What’s the difference between distilled gin and non-distilled gin? Well, first we should look at the history and genesis of this controversial spirit.
Some alcohol connoisseurs find it refreshing and bright where others say it tastes like floor cleaner. Whether you are a fan of this piney liquor or not, it has had a big impact on the cocktail world and continues to influence distillery and mixology culture today.
The beginning of gin’s story may not be too surprising, like many great spirits it started out as a form of medicine. Unlike liquors such as bourbon, which have specific established ingredient requirements, gin is a much more broad spectrum liquor. It can be made in a wide variety of ways with just as wide of an ingredient list.
It is generally established that gin is grain-based alcohol with a predominant flavor of juniper, but modern distillers are stretching the limits of these standards in major ways, more on that later in this post.
The History of Gin
Many doctors in the 17th and 18th century understood the medicinal value of a stiff drink, they simply misjudged how it would help. Its origins are from Holland with an incredibly insightful professor of medicine named Franciscus Sylvius (1614-1672). Sylvius is responsible for many physiological discoveries as well as being highly influential in shifting the focus of medicine from mystical beliefs to a scientific study.
Although there is some suggestion that it got its origins even further back in history, somewhere in the 13th century, it was Sylvius who made it into a Dutch staple. During one of his many experiments, he was trying to create an inexpensive diuretic medication out of juniper berries. He combined spirits with the berries and thus, gin was born! Little did he know that he would change the cocktail world.
The Junction of Gin
Once Professor Sylvius’ creation caught on, it spread like wildfire across Holland and the Dutch began producing it commercially. Eventually, it made its way into the glasses of British soldiers who were there fighting in the Thirty Years’ War. The soldiers used the spirit to bolster their bravery, which is perhaps where the term “Dutch Bravery” came from. These soldiers eventually took the delicious drink home to England, where it was given its official name. The original name came from the Dutch word for juniper, which is genever or geneva. Once the English got a hold of it they abbreviated the name to the much simpler ‘gin’.
Not only did the British appreciate the fresh flavor of this new beverage, but they also appreciated how easy it was for them to reproduce. This led to the mass over-consumption of it throughout Great Britain. Even the famous Daniel Defoe commented on the situation, saying that “distillers had finally found a way to hit the palettes of the poor” since gin was a lot easier to procure than the French brandy that had been England’s previous drink of choice.
The Gin Craze
Consumption was such a problem in the early 18th century that the British Parliament passed five major acts between 1729 and 1751 trying to curb what is now referred to as “The Gin Craze”. It is estimated that during this time the English were consuming 2.2 gallons of gin per person per year. This increase in drunkenness led to quite a bit of moral outrage and gin drinkers were viewed very negatively, proof of which can be seen in William Hogarth’s famous engraving, Gin Lane.
In 1751, Parliament passed its final Act which restricted sales to respectable establishments only. This, combined with an increase in the cost of grain and a drop in the economy, led to the end of the craze, but it did not end the life and popularity. It saw a bit of a reinvention in the Victorian Era with the establishment of “Gin Palaces” in the 1840s.
In the years between the end of the craze and the start of gin’s reinvention, it was still being used by British soldiers, but not for courage. At least not completely. They began using it somewhat medicinally, circling back to its original purpose. During the early 1800s, there were many British soldiers stationed in India. India, the beautiful land of tropical climates and delicious foods were, at that time, also famous for one other less appealing element: malaria.
By this time it was already known that taking quinine every day could help to prevent the terrible disease, but like most medicines, quinine tastes terrible. So with true British ingenuity, the British officers stayed calm and put some alcohol in it. The soldiers found that it was much more palatable when mixed with a little water, sugar, lime, and gin. Sound familiar? Yes, you guessed it, this was the birth of the gin and tonic.
Gin Versus Prohibition
We could not discuss such a famous spirit without bringing up Prohibition. The British were not the only ones to make good use of the spirit and how easy it is to make. Although the Americans were 200 years late to the party, they took full advantage of homemade gin in the roaring 1920s.
The home-distillers of the day were brewing up just about anything they could make in a small, inconspicuous home still. This led to a wide variety of gins made from cheap grain alcohol, water, and botanical flavorings which may or may not have contained juniper berries.
During this time, the police began referring to these homemade brews as “Bathtub Gin”. Of course, you couldn’t actually distill it in a bathtub, since it is not an enclosed container, but many of these homemade brews were already distilled alcohol that was simply being mixed with other ingredients for flavor.
The DIY Gin
The common copper or ceramic tubs of the time would have been the perfect size for mixing up these alcoholic concoctions in larger quantities. Plus, a tub could be easily hidden in plain sight if the authorities stopped in for a visit.
Not surprisingly, not all “Bathtub Gin” was actually gin, but the term stuck and there is even a modern infused gin called “Bathtub Gin” made by an English company called Ableforth. Thankfully, Ableforth’s tastes much better than what was being produced in the bathtubs of 1920’s Americans.
These homemade concoctions are actually responsible for many of the gin-based cocktails we love today, but probably not for the reasons you’re thinking. Since there was no way to regulate these homemade drinks, many of them tasted so bad that they had to be mixed with other ingredients to make them palatable. And thus was created the wide variety of mixed drinks.
What Is Gin Made From?
Now that you know where it came from and how it became so well established, let’s move on to another important subject: What is gin made from? We know what you’re thinking, it’s made from grain-based spirits and juniper berries! Well, you’re right, but it is a little more complicated.
Actually, it’s much more complicated. As we talked about earlier, it is grain-based alcohol flavored juniper, but distillers are putting their own knowledge and spin on gin today to create some exciting new flavor profiles.
