Words by: Simon Difford
Gin is potable spirit flavoured with juniper and other botanicals (such as coriander, angelica, lemon and orange peels) either by compounding or distillation. More simply put, all gins are basically neutral spirit, (high strength vodka) flavoured with juniper and various seeds, berries, roots, fruits and herbs.
Gin is usually sold at between 35 and 43% alcohol by volume, with the lower end of this spectrum mainly affected by the prevailing laws in particular markets. Many gin brands also have a higher strength bottling aimed at the duty free marker and these are typically the high forties to 50% alcohol by volume.
This dry, pure style of gin was originally only made in London and appeared soon after the 'Coffey' continuous still was invented in 1831, enabling production of a nearly pure spirit. The high distillation strength removed the unpleasant flavours found in earlier gins so the new spirits could be sold unsweetened or 'dry'. Despite the name, London Dry can be produced anywhere in the world.
Although the 'London dry gin' style dominates the global marketplace, there are several other styles of juniper spirit...
The original Dutch juniper spirit which led to the creation of the drink we know today as gin. Genever is also known as geneva, jenever and hollands. Since it retains more of the flavour of the rye, barley and maize on which it is based than gin does, it should be treated as a category in its own right rather than a type of gin.
This sweet or 'cordial' style of gin was overwhelmingly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries when gin was more pungent due to the limited rectification (purification) of the base spirit possible in the copper pot stills at that time. The rough tasting fermentation congeners no doubt present in the gin were masked by flavouring (most commonly with lemon or aniseed) and or sweetening by the addition of sweet botanicals such as liquorice and later, in the 19th century, with sugar. This sweetened style of gin became known as 'old tom'.
Old Tom probably started as a general term but it became associated with a particular style of gin. One story has it that a cat fell into a vat of gin at an unnamed distillery, giving the gin a distinctive flavour. However, the creation of this style of gin more likely lies with Thomas Chamberlain, an early gin compounder.
In the second half of the 19th century unsweetened or 'dry' gin grew in popularity, partly led by the then growing fashion for dry champagne. By this time the quality of the base spirit had improved thanks to the invention of the Coffey still and these dry gins were close in style to what we know as 'London dry gins' today.
During the 20th century this sweet style of gin which typically contained between two and six per cent sugar practically died out with what little continued to be made in England mainly exported to Finland, Japan and parts of the USA. In 2007 several producers started to once again market Old Tom in Britain and export markets such as the US.
Back in 2008 Plymouth gin was awarded Protected Geographical Status (PGI) under European Union law. This stipulated that only gins produced in southwest English city of Plymouth with a minimum alc./vol. of 37.5% and with a predominantly juniper flavour could be described as being Plymouth gins. This was an example of bizarre European legislation as Plymouth Gin was and remains a registered trademark (presently owned by Pernod Ricard) so preventing any other gins made in the city of Plymouth under the PGI being able to describe themselves as Plymouth gins.
However, in November 2014 a statement from Pernod Ricard announced "We have decided to withdraw our support of the Protected Geographic Indication for Plymouth Gin." This was in advance of the EU requiring all producers holding PGI status to specify what geographical and organoleptic characteristics of their product justified PGI status by February 2015.
Gin made in Mahón, the capital city of the island Menorca, is also thought to have Protected Geographical Status (PGI) and is listed as such in regulation No. 110/2008 of The European Parliament dated 15 January 2008. Confusingly it is cheese from the city, Mahón-Menorca, which the EU has awarded Protected Geographical Status. The only brand of gin we know of presently being produced in Mahón is Xoriguer.
Vilnius Gin (Vilniaus Džinas in Lithuanian), made in city of Vilnius, Lithuania at the Vilnius Degtiné distillery is another example of a gin listed as having Protected Geographical Status in regulation No. 110/2008 of The European Parliament. However, like Plymouth Gin, Vilnius Gin is also a registered brand name so it is difficult to see how this can be considered for EU PGI status.
This is a loose term championed by the American bartending consultant Ryan Magarian for gins which some say border on being legally being gins at all due to their relatively low levels of juniper.
