A Distilled History Of Gin
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
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…
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
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 three major changes that seemed to help were these:
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
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
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
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:
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.
Gray Whale Gin
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.
Works Referenced (But Not Cited Because I’m Not in Class Anymore)
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