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Gin Fever: Part I

Someone asked me the other day: "David, you've done week long reports on tequila, rum, whiskey, etc. When are going to do a series on gin?"

To tell you the truth, I'd never really thought about it. I love gin. I personally drink more gin than I do all other spirits combined. My mother drinks gin every day. Her mother still drinks gin every day (at 94 years of age -- maybe that's the secret?). Gin is simply something I take for granted. I don't really think too much about where it comes from or how it's made. Gin is essentially just flavored vodka--neutral grain spirit with juniper and a number of other botanicals and spices. There's a lot of room for creativity and exploration when it comes to gin production (see our Faultline series with St. George for examples, along with our Rusty Blade barrel-aged gins from Old World Spirits), but is it a process that will interest drinkers and engage them in the same way that other spirits do?

Let's find out. I'll fill you in on the details and you tell me whether or not you think it's worth knowing.

If we're going to get technical, no tongue in cheek allowed, then let's get technical. The European Union breaks gin down into four categories. I could type them all up, or I could just copy the definitions off of their webpage:

Juniper-Flavoured Spirit Drinks - This includes the earliest class of gin, which is produced by pot distillinga fermented grain mash to moderate strength (e.g. 68% ABV), and then redistilling it with botanicals to extract the aromatic compounds. It must be bottled at a minimum of 30% ABV. Juniper-Flavoured Spirit Drinks may also be sold under the names Wacholder or Genebra.

Gin- This is a juniper flavoured spirit made not via the redistillation of botanicals, but by simply adding approved natural flavouring substances to a neutral spirit of agricultural origin. The predominant flavour must be juniper.

Distilled gin- Distilled gin is produced exclusively by redistilling ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin with an initial strength of 96% ABV (the azeotrope of water and ethanol) in stills traditionally used for gin, in the presence of juniper berries and of other natural botanicals, provided that the juniper taste is predominant. Gin obtained simply by adding essences or flavourings to ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin is not distilled gin.

London gin- London gin is obtained exclusively from ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin with a maximum methanol content of 5 grams per hectolitre of 100% ABV equivalent, whose flavour is introduced exclusively through the re-distillation in traditional stills of ethyl alcohol in the presence of all the natural plant materials used, the resultant distillate of which is at least 70% ABV. London gin may not contain added sweetening exceeding 0.1 gram of sugars per litre of the final product, nor colorants, nor any added ingredients other than water. The term London gin may be supplemented by the term "dry".

In the EU, the minimum bottled alcoholic strength for gin, distilled gin, and London gin is 37.5% ABV.

In the United States, gin is defined as an alcoholic beverage of no less than 40% ABV (80 proof) that possesses the characteristic flavour of juniper berries. Gin produced only through distillation or redistillation of aromatics with an alcoholic wash can be further distinguished and marketed as "distilled gin".

Some legal classifications of gin are defined only as originating from specific geographical areas without any further restrictions (e.g. Plymouth gin, Ostfriesischer Korngenever, Slovenská borovička, Kraški Brinjevec, etc.), while other common descriptors refer to classic styles that are culturally recognized, but not legally defined (e.g., sloe gin, Wacholder and Old Tom gin).

Let's get less technical now. If you'll notice, the EU distinguishes between gin and distilled gin. Both are neutral grain spirits with juniper as the dominate flavor, but one is simply macerated with juniper (i.e. simply soaking vodka with juniper and other botanicals like tea) while the other is "distilled" with the botanicals. However, this does not mean that the wheat or corn is fermented and distilled with juniper in the mash. It means that the GNS is essentially re-distilled and the vapors pass through a basket of botanicals placed in the still that add the flavor before the alcohol is condensed back into a liquid. This is how most producers I am familiar with do it (although with Faultline Batch #2 we did soak the orange peels and leaves in the liquid, giving it a slight greenish tint). They buy neutral grain spirit from the bulk market, put it into their still, and then re-distill that spirit with botanicals of their choosing. There are some producers who actually distill their own GNS, but I personally haven't found that the extra work and expense has helped to create a better gin. I know it doesn't seem very romantic or "hand-crafted" to buy bulk GNS for agricultural producers and then flavor it, but that's what gin is. Why we think it's cooler and more "authentic" than vodka is beyond me, but it sure does taste good.

While the production of gin may not thrill our geeky inhibitions, the history of gin is fascinating. Iain Gately's tome of alcohol's longstanding past, Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol, has an entire chapter on the subject. While the story of gin probably should begin in Holland, for the sake of this blog post it begins in London in the 1700s. Imagine it. A huge metropolis brimming with 600,000 people living in cramped quarters, side-by-side, the rich and poor alike. Gately writes:

The British prided themselves on their drinking. Foreigners marveled at their consumption. A Swiss traveler wrote home: "Would you believe it, though water is to be had in abundance in London, and of fairly good quality, absolutely none of it is drunk? The lower classes, even the paupers, do not know what it is to quench their thirst with water. In this country nothing but beer is drunk.

While beer was the drink of choice for London, gin would take over by the year 1720. Gin, just the English word for Dutch genever, was about to get a boost from the royal crown. Due to a huge surplus of grain in England, King William was bound to help growers and landowners maintain their wealth even with the price of the commodity dropping quickly. As Gately writes:

William had witnessed the phenomenal demand Genever could create for grain in his native Holland and hoped the same might occur in his new kingdom. An "Act for the Encouraging or the Distillation of Brandy and Spirits from Corn" was passed, which allowed anyone in England to distill alcohol using English cereals, upon ten day's notice to HM Excise and payment of a small fee. The act was a great success and stills sprang up all over the country. ("corn" being a generic term for wheat, barley, rye, and oats)

The increased production of gin lowered the price of the juniper-flavored spirit across the country, which spiked consumption. The demand helped to stabilize the price of corn, making the landowners very happy. The spirits boom mirrored many of the same trends we see today in the American craft spirits movement. People with little knowledge of distillation began jumping into the industry, hoping to find success in this budding market. They used anything from professional copper stills to converted bathtubs. Gately adds:

Among them they produced a torrent of gin, which was sold from shops, houses, the crypts of churches and inside prisons from kiosks, boats, wheelbarrows, baskets and bottles, and from stalls at public executions. Gin was cheap, and above all a quick way of getting drunk. Why work your way through porter at three pence a pot when the same money would buy a pint of gin?

This is the same logic the National Geographic special I watched last night made comparing methamphetamine to crack. Cheap white crystal on the street is angering the cartels in control of the cocaine trade. Much in the same vein, the brewers in England were not pleased. Tales of "scorch gut" from gin consumption were spread, and a link was quickly drawn between London's rising crime rate and gin usage. It wasn't until 1929, however, that Parliament acted, declaring a new gin act that restricted sales to licensed retailers, putting a high price on those licenses (much like we have in the U.S. today). The act didn't do much, however. Illicit gin distillation and sales were still a problem. The issue was revisited in 1933 with "a more liberal attitude" towards the issue. Gately states:

The '33 Act stimulated supply, and Londoners debased themselves with fresh abandon.

But we'll save all that for Part II.

-David Driscoll