(n.) Gin’s legal definition requires it to be a neutral grain spirit flavored with juniper berries and proprietary blends of botanicals and then bottled at over 80 proof. Common botanical additions include citrus peel, coriander, cinnamon bark, angelica root, cardamom and a slate of others.
First created in the 17th century as a Dutch medicinal tonic, gin’s popularity spiked in England in the early-18th century when political maneuvering made it the country’s cheapest alcoholic beverage. Public drunkenness among the lower classes became such an issue that the English passed a law, in 1850, to only allow large distillers to produce gin, which largely worked in raising prices and stemming the tide. More advanced distilling techniques and gains in stature with the upper classes would allow gin to go on to become one of the most important spirits in cocktail-making, forming the backbone of the Martini and the Negroni.
Several styles exist under the gin umbrella:
London dry may be the most recognizable to modern drinkers, with its dry, light-bodied, and fragrant character, which is typically well-suited to the Martini.
Plymouth gin (also a brand) is similar in style to London dry, but is slightly fuller bodied and must be made in Plymouth, England.
Old Tom gin, a sweeter style, was more popular in England in the 19th century, though it is making a small comeback on the artisanal scene today. Certain cocktails call specifically for this style, such as the Dutch Kills as well as historically correct versions of the Martinez or Tom Collins.
Genever gin, based off the original Dutch formula, is the forerunner to modern gins. Distilled from a malted grain base, then blended with a spiced high-proof spirit, genevers tend to have a more subtle botanical influence, and may be aged in oak. Within this category are further style subsets, including Jogne (a slightly sweetened variation that must contain less than 15 percent malted grain base), Oude (sweeter, with more than 15 percent malted grain base) and Korenwign (must contain more than 51 percent malted grain base).
While most gins notch somewhere in the 42 to 45 percent alcohol range, Navy-strength gins skew much higher, around 57 percent. And it should be noted that sloe gin is not really a gin at all, but a sweet liqueur made from sloe berries.
Gin’s popularity may have faded in the mass market—as a category it has slipped in sales slightly during the 2000s—but it remains a favorite with the craft cocktail crowd for its bold flavor, historical importance and multiplicity of expressions. A recent explosion of craft distillery gins highlight locally available botanicals and base distillates. Producers to seek out include The Botanist, London Distilling, Spring 44, Death’s Door, New York Distilling, St. George, Aviation, Greylock, Junipero and Leopold’s.