What You Should Know About the (Surprisingly) Wide World of Gin

published Apr 9, 2014
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(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

Gin. Short word, but one that contains multitudes. When your average drinker thinks of gin, the libation he pictures is actually just one sort: London dry gin. Thanks to its centuries of popularity, piney, citrus-laced, floral London dry has commandeered the term “gin” as a shorthand for itself — despite the fact that it’s just one of several styles of spirit that, through direct and tenuous connections alike, have come to be considered types of gin.

Do you know the other styles of gin? It goes pretty far beyond the bottles you’re probably familiar with.

(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

Browse the shelves of your local spirits shop, and in addition to the bottles labeled London dry — your Tanqueray, your Beefeater — you might also spot Plymouth gin, sloe gin, Old Tom gin, so-called “American gin,” genever (also known as Holland gin), and barrel-aged gin. You may even see liquor bottles labeled compound gin (this stuff is best avoided).

London dry is the 9-Bottle Bar’s gin of choice, but before we get into the why and which ones to buy, let’s first get acquainted with what the term gin actually encompasses. There are three main categories of gin we’ll look at today.

What differentiates these gin categories? And are they all honest-to-goodness gins? Here are the three main styles of gin you should know.

London Dry Gin

The Brits have had a taste for gin since soldiers in the English army were stationed in what is modern-day Holland during the 17th century. After acquiring a liking for a local, quasi-medicinal liquor called genever, the troops went on to spur a domestic market for similarly flavored booze back in Britain.

The offshoot spirits that developed were, like genever, flavored with juniper “berries” (they’re really seeds). But unlike malty, semi-sweet genever, the profile that eventually became unofficially codified as London dry gin was much leaner, juniper-forward, and, yes, drier than its counterpart across the channel.

The common botanicals used to flavor London dry gins include coriander seed, citrus peel, and angelica root. Sipped neat, London dry gin can be soapy, sharp, perhaps even a touch antiseptic. But mixed in a cocktail, the same stuff can excite the palate and compliment its fellow ingredients in myriad ways.

(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

Curiously, London dry gin can hail from anywhere. Neither the European Union nor the U.S. government dictates that liquor bottles denoted as London gin (the term “dry” is a ubiquitous yet optional add-on) need to be produced in that city. (By contrast, Plymouth gin can only be made in the southwestern English city from which it got its name.)

The spirits in those bottles must, however, adhere to standards related to characteristics like alcohol content following distillation (no less than 70 percent ABV), flavor (a discernible taste of juniper), and purity (no colorants and practically no added sweeteners are allowed).

Genever (Holland Gin)

The stuff may have helped bring about the development of London dry gin, but at this point the two spirits have become fairly far removed. Notably, pot-distilled genever includes some percentage of malt barley wine, which lends the spirit a funky, sweet, almost bready character. Column-distilled London dry gins, on the other hand, aren’t known to feature malted grains, even though the base distillate of a London dry gin must derive from an agricultural product. Picking up on the distinctive profile of malt wine in a genever, you may recall Scotch whiskey before you relate it to gin.

(Image credit: Roger Kamholz)

Old Tom Gin

During the first heyday of American cocktailing — which really began to flower during the late 19th century — Old Tom gin was a common barroom staple, used in several widely consumed cocktails such as the Tom Collins. Stylistically, Old Tom is arguably a closer descendant of genever than is London dry gin, what with its usual hit of sweet malt wine. But as tastes began to shift toward drier cocktail presentations (a great example: how the Martinez led to the Martini), Old Tom gin fell into obscurity.

A century or so later, a small set dof istillers are bringing this lost spirit back into focus. Certain producers have uncovered recipes from the 19th century and have based new products around historical authenticity. For its part, Ransom, the Oregon-based winery and distillery, partnered with drinks historian David Wondrich to release its Old Tom gin, which is drawn from a discovered period recipe and is also aged in used wine barrels (Ransom is both a winery and a distillery) in order to develop color and more woodsy flavor. And yet even with its own set of production methods, Old Tom is, no question, as much a gin as London dry claims to be.

Do you ever drink anything other than the classic London dry gin?