August 03, 2021

A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO GIN TASTING by Charles Nelson, FounderGin: a fabulous, flavorful and fascinating liquor. 
(Photo by Vlad Tchompalov)

We used to think that gin had only one purpose: as an ingredient for gin and tonics. You wouldn’t sip it like bourbon any more than you’d sip the tonic.

Well, it turns out, whenever we tried straight gin, it was always cheap stuff. It’s actually a fabulous, flavorful and fascinating liquor with a rich history. After an experimental tasting evening, we developed a finer appreciation for this spirit. If you want to impress your friends and learn something new, read on!

Gin and tonic with clove and orange (Photo by Jez Timms)

Gin is intimately associated with botanicals which are plant-based additives such as herbs, flowers, roots, berries and seeds. In gin’s case juniper is almost always the base ingredient, from which it gets both its distinct flavor and its name (juniper is called genévrier in French).

Juniper has been popular in Europe for thousands of years as herbal medicine. Early physicians combined it with alcohol, presumably to make their medicine rather more popular. Something closer to “gin” as we know it eventually came to the Netherlands as “jenever”, a liquor made from distilled malt wine and juniper berries. Then, in the 1600’s, jenever migrated across the channel to England and really took off.

In 18th century London, gin was cheaper than beer and far cheaper than clean water.

This, combined with appalling working conditions and poverty, led to a ferocious thirst for gin among the poor. So began the gin craze when the whole city descended into wild bacchanalia. This was the origin of Bathtub Gin which was truly ghastly stuff, with crisp notes of turpentine and the mouthfeel of nail polish remover. Eventually, with a whole lot of regulation, gin cleaned itself up.

Gin martini (Photo by Mathilde Langevin)

Gin then spread to the rest of the world with the Gin and Tonic, a rare cocktail with a utilitarian purpose. At the time, the British were trying their best to conquer the world, but they had the unfortunate habit of dying horribly of malaria the moment they set foot in the tropics. But then these early explorers found out about quinine, a medication developed from the bark of the Peruvian cinchona tree.

It turns out, quinine was effective at combating malaria. It was also disgusting. But when combined with a tonic of sweeteners and gin, you have a quite delicious beverage.

From here, gin’s popularity waxed and waned until the modern era. Recently, gin has exploded in popularity amongst both consumers and liquor-makers alike.

Gin drink with rosemary (Photo by Mathilde Langevin)

Gin is what’s called a “neutral” spirit. Most modern gins are made from grains, like barley or corn. Gin is distilled, meaning the fermented drink is boiled and the alcoholic vapors are captured and collected into an odorless, flavorless and tasteless liquid.

Basically, gin is a vodka that has been infused with botanicals. Juniper is the base ingredient, but ginmakers can add a customized blend of flavors using two different general methods.

Distilling involves directing the superheated alcoholic vapors through these botanicals for flavoring. If your bottle says distilled gin, that means it’s been primarily flavored this way.

On the other hand, some gins are cold-compounded, which is similar to steeping a tea. Botanicals are added to the neutral spirit and soaked for a while. Typically a ginmaker will add flavors which won’t hold up to distillation, such as flowers or berries. This is where some gins get their trademark colors. If your bottle just says "gin," then the ginmaker was allowed to flavor it like this.

No matter the method, water is then added to the mixture to meet the appropriate ABV. From here, it’s ready to be enjoyed!

Gin and tonic with rosemary and grapefruit (Photo by Nicola Dreyer)
There is really not much middle ground with gin. It’s either fabulous, flavorful and delightful, or it will take your eyebrows right off.

That said, here are the major types:

LONDON DRY has the strictest regulations, but is actually a very common gin. Legally, London Dry must be flavored via distillation and cannot have any flavors added after that process other than a tiny bit of sugar. But despite its name, it can be made anywhere. This is the classic gin taste you’ve probably had before. The flavor is always strong in juniper. There’s a big range of quality here, but Bombay Sapphire and beefeater are familiar classics.

PLYMOUTH gin is similar to London Dry, except that it can only be made in the town of Plymouth. Plymouth blends juniper with orange peels, coriander and roots for a spicier, earthier finish.

OLD TOM gins are sweeter than London Dry, and less juniper focused. While originally made in bathtubs during the gin craze, Old Tom gins have been revitalized and are often sweetened with licorice. Though, interestingly, they don’t taste much like licorice at all. Old Tom is terrific in cocktails and mixed drinks. It is also ideal in a Tom Collins, for which it is often used. Increasingly popular, Hayman makes a great Old Tom, as so does the much bigger Tanqueray.

Gin and tonic (Photo by Nikolay Dimitrov)

GENEVER STYLE takes after the old fashioned Dutch style. These are typically sweeter and are more like a liqueur. The base grains are fermented for longer, then mashed, similar to whiskey. A rich flavor, they’re often fantastic in an Old Fashioned. In some ways, these aren’t really gins at all, but Bols and De Buff are popular.

SLOE GINS are much like liqueur and are made by adding sugar and flavorings to gin. These are sometimes closer to fruit cordials. We like Elephant Sloe for sweet cocktails.

Finally, NEW AMERICAN/NEW WESTERN gins are the result of international experimentation, from Thailand to Australia to Brooklyn. These gins are much harder to quantify, as many eschew a strong juniper taste, or even at all. Ginmakers experiment with different botanicals like pine and eucalyptus. These can be hard to categorize, but here are a few places to get started:

  • HARAHORN NORWEGIAN GIN for its classic, easy and delightful notes. It works with everything.
  • HANS REISETBAUER’S BLUE GIN for its really pure, pared-back lines.
  • EMPRESS 1908 GIN is a little more out there, but it’s still quite clean and classic.
  • DRUNSHAMBO GUNPOWDER IRISH GIN has a lot of different infusions, and works specifically well with cocktails.
Gin martini with raspberry (Photo by Mathilde Langevin)
Gin can be served iced in a long, narrow glass with a botanical garnish. But while this is a crisp, refreshing way to enjoy it, to truly taste the flavors, go for room temperature.

A whiskey tasting glass will work. Be sure to sniff it, like you would beer or wine, but inhale slowly, so as not to overwhelm your nose with fumes. Take small sips, savor it, and consider sniffing a coffee bean in between drinks to clear your palate.

After tasting, consider making yourself a great Gin and Tonic. This will let you still taste the gin in a refreshing cocktail. Of course, herein lies the eternal debate of the ideal gin-to-tonic ratio. It really depends on how much you want to taste the gin. An extra portion of tonic might help drown out strident notes of an unsubtle gin, but it can also overwhelm the delicate flavors of a complex one. 1:2 gin to tonic is a good place to start.

There are so many wonderful cocktails to pair your gin with. Try a delicious Southside, a Gimlet, a Gin Sour or even a Martini.

As you can see, gin is a rapidly evolving drink with a ton of variety and history. We encourage you to experiment and enjoy!