Early History

 BENEDICTINE MONKS WERE DISTILLING ALCOHOL AT SOME POINT BETWEEN 1050 AND 1150. At this time spirits were used purely for medicinal properties, with various herbs, spices, roots and viscera being macerated in spirit and distilled either in crude pot stills, or in glass jars. They used the restorative herbs and spices which were already being used in so-called folk medicine - and one of these was juniper, which grows well and freely across Italy. Juniper-based elixirs only became widely used during the fourteenth century, when the Black Death arrived in Europe. One of the potions which followed in its wake was GENEVER made from juniper.

The berry was effective against bladder and kidney disease, and it was alleged to strengthen the immune system as well as cure prostate problems. With the bubonic plague laying waste to Western Europe, what better than a patent cure-all?

One of the first distilleries of gin was outside of Amsterdam. It wasn't long before genevet (as it became known in Holland) had left the apothecaries' cellars and entered public use, not just as a health tonic but as an enjoyable intoxicant. Genever was used not only to cure upset stomachs but also to give soldiers a certain numbed fearlessness in battle. This other side-effect of Genever was discovered (and greatly appreciated) by the regiments of English mercenaries who went to fight on the side of the Dutch in the Thirty Years' War (1618-48). On their return to England they brought tales of this "Dutch Courage", and some bottles of it as well.

 Gin became the English spirit because the new King was Dutch and there was a surplus of grain, and, so the English people embraced the newfangled "Hollands", or, as they eventually called it, "GIN". To say that gin was an immediate success would be to make one of the greatest understatements of all time. People living in the desperate slums needed something to numb the reality of their situations, just as the soldiers needed a distraction from the horrors of the battlefield so it became the drink of the common people. The Government made it extremely easy to become a distiller and by 1730 one-fifth of London's houses were "gin shops". These amateur distillers would have been making gin from anything they could get their hands on, using juniper, sugar and other flavorings as the base. Many times badly distilled products were made. In 1743, legislation was introduced to license distilleries and the industry began taking shape centered around a few reputable producers, among them, Alexander Gordon who started his distillery in 1769, Charles Tanqueray, and Sir Felix Booth.

  As the quality of the spirit improved, it no longer needed to be sweetened up with sugar and a new dry gin emerged. These new distillers were from the upper class which now made gin more acceptable for their peers to drink. Gin became the fashionable drink of the British Navy Officers, which they mixed with Angostura Bitters (which prevents stomach problems) called PINK GIN; lime juice (taken as a preventative against scurvy) called the GIMLET; and TONIC WATER - mineral water containing quinine (for malaria). Gin remained the most fashionable drink in London in the 1920's and became one of the main drinks in America during Prohibition. Despite the fact that bathtub gin (a concoction of industrial alcohol, juniper and glycerin) was produced by bootleggers, gin still retained its sophisticated image.

Gin began to lose popularity in the 1970's when it was saddled with an old-fashioned image and was replaced by Vodka as the No. 1 favorite spirit. In order to spark a new interest, Michael Roux invented Bombay Sapphire, a new style of high strength premium gin. He put it in a sapphire blue bottle, emphasized the use of exotic botanicals and the delicacy of flavor. This new gin took off. Sapphire was proof that not only could gin be made hip once more, but was evidence that drinkers were beginning to think more seriously about their drinks.

As we are entering the new Millenium, premium spirits are now in vogue, as are cocktails. The most significant shift is the new passion for flavour, and if the demand is for clean spirit with complex flavours, then what's better than gin?



One of the new extremely flavorful gins being produced in Amsterdam, Holland - the home of the first gin distillery .

 Made from an old recipe containing ten herbs and botanicals: angelica, coriander, grains of paradise, almonds, lemon , liquorice, juniper berries, cassia bark, orris and cubeb berries. Van Gogh Gin is handcrafted in small batches, distilled twice in column stills and a third time in a traditional potstill to produce a taste of unparalleled brilliance. There is no truer delight to the palate.

750 ml. 94 proof



 There are two main ways in which to make gin: redistilling a neutral spirit which has had natural flavouring ingredients (botanicals) added to it, labelled "Distilled Gin".; or adding essences of the flavouring agents and stirring them into the spirit, known as cold compounding. This has the advantage of being cheap, but the poor-quality gin it produces is not worth the money in the first place.

  Each distiller has its own slight variation on the gin making process, which starts with the spirit itself. Neutral spirit is alcohol which has undergone rectification to bring it up to around 96 per cent abv, which is about as pure as you can go. Most quality gin producers insist on (more expensive) grain spirit rather than cane (molasses), which can give it a slight sweet note Since the majority of the gin producers also own grain whisky plants, supply is not a problem but even then the supply has to be constantly monitored to make sure that it remains consistent, not just in quality but in aroma.

 For some reason though, no British gin distiller is allowed to produce its own neutral spirit on site, so it all has to be trucked in. This means that gin distilleries are strangely peaceful places to visit, even when they are distilling There are no clouds of steam from mash tubs, no bubbling fermenters; just the quiet hiss of steam heating the large pot stills and the steady flow of clear, new spirit into the sight glass - and the aroma. The smell of juniper berries is all-pervading, then you notice other subtle smells which swirl around your head, just as the spirit vapour rises in the still, capturing the flavour compounds from the botanicals, stripping them, clutching and entwining them to itself.

