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A Distilled History Of Gin

A Distilled History Of Gin
By Elijah Wright

Gin: One of those spirits that has very vocal supporters and detractors. But how much does anyone really know about the spirit itself; its roots, its rise and fall from popularity? Hopefully, I can provide a bit of a history lesson for you lovely readers. 

(Truthfully, this was originally written as a two-part podcast which has unfortunately been lost to time, but I thought I could use it to further you, our readers, understanding of my favorite spirit) 

Origins of Gin
If you had to guess, where do you think gin is originally from? If you said England, you’d be technically correct, but in fact, the spirit we know as gin has its roots in a much older Dutch spirit called Genever.

Spelled jenever in modern Dutch, it is now the National Drink of both The Netherlands and Belgium (which both have long and proud traditions of distilling genever). 

Born from the quasi-medical botanical spirit craze of the 12th century, wherein herbs and botanicals were used to flavor wine that was then “prescribed” to treat minor and major illnesses. Of course, medical “professionals” using herbs and such dates back past when I cared to research, but using wine or distilled alcohol to carry those herbs and botanicals dates to around the 1300s. 

In 1495 the first recorded instance of a recreational, juniper based spirit appeared in a “home cookbook” style book. This was a recipe for a “burned wine” flavored with the most expensive botanicals of the day (nutmeg, cloves, galangal, ginger, grains of paradise and cinnamon) and the cheapest ingredient: juniper berries. Not long after, grain spirits replaced wine as the base, though the name stuck around in the production as the base is still called moutwijn, or “malt wine”. 

In modern produced genever, a multi-grain mash including corn, rye, and malted barley is triple-distilled to about 46-48% alcohol by volume. Though it was historically re-distilled with the botanicals to then produce genever, these days it is more commonly blended with other neutral spirits that have been distilled with juniper berries and other botanicals. 

But Where Does Gin Come in… 
During the Eighty Years War (1568-1648), the English were more than likely introduced to genever whilst backing up the Dutch in their fight against their Spanish rulers as well as the many migrants fleeing into England from the war. 

As a somewhat apocryphal aside, this is supposedly where the term Dutch Courage stems from: English soldiers were said to have coined the term after watching Dutch soldiers swigging from small bottles of genever worn on their belts before wading into battle. 

In 1688, England gained a Dutch king, William of Orange. The coronation of a new king increased trade between the two countries, and increased the demand for genever in England. As was inevitable during those days, he declared war on France, which outlawed the import of French brandy, the preferred spirit of the time.

As we continue to explore other spirits in the future, we will discover that most countries, before they have a “home spirit” will be enamored with French brandy. King William also encouraged domestic grain producers to sell to the fledgling domestic distilling industry in order to produce more products to sell and increase the country’s GDP. English distillers, suffering from a lack of the right raw materials and, quite frankly, skill, ended up rectifying their grain spirit by re-distilling it and made up for the missing flavor by adding a bunch of other botanicals and sugar. This “stripped-back” version needed a stripped-back name: Thus gin was born.

The Gin Craze 
Unfortunately, allowing any fool with absolutely no experience distilling to make and sell an increasingly popular and addictive new product, with barely any market regulation, was doomed to fail. 

In 1690, English distillery output was approx. 500,00 gallons. 23 years later, in 1713 output reached approx. 2 million gallons. 16 years after that, in 1729, a low estimate determined output as 4.3 million gallons. 

This resulted in lots of competition and unfortunately, a “race to the bottom” as everyone tried to produce something to sell and undercut the person above him. Instead of the carefully crafted barley and rye malts of the Netherlands, English distillers used beer lees (the dead yeast cells produced during the brewing process) and raw, salt water damaged grain, with just enough malt to let it ferment. 

But this badly distilled spirit was still flavored by juniper berries, right? Nope. Unfortunately producers would use anything they had to hand, the most famous of which was in fact turpentine, but other far worse ingredients were probably used. The idea was to produce a product for next to nothing cost-wise to then also sell it low enough so that any poor person could afford it. We won’t get into the sordid details of the “Gin Lane” era, but suffice it to say, it was bad… bad enough to write a poem about how artistically ironic and depressing it all was. 

Gin, it was in a bad place: produced by largely incompetent hucksters and con men, containing all the bad sorts of poisons that are really not supposed to be consumed running a populace headfirst into the gutter. 

