Gin: What Is It?
By Dan Bignold
Jul 27th, 2020
Sales of gin aren’t slowing down, with the category's growth both gender-neutral and resilient during Covid-19. Here’s a quick primer to make sure you're able to discuss and recommend the juniper-flavoured spirit confidently. (Note: this article contains no history, no “gin lane”, just practical knowledge to improve customer service.)

What is gin?

Gin is a neutral distillate (the same base as vodka), which is then flavoured with several botanicals (ingredients that come from plants – such as herbs, spices, roots, barks, fruit, peels and even berries), of which the dominant ingredient and flavour has to be the juniper berry.

Juniper berries.

There are two ways to capture these botanical flavours in a gin, which creates two types of gin – distilled gin and compound gin:

  • Distilled gin: For this distillation process, botanicals are steeped in neutral spirit (pictured below) inside a still to extract the flavours. The spirit is then redistilled, with the botanical flavours no infused in the alcohol vapour, which is then condensed back into liquid. Bottles labelled as “London dry gin” or “London gin” have to use this method.
  • Compound gin: Concentrates are extracted from botanicals and added later to a neutral distillate to create a compound gin, the same way a flavoured vodka is generally made. In general (but not strictly), this creates a lower quality product, with more artificial or less bright tasting flavours.
Botanicals steeping in neutral spirit in a still before being re-distilled to make gin.

NOTE: Crucially, “London gin” does not need to be made in London. It’s a set of production rules that has created a certain style – traditionally dry – rather than a geographical appellation or denomination of origin. So you can get “London gin" made all over the world.

How does gin taste?

According to law, gin should taste mostly of juniper berries. But what do they taste like? Juniper’s main aromatic compounds are pinene (think pine and rosemary) as well as myrcene (also in hops and wild thyme), plus some citrus. Combine an idea of those flavours those together and you have something close to juniper.

Juniper's flavour shares similarities with other botanicals.

Although juniper needs to be the defining flavour, these juniper notes will be positioned between low notes of earth and deep spice, and top notes of zesty citrus and sharp spice – and gin-makers use an array of different botanicals to impact the flavour. While most gins have between 4-10 botanicals, many new gins use more – Monkey 47 has 47, and The Botanist has 31.

Here are some of gin’s most common supporting botanicals, and what they bring to the spirit’s flavour profile:

  • Angelica root: Widely used in some of Europe’s most famous botanical drinks, from vermouth to amaro, gin-makers lean on the dried roots of this herb to deliver earthy, woody, citrus notes (not too dissimilar to juniper).
  • Coriander seeds: Often considered the second most important botanical after juniper, dried coriander seeds have a very different taste to its leaves: woody, nutty, floral with sharp citrus notes – a perfect balance for gin.
  • Orris root: Common in the perfume industry, orris root takes around four years to grow, another five years to dry, after which the root develops a violet-like aroma.
  • Citrus (usually lemon and orange): The dried peels are used to bring fresh, zesty, bitter notes to help balance more earthy or spicy botanicals. Both bitter and sweet oranges are used.
  • Cassia (Chinese cinnamon): The inner bark of this tree (or its close cousin cinnamon) produces warm, aromatic, spicy notes. Chemically similar to clove, the taste has some of that same numbing pungency: distillers use sparingly.
  • Other common botanicals you might expect to see: Anise, liquorice, almond, nutmeg, camomile, cardamom and cubeb berries.

Here’s a map below to show where a selection of different gins sit in relation to each other in terms of flavour:

A map showing different gin brands and their relative flavour profiles.

Very broadly speaking, gins can be grouped into different styles: the traditional, juniper-forward gins shown towards the right of the map (and this is typical of London dry gins), and then the “modern” gins, which lean away from juniper and highlight their other botanicals (towards the left). 

However, it’s not an easy, neat split – there are new juniper-heavy gins, distilled gins appearing all over the world (but might not want to be associated with the word “London”), and equally there are “modern” London dry gins that promote new and unusual botanicals never seen before in gin…

Gin round the world

Ever since the gin category boomed through a global renaissance over the last 20 years, its supporting flavours have become even more varied. Indeed, it is modern gin’s unusual botanicals – not juniper – that have helped market the category even further.

Even if a guest finds the taste of juniper difficult (and many do), there are plenty of gins that dial back the juniper and celebrate their provenance or terroir with other local flavours. And thanks to this variety, gin – combined with its relatively quick, low-cost production (no ageing) – gin is challenging to become the world’s truly global spirit.

To illustrate how far gin has come in the last few years from its original home in the UK (and before that, as the juniper-based spirit genever, born in Holland and Belgium), here are two examples of botanicals from around the world now being used to set gins apart on your shelves (plus a few of the brands using them):

  • Pepperberry (Australia): This Australian ingredient is having a moment, thanks to the multitude of new Aussie gin-makers including it in their botanical mix to create a warm, peppery spice note. Find it in: Four Pillars, Green Ant (along with green ants!), Ink, Never Never and others.
  • Yuzu (Japan): This citrus gives Japanese gins a native alternative to lemon, with intense, aromatic top notes, with a tanginess between lemon and grapefruit. Find it in: Roku, Nikka Coffey Still and Ki No Bi.

Gin service

Gin is not usually drunk neat but used as a base for mixed drinks, with the Gin and Tonic ("g&t") being the most common drink for the gin category.

Remember, a drink is only as good as the worst ingredient, so even for a simple serve such as the g&t, select a tonic water that mirrors the quality of gin and use good quality ice. For garnishing, check with your guest on their preference, but you can think about matching the garnish with a unique botanical in the gin for a "perfect serve". For example, Hendrick's is usually served with a long ribbon of cucumber in a Hendrick’s & Tonic.

Other Frequency 5 drinks featuring gin ("Frequency 5" are what we call recipes in the Small Batch Learning recipe library that any bartender absolutely has to know by heart, because of the frequency they’ll be ordered in your bar) include the Dry Martini and Negroni. 

Frequency 4 (slightly less common, but still essential to learn) recipes include: the Aviation, Bramble, Corpse Reviver No2, Gin Fizz, Gimlet, Last Word, Singapore Sling, Tom Collins and White Lady. All these can be found in the Small Batch Learning recipe library. (Tip: all entries in our library can be fully customised – so for team training, you can edit our recipe to match your bar’s own specs and house pour choices).

To finish up, here’s another of our favourites, this time from the Frequency 3 list, the Clover Club – which we’d recommend to gin fans looking for a fun, fruity drink that still leans on the dry side:

We don't have space here to explain much about old tom gin (an older slightly sweetened style of gin) or sloe gin (a fruit flavoured gin- or neutral-spirit based drink, either bottled sweet as a liqueur or unsweetened as a flavoured gin). But to wrap up, here's a short video to re-cap on gin's essentials: 

To find out even more about training your retail and hospitality teams on gin (or with lessons like this for any of the other major spirits categories), get in touch with Small Batch Learning here.