in this case). But the invention and proliferation of the continuous column still in the early 1800s totally transformed the gin industry by making truly neutral spirit possible for the first time.
This new ingredient underpinned the invention of a new category, London Dry, which employed the crisp neutrality of column still distillate to showcase botanicals in brilliant detail, no sweeteners needed. The most traditional botanicals associated with the London Dry style are juniper, of course, plus angelica root, orris root (iris root), coriander, and dried citrus zest.
London Dry style gin was a hit, so much so that it kicked off an era known as the “Gin Craze,” a time when gin was so popular it threatened the social fabric of British life. While the Brits’ love for gin backed off enough for them to have a functioning society, it never totally waned, and even today gin is deeply associated with English culture.
Contemporary Gin Styles
Today’s gin distillers are pushing boundaries like never before. The London Dry style is alive and well, but craft producers are also exploring historic styles like genever, Old Tom gin (aged in a barrel), and sloe gin (infused with sloe berries and sometimes sweetened with sugar).
London Dry gin doesn’t have to be distilled in London, but it is required to be unsweetened, made with high-proof neutral grain spirits, not bottled below 37.5% alcohol by volume, include juniper, and free from any colorings or flavorings added after distillation.
There’s also a new sub-category on the scene: contemporary gin. Building on the London Dry tradition, contemporary gins are unsweetened and feature juniper, but reach well beyond the classic London Dry botanicals to include warm spices like cinnamon and clove, fresh flavors like fruits and flowers, and verdant herbal notes like geranium, mint, and rosemary.
How to Taste Gin
And now we arrive at the fun bit.
- To taste gin, you’ll first need a good glass. The Glencairn glass is a fine choice, as is a stemmed sherry coupe or a small, narrow wine glass. If a straight-sided tumbler is your only option, that’s OK for now, but we highly advise you to invest in a good tasting glass—you deserve it!
- Next, pour yourself an ounce or so of gin. You’ll want to taste it at room temperature first, even though gin is typically consumed chilled.
- Gently sniff the glass. Unlike wine, where you vigorously swirl the liquid before inhaling deeply, you’ll want to move a bit more slowly with gin. There’s no need to swirl, and it’s best to begin sniffing several inches away from the rim of the glass. Sniff too closely, and you’ll scorch the inside of your nose with alcohol.
- Now, think about what you’re smelling. People learning to taste wine are often told to look first for the fruit, asking themselves if they sense red fruit, such as strawberries and currents, or blue or black fruits, like blueberries or plums. Since most wines have fruit components in their flavor profile, it’s a good place to start, especially if it’s a complex wine that’s hard to wrap your mind around at first. The same principle holds true for gin, only instead of fruit, you can start by looking for the juniper. Depending on the variety, where it’s grown, and how it’s processed, juniper can express a wide range of flavors, from fresh and lemony to heavy, resinous, or earthy tastes. If your first sip of a gin leaves you tongue-tied, try starting with the juniper and working from there.
- Once you’re satisfied with your experience of the aroma, take a sip, holding the gin in your mouth for several seconds before swallowing and then breathing out through your nose to direct aromas into your nasal passages. It’s almost always challenging to assess a spirit on the first sip, as it takes time for the palate to acclimate to the high alcohol content. After waiting several seconds, take another sip, following the same procedure. Is the spirit warming, or mellow? Citrusy and acidic, or earthy and spicy? Is the texture creamy, light, or tingly? Does the finish linger, or end crisply?
- At this point, whipping out the ice pail and cocktail shaker is absolutely fair game, especially since most gin drinkers enjoy their tipple in cocktails, rather than sipped neat. Stir up a martini, top up a glass with your favorite tonic, and see where your taste buds take you.