To Distill or Not to Distill, That is The Question
There are three main categories of gin: distilled gin, redistilled gin, and dry gin. These terms can get a bit confusing between countries. We are going to use the American terms, but just remember that if you are buying your gin in Europe or Canada, the terms are slightly different.
Distilled Gin: What is often considered traditional, this style is made by combining a neutral spirit of agricultural origin, usually a grain-based spirit, with botanical flavorings, the strongest of which being juniper. This can be done by simply adding the flavoring or by soaking your desired botanicals in the alcohol base until it is infused with the flowery flavors.
Redistilled Gin: Redistilled gin starts out as very strong ethanol alcohol, approximately 96% ABV. This alcohol is redistilled with the desired botanicals, creating less potent, but more flavorful alcohol, starting at about 37% to 40% ABV.
Dry Gin: Dry gin, or London Gin, is made without any sweetening agents. The European Union has very strict rules about how it can be produced, but it is produced in other countries with less stringent rules. Mostly, all you need to know about Dry Gin is in the name. It is very dry, not sweet, making it great for those who really like the flavor of juniper or those who want to make mixed drinks without the added sweetness.
Mixing Up The Classics
As we mentioned earlier, modern distillers are not bound by tradition. There are older flavor variations, such as sloe gin, but most flavored gins are modern. These can be made with all different types of botanicals from citruses to florals. Although you can use flavored gins in mixed drinks, the old school cocktails should really be mixed with traditional juniper gin. Let’s take a look at some of those classics.
You cannot get much more classic than the gin and tonic. This is the oldest known gin cocktail and probably the easiest to make. All you need is gin, tonic water, ice, and a lime wedge for garnish. You no longer have to add sugar like the 18th century British soldiers did, since the modern spirit is often sweeter and has a more refined flavor. If you really want to be as authentic as possible, you can make your drink with dry variety and add the sugar to taste.
This is a much rarer cocktail, but if you love botanical flavors then this is the one for you. Made with gin, maraschino liqueur, creme de violette, and lemon juice, the aviation cocktail is the perfect combination of floral and fruity elegance. Creme de violette is a purple liqueur flavored with violets. Violets may be an uncommon flavor choice, but it is that flavor that makes this cocktail truly unique.
Although it is unclear who exactly invented this drink, the recipe first appeared in print in 1916. There was a time when creme de violette wasn’t being produced, so mixologists changed the recipe to simply gin, maraschino liqueur, and lemon juice, but if you want an authentic aviation cocktail experience, spring for the creme de violette.
The sloe gin fizz is one of the classic cocktails that actually requires a sloe gin. Sloe gin is made by infusing classic gin with sloe berries. Sloe berries are a small somewhat bitter berry that is native to England. They are related to plums and have a similar flavor, but are very bitter.
To overcome the bitterness of the berries, the ingenious British did the only proper thing, they combined them with gin. The result was a slightly sweeter and fruitier spirit which is particularly delicious when combined with club soda and a little lemon juice. Depending on the brand of sloe gin you purchase, it may be a bit dry. If so, you can always add a little simple syrup to sweeten it up. If you find the it is too sweet, you can add a little regular gin to balance out your cocktail.
We would not want to give you all this information about gin cocktails without leaving you with a simple recipe to mix up in your home bar. Although this drink was invented in the mid-1800s, the Gin Fizz became truly popular during the American cocktail craze of the early 1900s. This cocktail is a classic that allows you to appreciate the flavor of the traditional spirit in a slightly different way. Here’s what you’ll need:
- 2oz Gin
- 3/4oz Lemon or Lime Juice (Some people enjoy a combination of both)
- 3/4oz Simple Syrup
- 1 Egg White (Optional)
- 2oz Soda Water (Or enough to fill the glass)
- Lemon Peel or Cherry (For garnish)
- 1. Combine gin, juice, syrup, and egg white in your cocktail shaker and shake dry (without ice) for 10 to 15 seconds to combine.
- 2. Add ice to the shaker and shake vigorously for 30 seconds to 2 minutes.
- 3. Fill a chilled highball glass with ice then strain your mix over the ice.
- 4. Top off with soda water and garnish with your choice of lemon peel or cherry.
- 5. Sip and Enjoy!
If you are not comfortable using an egg white because eating raw egg does carry the risk of food-borne illness, you can simply leave the egg out. If you do choose to leave out the egg, you only need to shake it for 30 seconds after adding the ice. If you have access to farm-fresh eggs then you shouldn’t be concerned about raw egg, remember to shake it for the full two minutes. The egg white gives this cocktail a unique creamy texture that you will not experience with the gin alone.
If this cocktail made your mixologist’s heart sing, you should check out all the different variations there are of this classic. Throw in a little creme de menthe and you’ll have a green fizz. Use sparkling wine and you’ll have a diamond fizz. If you’re down for the egg cocktails, you could try a golden fizz that swaps the egg white out for an egg yolk. The options are endless.
The Journey of Gin
Gin has had a long and interesting journey from that laboratory in Holland to the shelves of modern-day bars. Who would have ever imagined that a failed medicinal tonic would end up providing a little “Dutch Courage” to the British, help soldiers avoid malaria, and sustain alcohol-deprived Americans through prohibition?
After hundreds of years of being recreated in tiny home stills, it came out strong on the other side and became one of the most popular ingredients for mixologists during the dawn of the cocktail craze.
Modern distillers have created a wide variety of styles and flavors that no longer require mixing to make them truly enjoyable. Nowadays, we mix with gin to add a fresh botanical flair to many delicious cocktails. From the simplistic mix of gin, tonic, and lime all the way to the more complex flavors of the aviation, gin is the perfect liquor for those who enjoy floral flavors. Gin is one of the oldest and most popular spirits in cocktail history.