Of course, that means there was nowhere to go but up. 

The Rectifiers
The English parliament decided to step in to try and fix the problem, or at least make some money off some new taxes and regulatory licenses. Solving the problem through taxes and regulations might seem like a band-aid on a broken arm, but there was precedent in the history of whiskey production that made them think it would work. 

The three major changes that seemed to help were these: 

  1. A legal separation between a producer of a spirit and a seller of that spirit. Meaning that “Hugh-from-down-the-lane” could produce all the bathtub gin he wanted, but he wasn’t allowed to stand outside his flat and sell it anymore.
  2. Tax and regulatory structures were introduced that favored larger, well-equipped distillers over small, ill-equipped and inexperienced distillers. And yes, that was the government stepping in and killing “small business owners”, but when those “small business owners” were literally killing their customers because of incompetence and not just cold-hearted greed and apathy, I’m fine with it.
  3. Finally, they created regulations that provided tighter control over distillation and rectification proofs, meaning that people just couldn’t slap a label that said “gin" on something that was too high or too low in alcohol content. 

The name of the game was “standardization” and these regulations helped create the foundation of what gin would become. “Raw Spirit”, a twice distilled grain spirit (essentially an un-aged whiskey), was produced by large scale “malt distillers”, which was then sold at about 61% ABV or 122 proof. Though some retailers bought it wholesale and reduced the ABV to about 47.4% themselves, as well as flavoring it themselves, most bought from a new group on the scene: Rectifiers. 

Rectifiers re-distilled the raw spirit with their own proprietary botanical blends to then sell to retailers, who could then sweeten it and reduce the proof even more. Many retailers added “doctors” to make the consumer think it was stronger than it was, ranging from cayenne pepper and grains of paradise at one end of the spectrum to sulfuric acid & quicklime on the other. Retailers often had three to four different price ranges depending on level of sweetness, reduction and “doctoring” levels: Cordial gin liqueurs, Old Tom, Gin, and Naval Strength. 

These practices further separated gin from the Dutch Genever, especially after the adoption of continuous stills by most of the countryside malt distillers.

London Dry Gin 
In 1879, the English parliament stepped in again and passed a law that said that gin could not be sold to the public at lower than 37% ABV. This new law reduced the motivation for retailers to do their own reductions and stick to the product as produced at the distiller and rectifier levels.  Which was lucky, because the rectifiers and distillers had begun bottling their own product, thereby protecting their recipes from any “adulteration” from retailers.

Other retailers moved into production and began distilling themselves: Alexander Gordon (the namesake behind Gordon’s gin) and Charles Tanqueray both started as merchants and moved up in the chain as it were. This change of practice largely was responsible for creating “brands” for gin, many of which are the same ones we know today.

Tastes also swayed toward the version we now know as London Dry gin. Customers moved away from the sweeter expressions that were produced more often back then, the Cordial and Old Tom varieties. 

Though popular for the first half of the 20th century, gin began to fall off as a relatively inexpensive to produce spirit came into prominence in the mid-century -- Vodka.

We enter what is colloquially known as the Dark Ages of Mixology during the 1980’s with flavored vodkas and frozen cocktails ruling cocktail lists throughout the world, and gin being relegated to the occasional duet with tonic water. It was safe to say that by the end of the 20th century, gin was looking like it would fade out entirely. 

But just like actual history, after the Dark Ages came the Renaissance: In the early 2000s (approximately 2004 but certainly some individuals started making waves in the late 90s) increased interest in classic cocktails brought gin back into vogue by calling for it in many of the now popular “classic” recipes. This new interest, born from the same move toward craft beers and the culinary revolution of the 1970s, really reinforced how important gin had been to those early cocktail pioneers. 

Old gin brands, rejuvenated by this new interest, started branching out and slightly tweaking their formulas: Bombay introduced Bombay Sapphire in 1987, and Tanqueray introduced Tanqueray No. 10 in 2000, both tweaks of their classic formulas with targeted botanicals to create gins easier for the new drinking public to get into. 

Hendricks, developed in the late 90s is an interesting case: blended from two different London Dry Gins produced in two different antique, non-column stills, the trademark cucumber and rose essences are added after the distillation and blending, meaning that due to regulations, it couldn’t be labeled as a London Dry gin… so what was it? 