To quote Ryan, "This designation seems to have evolved over the past nine years, as a result of efforts from both large brand houses and regional distillers in Europe and in the United States. In taking a good hard look at today's rather loose definition of dry gin, these distillers realized a greater opportunity for artistic 'flavor' freedom in this great spirit and are creating gins with a shift away from the usually overabundant focus on juniper, to the supporting botanicals, allowing them to almost share center stage. And while the juniper must remain dominant in all dry gins these gins are most certainly defined, not by the juniper itself, but by the careful inclusion and balance of the supporting flavors, creating, what many experts believe to be, an entirely new designation of dry gin that deserves individual recognition."
Cold compounded gins are flavoured with extract of jumpier as an oil and other flavour essences without distillation. The flavourings are 'compounded' - simply mixed with the neutral spirit. EU and other regulations recognise that cold compounded gins are inferior to distilled gins.
In a reference to the illicit gins made during Prohibition, cold compounded gins are often termed 'bathtub gins'. To avoid such gins, only buy gins which state they are distilled on the label.
Gin is defined in the European Union Spirit Drinks Regulations (Council Regulation EC No. introduced 1989 and updated 2007), the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) (introduced 1991) and by similar regulations in other countries including Canada (introduced 1993) and Australia (introduced 1987). In the EU genever falls under more general regulations governing flavoured spirits.
The European Union regulations governing gin are the most wide-ranging.
On 20th February 2008 a new EU definition recognising and legislating what can be termed a 'gin' passed into EU law as part of the revised EU Spirit Drink Regulations. According to this legislation all gins must be:
1) Made with suitable ethyl alcohol flavoured with juniper berries (juniperus communis) and other flavourings.
2) The ethyl alcohol used must be distilled to the minimum standards stated in the EU Spirit Drink Regulations.
3) The predominant flavour must be juniper.
4) Water may be added to reduce the strength but the gin must have a minimum retail strength of 37.5% abv.
5) Further ethyl alcohol of the same composition used in the distillation may be added after any distillation.
The rules further legislate upon three distinctive definitions of gin: 'Gin', 'Distilled Gin' and 'London Gin'.
1) The ethyl alcohol does not have to be re-distilled.
2) Flavourings can be either approved natural or artificial flavourings and these can be simply cold compounded (mixed together with the ethyl alcohol).
3) There is no restriction on the addition of other approved colouring or flavouring additives such as sweeteners.
1) Must be made in a traditional still by redistilling neutral alcohol in the presence of natural flavourings but there is no minimum strength stipulated for the resulting distillate.
2) Additional flavourings, sweeteners and other approved additives may be added after distillation and these can be natural or artificial.
3) Approved colourings may be used to colour distilled gin.
1) Must be made in a traditional still by re-distilling ethyl alcohol in the presence of all natural flavourings used.
2) The ethyl alcohol used to distil London Gin must be of a higher quality than the standard laid down for ethyl alcohol. The methanol level in the ethyl alcohol must not exceed a maximum of 5 grams per hectolitre of 100% vol. alcohol.
3) The flavourings used must all be approved natural flavourings and they must impart their flavour during the distillation process.
4) The use of artificial flavourings is not permitted.
5) The resultant distillate must have a minimum strength of 70% abv.
6) No flavourings can be added after distillation.
7) A small amount of sweetening may be added after distillation provided the sugars do not exceed 0.5 grams/litre of finished product (this is a lax part in the new rules which CLASS objects to), apart from water, no other substance may be added.
8) London Gin cannot be coloured.
In the USA the Code of Federal Regulations '27 CFR Part 5 § 5.22 under the heading 'The standards of identity', part C has the following definition:
"Gin" is a product obtained by original distillation from mash, or by redistillation of distilled spirits, or by mixing neutral spirits, with or over juniper berries and other aromatics, or with or over extracts derived from infusions, percolations, or maceration of such materials, and includes mixtures of gin and neutral spirits. It shall derive its main characteristic flavor from juniper berries and be bottled at not less than 80° proof. Gin produced exclusively by original distillation or by redistillation may be further designated as "distilled". "Dry gin" (London dry gin), "Geneva gin" (Hollands gin), and "Old Tom gin" (Tom gin) are types of gin known under such designations.