Dutch or English? The drink of bums, or the drink of hipsters? Fittingly for the world’s most customisable spirit, gin has been called it all. And on the back of a very Australian revival, it’s now staking a serious claim as our nation’s best loved liquor.
''The majority of gin’s botanical flavours fall into one of the following categories: spicy, nutty, herbal, floral, fruity or citrusy. An infinite number of specific flavours can be found within them, from macadamia nut to lemon zest, and their combinations are all but endless.''
From “mother’s ruin” to the most fashionable spirit of the modern day, the story of gin is a particularly interesting one.
At its core, gin is simply an unaged spirit with juniper berries added for taste. But as the demand for gin has broadened, so too has its taste, with a wealth of botanicals – herbs, spices, flowers and fruits – now added to make each and every gin a unique experience.
What does a gin novice need to know about this most chameleon of spirits? Let’s take a look at where gin has come from, where it might be headed, and why it continues to send people silly.
Drinkable Dutch courage
“Drink your jenever like a good girl,” a caring Dutch mother might have told her sick child in the Middle Ages. Known as a powerful diuretic, the oil of the juniper berry was combined with alcohol and sold as medicine for centuries, prescribed for everything from stomach troubles to gout. Another use was found on the field of battle, with Dutch soldiers shotting the spirit before running – perhaps on a distinct lean – out from the trenches.
It was only in the 17th century that crafty businessmen realised that the juniper berry was also particularly good at masking the taste of low-quality spirits. And when gin-loving Dutchman William of Orange took the English throne in 1689, the perfect storm was created. Over the next 40 years gin fever swept the nation, a period known as the Gin Craze (from which we get the term “mother’s ruin”), and the Brits haven’t looked back since.
A distinctly London drink
Despite its beginnings in Holland, by the mid-1800s London gin was entirely distinct from the original (and fast disappearing) jenever, a transformation punctuated by the invention of the column still, which allowed spirits to be distilled more neutrally than ever before. This development saw the now customary “London dry” style come into fashion, one of four official categories of gin recognised by the EU:
- Juniper-flavoured spirit drink: A lower alcohol spirit (minimum 30% ABV) in which botanicals are added during the second of two distillations.
- Gin: A standard strength gin (>37.5% ABV) in which the botanicals are simply added to the neutral spirit, rather than being redistilled into it.
- Distilled gin: Distilled gin uses the same botanical redistillation process as the juniper-flavoured spirit drink, but juniper must be the predominant flavour, and the spirit must have a minimum ABV of 37.5%.
- London dry: The most stringently controlled gin, in London dry botanicals can only be introduced through the re-distillation in traditional stills with the resulting distillate being at least 70% ABV. Methanol levels must be below 5g/100L, and colour, sweeteners and other additives cannot exceed 0.1g/L.
What’s a gin without the tonic? The development of London dry actually coincided with that of its partner in crime. The British found that quinine, a bark extract, was able to treat and even prevent malaria, and so began to prescribe it to soldiers in India. The soldiers found that by mixing the extremely bitter quinine with water, sugar and lime, and then adding in a healthy dash of London dry gin, the taste went from dire to delicious. The G&T was born.
Describing the taste of everything
The question “what does gin taste like?” is about as broad as “what does lunch taste like?” Focusing your palate beyond the unmistakable smack of the drink’s neutral spirit base and its soothing, piney flavour of juniper, you can be assaulted by any number of flavours and aromas.
The majority of gin’s botanical flavours fall into one of the following categories: spicy, nutty, herbal, floral, fruity or citrusy. An infinite number of specific flavours can be found within them, from macadamia nut to lemon zest, and their combinations are all but endless.
Ginners are winners
What Australia might lack in gin history, we’ve more than made up for with enthusiasm. Over the last decade our gin scene has exploded, with many of our drops gaining global recognition. No longer do Aussies need to show up at Mother England’s door, cap in hand, pleading for a nice bottle like Oliver Twist.
Bombay Sapphire, Hendricks and Tanqueray have lost ground to the likes of Four Pillars, Archie Rose and Hippocampus, who are using Australian botanicals to give their gins a distinctly local flair. That’s not to say that you should ignore the classic London dry, though – Plymouth, whose gins are based on a recipe from 1793, are as good as any in England.
- At the height of the Gin Craze, over half of London’s 15,000 drinking establishments were gin shops.
- In the early days of gin experimentation, sulphuric acid was added to gin in an effort to make it sweeter.
- Mark it down on your calendar – since 2009, the second Saturday in June has been designated World Gin Day.