New Western Gins 
San Francisco. 1996. Anchor Distilling Co. (an offshoot of Anchor Brewing Co.) released Junipero gin, and started the wave of what some people classify as New Western Gin. Since then, the market has seen an explosion of these smaller batch, “different” gins that stand out from the traditional London Dry style. The largely forgotten, sweeter styles of gin have also recently been making a quiet comeback within the mixology world, riding the wave of people looking for something new. 

Since these New Western gins often come from smaller, independent producers, you could say that gin producers haven’t come full circle, but have embraced some of the entrepreneurial spirit of the past, albeit with better education. 

Now, when entering your local liquor store (*cough* Bag & String Wine Merchants located conveniently on Chautauqua Ave in Lakewood NY, shipping available through our website *cough*), you probably won’t find these different styles in different sections of the store. So when you don’t have a knowledgeable staff member to help (*cough* like we have here at Bag & String Wine Merchants open 9-7 Mon-Wed,9-8 Thurs-Sat, 12-5 Sun *cough*), here are some tips to distinguish between London Dry and the New Western: 

London Dry Gin vs. New Western Gin

  1. London Dry gins are made from a neutral base spirit like most other white spirits are. New Western gins can be made from non-neutral base spirits with their own character to add to the final product. 
  2. While London Dry gins don’t have a set number of botanicals they have to use, most pick from a collective pool, only varying the ratios of the botanicals used from gin to gin. The one thing all London Dry gins share is that crisp, evergreen nature courtesy of their focus on the juniper berry. New Western Gins often pride themselves on using locally sourced or unusual botanicals, often relying less on a “juniper forward” taste to highlight a botanical they find particularly special. 
  3. As we saw in the Hendricks example, London Dry Gins cannot have flavors added after distillation, gaining all their taste from their rectification with the chosen botanicals. New Western gins have no such qualms though, freely adding flavors after the fact through maceration of fruits, barrel aging, or even just literally adding those flavors. 

To help illustrate, here are two gins we currently sell in the shop. One I would classify as a London Dry gin, and one I would call New Western: 

Beefeater London Dry Gin
750ml - $27.99
This gin is classic. Obviously from the name, this is a London Dry style gin, and is consistently in the top ten best-selling gins in the world. When I started my journey into actual mixology, it was with a Negroni made with Beefeater. 

First produced around 1876, not much has changed since then, except for some modernization of equipment. They still use the same nine botanicals: Juniper, angelica root and seeds, coriander, licorice, almond, orris root and the rinds of lemons and bitter Seville oranges. These botanicals create a wonderful harmony between the juniper and a soft, citrusy flavor which pairs beautifully with tonic water. 

There are not many drinks one cannot make with Beefeater. Sure, some drinks will be better represented by other gins, but there is a reason that many bars use Beefeater as their standard well gin. Like I stated before, I think it stands up incredibly well in a Negroni or a Gin Buck and continue to use it as my go-to when developing new drinks. 

Click HERE to shop for Beefeater online at our website.

Gray Whale Gin
Gray Whale Gin
750ml - $35.99 
This gin is interesting. This New Western style gin, in its eye-catching blue bottle, is newer to the market. First produced in 2016 if you go on their website, you find they are very proud of their product and the good it does. 

Gluten-Free corn based spirit, distilled six times. Juniper saucer form the rocky coastline of Big Sur. Limes sourced from Temecula Valley. Fir tree needles from Sonoma. Kombu Sea Kelp wild-harvested from kelp beds on the Mendocino Coast. Mint from Santa Cruz. And almonds form the Central Valley. All clearly listed on their website, and even on the bottle itself. Truly typical of a New Western gin: an explicit celebration of the area from which it is produced. 

You’ll wanna put this one with some nice quality tonic water or in lighter, uncomplicated drinks: a scratch made Tom Collins or Gin Rickey will shine when using Gray Whale. 

Click HERE to shop for Gray Whale Gin at our website.

Works Referenced (But Not Cited Because I’m Not in Class Anymore) 

  • Stephenson, Tristan. The Curious Bartender's Gin Palace. Ryland Peters & Small, 2016. 
  • Wondrich, David, and Noah Rothbaum, editors. The Oxford Companion to Spirits & Cocktails. Oxford University Press, 2022.


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