  The stills are copper pot stills, usually with high necks, which help extract only the higher, more fragrant alcohols - the stills at Glenmorangie, which produces a delicate malt whisky, are former gin stills. The gin still at Plymouth distillery, though, has a more unconventional shape, with a relatively short neck and an exaggerated curve in the lie pipe. This could account for Plymouth's characteristic richness of body - although that distillery also makes great play the fact that it uses spring water which has run through granite and peat to first dilute the spirit in the still. Other distilleries have to clean their water before use. (The dilution, by the way, is necessary otherwise the still would be in danger of blowing up.)


Secret Recipes

But what happens inside? This is where distilleries differ widely. All have secret recipes of botanicals; how they put them in the still also varies. Some, such as Gordon's and Plymouth, put their botanicals in only a short time before the steam is turned on and redistillatic starts. Beefeater, on the other hand steeps them for 24 hours before distilling, while Bombay Sapphire uses Carterhead still which contains a basket holding the botanicals. The vapor passes through the basket, stripping the flavours from the botanicals.

Of course, each distiller thinks that its approach is the correct one. Sapphire points to the delicate manner of the extraction, which gives a delicate gin. Beefeater feels that steeping gives gentler extraction, but builds in complexity, as it fixes the aromas in the spirit before distillation, while Plymouth counters that steeping can give harder flavours and allow certain ones to dominate.

Distilling "fixes" the botanical flavours in the gin. But distillation needs to be a careful process. For one thing, not all botanical aromas appear at the same time; they queue up in the still, waiting their turn to rise, mingle and be turned into flavoured spirit. After a quick run, the volatile citrus notes appear, then come juniper and coriander, then the roots such as orris, angelica and liquorice. That's not to say that one appears for a while, stops and then the next one starts; rather they blur into each other, each peaking at a different time.

The speed at which the still is run is therefore of tremendous importance to the final quality of the gin. Run a still too hot and too fast, and all the botanical aromas will be pushed over at the same time, along with unwanted heavier alcohols from the end of the run. Equally, each distillery will stop collecting spirit at a slightly different strength. Although this is also a closely guarded secret, it would be fair to assume that the richest and heaviest gins, with greater evidence of rooty aromas, will have been allowed to run for longer than ones with more lifted, citric notes. Since Beefeater relies on having a light, citric aroma, it is likely to cut at a higher strength.

But, inevitably, it's not quite as simple as that. Each distiller has his own recipe, and each handles the botanicals in a slightly different way to attain a different effect. In Bombay Sapphire's case, this involves suspending the botanicals over the rising vapour. The problem is that the technique seems to give too subtle an effect. The aromas don't appear to be fixed as firmly as they would if the botanicals had been placed directly into the still. The aroma could also be the effect of the alcoholic strength of the gin. When you reduce the gin, initially by water to get it to bottled strength and then with, say, a mixer like tonic, there's a series of little flavour explosions as these trigger points are hit. Citric notes, since they are the most volatile, are the first ones to be released.

When Gordon's made its decision to lower the per cent abv to 37.5 per cent, it saved money, but it also changed the aroma and flavour of the gin. The trigger point for the volatile citric aromas would appear to be around 40 per cent. Dilute to below that strength, and you'll kill them completely. The result is a flatter, more overtly junipery aroma and a flavour which doesn't carry all the way through on the palate.

 The fact that most UK gins followed the lead set by Gordon's meant that most gins in Britain suddenly lost flavour at the very time they were trying to attract new drinkers by saying that gin is full of flavour.


Use of Botanicals

The defining element in gin is its use of botanicals - with juniper as the main one. Without them you have a type of vodka. Each brand's recipe is known to only a few people. All brands use juniper and coriander, but Gordon's also uses ginger, cassia oil and nutmeg; Beefeater uses bitter orange as well as angelica root and seed; Plymouth's seven botanicals include sweet (rather than bitter) orange and cardamom; while Sapphire uses cubeb berries, cassia bark and grains of paradise. The aim is to produce a balanced, complex aroma - which doesn't necessarily mean the more botanicals, the more complex the smell. As any cook knows, flavours can end up cancelling each other out.

The combination of botanicals is also important. The roots not only give a dry, almost earthy, character but angelica also helps to hold in the volatile orange and lemon aromas.

The distillers use some of the most exotic aromas in the world in their gins. Juniper, with its hints of heather, lavender and camphor, is from Italy and southern Germany; coriander seed, with its lemon balm notes, will come either from Eastern Europe - or, in Sapphire's case, where a peppery quality is wanted - Morocco. Musky, dry angelica comes from Saxony; orange peel comes from Spain; earthy orris root, with its hint of violet, from Italy; cinnamon and cassia bark from India; ginger from the Far East; nutmeg from Grenada; Javanese cubeb berries; and grains of paradise from West Africa.

It all starts with the juniper berries, which are hand-picked from October to March. Spice merchants either send distillers samples after the October harvest, or distillers will go to seek out their supply. Then comes a long period of assessing the quality. What the distiller is looking for is a berry that has the same character as their gin, and which will give consistency of style.

 The same system is carried out with all the botanicals, and distillers will put together a blend of the ingredients to check if the style is consistent. The recipe remains the same in principle, but it may have to be tweaked given that each of the botanicals changes each year. The aroma isn't just from the botanicals themselves, but the relation between them.

 At the end of the day, the botanicals supply the fingerprint for each brand. They are what ensures that every gin is different.

 (information taken from Spirits & Cocktails

by Dave Broom)