GIN: THE CHEQUERED HISTORY
“Gin” is abbreviated from the Dutch word “Genever”, itself a corruption of “Genièvre”, the French for juniper. As long ago as the 13th century, juniper was being praised for its medical benefits when infused in wine, and its significance grew during the Black Death in the mid-14th century. The Dutch-speaking Spanish provinces in the Low Countries were known for their distilling expertise even between the 13th and 15th centuries, and it was a natural development to flavour the spirit with juniper. During the Dutch wars of independence in the 1580s, and again in the 1620s to 1640s, English soldiers noted their Dutch allies taking a stiff swig before going into battle – Dutch courage. When the Dutch ruler William of Orange became king of the countries of the British Isles in 1688, his supporters made gin even more widely known and consumed, and it was encouraged as an alternative to imported brandy from France. By the 1750s, it was the cause of widespread drunkenness, and the poor quality of the spirit was a major cause of illness and death. By the 1850s, the social problems had been controlled to some extent, the quality of the spirit was higher, and more sophisticated serves were coming into fashion: pink gin from the Royal Navy, and gin with quinine-infused tonic with people returning from Britain’s oriental colonies.
GIN: THE THREE LEVELS
Gin: neutral spirit, old-compounded with the flavourings, whether natural or artificial; it can be sweetened or coloured. It cannot be called “London”, or carry the description “distilled”. Distilled gin: must be made from a diluted neutral spirit that has been redistilled in the presence of natural botanicals, such as juniper, coriander and citrus peel. When the neutral spirit and botanicals are heated, the alcohols vaporise and rise as steam, carrying the flavour compounds with them. This process creates a more concentrated distillate, with rich botanical attributes. London distilled gin: a style of distilled gin. “London” is a style, not a geographical term. All flavourings must be natural, and present during the redistillation. No flavourings can be added after distillation, and no colouring is allowed. The word “Dry” can also be added to the description.
PRODUCING DISTILLED GIN
Before distillation, the botanicals can be steeped in spirit, which generates stronger bonds between the alcohol and flavour components. Some distillers suspend the botanicals in a perforated copper box, known as a Cartel Head, above the liquid in the still, so then only the spirit vapours are in contact with the botanicals. This is particularly used for more delicate flavours, the ingredient for which can be damaged if they are heated with the liquid in the still. The minimum strength at bottling is 37.5% abv, but alcohol is important for its ability to bind flavours to the liquid, so higher strengths are not just about more concentration: flavours are often retained better too.
OTHER STYLES OF DISTILLED GIN
> Genever: the traditional Dutch style, usually has a proportion of malt-based distillate, rather than just neutral spirit. Flavourings can be distilled, macerated or percolated. It can be sweetened. and can also be aged. There are four main styles, with variations on these themes: Oude, Jonge, Korenqign, Graanjenever.
> Plymouth: conforms to the rules of London distilled gin, although the style is somewhere between that and the genever. It must be distilled in Plymouth.
> Old Tom: a juniper-heavy style popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, sweetened to help disguise the poor quality of the base spirit used at that time.
> Steinhäger: a German style using junipers as the only flavouring.