You could think of gin as the original flavored vodka. Gin makers start where vodka makers end, with a neutral grain spirit that is then distilled with a variety of botanicals. Juniper gives gin its characteristic piney flavor, and is responsible for gin’s “love it or hate it” reputation. But gin makers also use various kinds of citrus, spices and roots.
The Italians used juniper first, but it was the Dutch who really got things going starting in the 16th century. Spirits then were not as refined as today, and the pharmacists who were making medicinal gin added juniper and other botanicals to the malted barley base to improve the taste. The Dutch called this Genever. British soldiers who discovered it during the Dutch War of Independence called it “Dutch Courage” and imbibed liberally before and after battle. After the war they brought it back to England, where it became wildly popular.
In the 19th century, gin makers were able to start with a neutral grain spirit base as we do today, and that made the flavors of the added botanicals the focus.
There are three main styles of gin. The first and most important is London Dry. It is juniper and citrus forward, very dry, and can be a little sharp. These characteristics make it ideal for mixing into cocktails, and this is what most people think of as gin. Common brands include Beefeater and Tanqueray.
Plymouth gin is both a brand and style. It’s very similar to London Dry, but it’s a protected name, like Champagne for wine, and has to be made in Plymouth, England. With a flavor that’s less juniper-forward and more earthy, this is a good gin for people who “don’t like gin.”
Then there are the “atypical” gins. Less of a single style and more of a collection of styles, these gins have been driven by the rise of microdistilleries all over the United States. Distilleries often start by making vodka, because it’s simple to make and can get to market quickly. Many of these atypical gins dial back the juniper to focus on more approachable flavors. Hendricks is one of the best known, and is a soft and smooth gin with cucumber and rose petal notes. New Amsterdam is a Californian gin with a lemon-forward flavor profile.
Two of my favorite gin drinks are the classic martini (I like mine with three parts of gin to one part of dry vermouth and a dash of orange bitters) or the eminently refreshing gin and tonic. Both make great canvases for trying out a new-to-you gin!
Tammy Coxen is the proprietor of Tammy’s Tastings. She teaches cocktail classes in Ann Arbor, Toledo and Tecumseh. Learn more at tammystastings.com.