Gin and tonic season is upon us. That crisp, tart beverage, colored only by a slice of citrus, could not be more ideal for sipping on a patio in the afternoon, feeling the warmth of the sun on your shoulders, or a refreshing way to start out an evening.
But have you ever stood before a bartender, and had this experience:
“What kind of gin would you like?”
“Um.” [Surveys the selection of bottles, ranging from small-batch to big-brand, and feels completely stumped.] “Something dry? Floral? Both? Whatever, I’ll take Tanqueray.”
We’ve all seen how many new gins are out there, and it can be intimidating to choose one if you’re not a connoisseur. Gin is a very broad category of spirits, with numerous styles and even a few geographically protected appellations.
It all started with a Dutch spirit called Genever, which is the ancestor of gin. Genever came to England during the 17th century, after British soldiers encountered it during the 80-Years-War, and this discovery led to a full-on gin craze, because this spirit was so cheap to make. Gin’s popularity made it a social hazard, particularly to the working classes, as “it was being produced in ways that were dangerous, and even poisonous and addictive,” explains Ginger Warburton, bartender at New York City’s Lantern’s Keep and brand ambassador for Portobello Road Gin, made in London.
The term “Mother’s Ruin” came about during the gin craze, which affected the lower classes most of all. It went on until the Parliament decided to decree a few regulations, which resulted in the creation of “London Dry Gin.” To make a London Dry, you have to get a neutral grain spirit from a few specific locations, and it’s highly regulated, explained Warburton—whereas in the U.S., gin production is a bit more open.
The creation of London Dry gin helped elevate the spirit from its working-class status, to a more posh positioning. But on the American side of the pond, gin encountered some struggles.
Warburton recounts how vodka, equipped with sexy add campaigns, overshadowed gin’s popularity, which it had accrued during Prohibition. Hendrick’s had an important role in reclaiming gin’s place, “it’s the vodka drinker’s gin,” explains Warburton. This is thanks in part to the addition of cucumber and rose after distillation. “Hendrick’s revitalized the gin market in America,” she says.
Here’s some help in getting to know the main styles of gin—a few of which are actually protected as appellations—and their individual, unique styles. “Just like in wine, you differentiate between earth and fruit and flowers; in gin you can think about earthiness and vegetal notes,” advises Warburton.
Gin, just plain gin: Generic gin can be made anywhere, but to call it so it must have juniper in it. It’s not like bourbon where it has to be 51 percent corn; juniper just has to be the predominant botanical. That’s what makes it gin. Juniper is the seed cone of a shrub that grows wild all over the world, and it lends a piney taste to the base spirit that comprises gin. Throughout history, juniper has been used for culinary and medicinal purposes; it was used by the ancient Egyptians and the Romans to cure digestive maladies, and the Greeks allegedly believed it to increase athletic stamina. The other main botanicals in gin typically include coriander, angelica root, orris root, and citrus peels. Hendrick’s gin is within this category, and is unique for adding cucumber and roses after the distillation process; Junipero and Botanist also fit here. Barr Hill, which is from Vermont and has honey added, is another example.
London Dry: This legal designation was created by British Parliament in the 1870s, during the gin craze, to tamper bootlegging. London Dry is a style and a caliber of quality, guaranteeing that only natural botanicals are used rather than any artificial flavorings, and it can be made anywhere in the world. Tanqueray, Beefeater, and Bombay fall into this category, as well as smaller brands like Sipsmith and Portobello Road.
Mahón: This is one of the only appellation-protected gins; it must come from the Spanish island of Menorca. With a recipe dating back to the early 18th century, Mahón (which is a singular brand in itself) is made with a base spirit from grapes, rather than the typical grain base, and it is distilled in wood-fired pot stills with juniper berries from the Spanish Pyrenees.
Plymouth: This was once a legal, geographically protected denomination, although that has become complicated in recent years. But regardless of that formality, Plymouth (also a singular brand) is only made in Plymouth, England. It is considered less juniper-focused, and more citrusy and earthy. Plymouth Gin is the main brand, and it produces a classic gin as well as a sloe gin (made with sloe berries) and a navy strength (higher ABV) gin.
Old Tom: This gin actually contains added beet sugar, lending in some sweetness and making it fuller in body. Old Tom gin is to be used in the classic cocktail Tom Collins. The brand Hayman’s has an Old Tom style gin, made with a recipe from the 1860s.
Ready to mix up a G+T? Ginger Warburton advises choosing your tonic carefully. “In a gin and tonic, it’s more about the tonic than the gin,” she says. “You want a tonic made with natural sugars,” and something subtle. Her picks: 1724 or Fever Tree.