Gin for beginners: all you need to know about this popular spirit
So... first things first...
What exactly is gin?
Well, according to Collins, gin is ‘an alcoholic drink obtained by distillation and rectification of the grain of malted barley, rye or maize, flavoured with juniper berries.’
Where does it come from?
Gin has its roots in the Low Countries, where genever – a juniper-flavoured tonic –was hailed for its medicinal benefits as far back as 1350. People knew a good thing when they drank it, and – according to tax records – genever was being distilled and consumed for recreation by the late 1400s. (Side note: genever is still produced today, like Bols Genever.)
You mean gin isn’t as English as cucumber sandwiches?
Nope, but the Gin Craze was. In 1625, you see, the English popped over the pond to help their Dutch allies in the Eighty Years’ War, and they quickly got a taste for ‘Dutch courage’, which calmed their battle-frayed nerves. It wasn’t long before geneva (note the spelling) was being produced back in the land of hope and glory. One thing led to another, and gin – yes, now ‘gin’ – shops mushroomed. Soon the cheap (and nasty) gin was being consumed with wild abandon, particularly by the working class and especially by women (enter the epithets of ‘ladies delight’ and ‘mother’s ruin’). Population growth plummeted, babies died, and Britain was not so great for a while.
READ: Add one of these 15 local gins to your drinks trolley
How’s it made?
The short answer is that there are two steps to making gin. First you make (or buy) a neutral base spirit (like vodka) and then you flavour it with juniper berries and other botanicals. The long answer is that there are several ways to distil gin, as follows:
• Steep and boil distillation – Botanicals are steeped in the base spirit before distillation (similar to making tea, but the boiling happens after).
• Vapour infusion – The gin vapour passes through the botanicals before being condensed back into liquid.
• Vacuum distillation – Botanicals are steeped while in a vacuum (like a pressure cooker).
• Cold compounding – This gin isn’t distilled; rather botanicals are added to the base spirit in the form of oils or essences (like adding cordial to water, often seen as a bit of a cheat).
Some brands use a combination of the above, like The Botanist – first nine core botanicals are steeped, then the gin is distilled while slowly vapour infusing 22 foraged Islay botanicals.
And what exactly are botanicals?
Botanicals are pretty much any natural ingredient you use to flavour gin, such as roots, fruits, seeds, spices, berries, nuts, barks and herbs.
What types of gins are there?
Gin can be classed in three ways: by production, region and flavour.
• Gin – Flavours are added to the neutral sprit when bottling (so all non-distilled gin is cold compounded, as above).
• London Gin – Flavours (natural only) are distilled with the neutral spirit and a touch of sweetener may be added after, like Tanqueray London Dry and Hope on Hopkins London Dry. (Note it doesn’t have to be made in London).
• Distilled Gin – This is usually what we’re taking about when we say ‘gin’. Flavours are distilled with the neutral spirit, and more may be added after, like Bloedlemoen Gin and Tanqueray No Ten.
• Dry Gin – Any gin can be classed as ‘dry’ if the sugar content is less than 0,1g/Litre, like Ginifer Joburg Dry Gin.
• Cape Gins – Yes, from our very own Mother City! Made with indigenous botanicals, like Wilderer Fynbos Gin, New Harbour Rooibos Gin and Hope on Hopkins Salt River Gin (with kapokbos and buchu).
• Plymouth Gin – From Plymouth, like Plymouth Gin.
• Scottish Gins – Made in Scotland, of course, like Hendrick's, The Botanist and Caorunn.
• Old Tom – Sweeter than London Dry and dryer than genever, like Time Anchor Old Tom.
• New Western – The focus is less on juniper and more on other botanicals, like the citrusy Tanqueray No. Ten.
• Classic – Juniper forward, like No. 3 London Dry.
• Flavoured – The most common would be sloe gin, like Sipsmith Sloe Gin.
• Navy Strength – Originally strong enough so that if it spilled on a battleship the gunpowder would still ignite (yes, really), like Time Anchor The Navy.
A gin can fall into more than one of the above categories, like Hendrick’s, which is a distilled Scottish gin with a New Western flavour, or Tanqueray, a London Dry with a classic flavour.
How you should drink it
Try these ‘perfect serves’ and see what takes your fancy:
• Ginifer Joburg Dry – With Fitch & Leedes Tonic, a slice of naartjie and a sprig of rosemary, or with a slice of grapefruit and a star anise, both over ice.
• No. 3 London Dry – In a French 75, Negroni or a classic dry martini.
• Wilderer Fynbos Gin – Neat, or over ice with quality tonic water and garnished with mint leaf or lemon or naartjie peel.
• Tanqueray No. Ten – In a G&T with a grapefruit wedge.
• The Botanist – On the rocks, or in a very dry martini.
• New Harbour Spekboom Gin – With your favourite Indian tonic, adding a lemon wheel and micro herbs to taste.
• Caorunn – One part Caorunn to two parts premium tonic water over ice, with Pink Lady apple slices.
• Tanqueray London Dry – With a mix of orange and pineapple juice over ice, and a squeeze of lime.
• Hendrick’s Gin – In a G&T, garnished with cucumber. Simple and sophisticated.
How you can find out more
Go on a cool gin distillery tour or buy a few local gins and test them out. If you’re in Cape Town, swing by Mother’s Ruin Gin Bar or The Gin Bar. Or get the Aficionados Gin Aroma Kit, and walk yourself through 24 nosing samples in the comfort of your own home – you’ll be a gin-aroma pro in no time.
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With thanks to Cape Town’s gin gurus, who know who they are.