I know this is swearing at some people, but I’ve never been that big of a fan of gin. I don’t like tonic and the whole G&T thing did nothing for me. However, I will admit to coming to appreciate the spirit a little more when introduced to cocktails containing it. Here we learn all about gin, the history, types and tastes, from its history as an herbal medicine through to the most famous of its cocktails.
History of gin
A guy called Franciscus Sylvius is often said to be the inventor of gin in the 17th century in the Netherlands but this isn’t completely true. A play called The Duke of Milan refers to the spirit and Sylvius was nine years old at the time (unless he started really early!). Going back even further, the English soldiers who were helping out in Antwerp against the Spanish in 1585 were already drinking its forerunner, called genever, to calm their nerves before battle.
In fact, the very earliest reference to genever comes from a Dutch work called Der Naturen Bloeme that was published in the 13th century. It became popular in the mid-17th century when there were over 400 distillers in Amsterdam along by 1663 and it was used to treat medical conditions. Variations of gin were used to treat kidney problems, stomach ailments and even gout.
William of Orange, the head of the Dutch Republic, was a big gin fan, though the drink at the time was a little more like turpentine (which was used as a flavouring) than the cultured drink we know today.
Gin is closely associated with England but it wasn’t until the government allowed unlicensed gin to be produced while putting a big tax on imported spirits did it begin to spread around the country. A period known as the Gin Craze saw it taken as the drink of the poor and of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London at the time, half of them were dedicated to gin! When the Gin Act 1736 put taxes on the drink there were riots in the streets.
By the early 18th century, the drink had increased in quality and become legal, though there were still some 1500 residential stills by 1726. As well as turpentine, other flavourings included sulphuric acid.
As the British spread their influence around the world, they took gin with them. One popular use was to mask the unpleasant taste of quinine, used to combat malaria. The compound was dissolved into tonic water then gin was added – the classic gin and tonic drink.
Style of gin
There are plenty of styles of gin but there are four categories used to legally define the drink in the EU:
- Gin itself is a juniper flavoured spirit with natural flavouring substances added to a neutral spirit without redistillation – the main flavour has to be juniper.
- Distilled gin is made by redistilling ethanol in traditional gin stills along with juniper berries and other botanicals, though juniper still remains the predominant flavouring.
- London gin is gin distilled from ethanol with a maximum methanol content of 5 grams for 100% ABV. It isn’t permitted to have any sugars exceeding 0.1 grams nor any colourants. Sometimes this is known as dry gin.
- Juniper flavoured spirits are the rest of the spirits that is also known as Wacholder or Genebra and use traditional methods of distilling a fermented grain mash then redistilling it with botanicals.
Today we have a number of famous brands of gin, each with their own slight variation on the drink. Gordon’s, Beefeater and Plymouth gin are three that I have encountered myself while there are gins from around the world. The Bombay Sapphire is another special gin that comes in a distinct sapphire blue bottle and is actually produced by Bacardi. Other gins come from as far afield as Sweden, California and Uganda.
There are hundreds of cocktails that make use of the various gins, including some that even specify a particular brand or type. One of the most famous is the Martini, a simple drink made with gin and vermouth that has so many variations that there is one for every taste (or more than one).
The Gibson is also made with gin and vermouth and has a pickled onion added for garnish. It is also served in a martini glass. The gin Rickey is the gin version of a simple drink that uses a highball glass and adds the juice of half a lime as well as the gin then tops up with carbonated water. Another famous long drink is the Singapore Sling, that uses a host of spirits including cherry brandy, Cointreau and Benedictine as well as gin and pineapple juice to make a powerful long drink.