With the possible exception of tequila, gin is the spirit that people most commonly just refuse to drink. But it’s a surprisingly varied category, encompassing a wide range of flavors and styles, so that anybody from vodka-soda fans to hardcore Scotch geeks can find something to love in gin. (And it’s ideal for drinking in spring.)
What makes gin gin comes down to one thing: juniper berries (which, ironically, are not berries at all but the seed cones of a conifer tree). The resinous fruits provide distinctive green, citrusy notes and must, by law, give gin its “main characteristic flavor”. Beyond that, though, there are no rules. Distillers can use any type of spirit as a base, and can add any other botanicals they want. The result is a wide world of varieties that have been swilled by everybody from 17th-century sailors to Mad Men’s ad execs to today’s craft-cocktail hipsters. Here’s a rundown of the gin styles you’ll find out in the wild.
In the early days of distilling, primitive stills put out some rough and harsh booze, which often needed flavoring to make them drinkable. Sometime in the 1500s (or maybe a century or two before), an enterprising Dutchman (or maybe a Belgian) added juniper to some malt wine—a spirit distilled from grain, essentially an unaged whiskey—and gin’s earliest ancestor was born. Genever has the sweet and malty notes of a whiskey combined with juniper’s freshness, and the so-called “Holland gin” was the base for many of the great cocktails of mixology’s first golden age in the mid-1800s, including the Martinez. Today, genever is having a renaissance in the US, with lots of brands getting imported for the first time, though the venerable Bols Genever is the easiest to find. (Fun historic note: during the Thirty Years’ War of the early 1600s, English soldiers watched their Dutch allies fortify themselves with genever before rushing into battle, which was the birth of not only Britain’s obsession with gin, but also its enduring nickname, “Dutch courage”.)
LONDON DRY GIN
When you think of gin today, you’re almost definitely thinking of London dry gin. The quintessentially British style starts with a high-proof, neutral-tasting base (AKA vodka) and is heavy on the juniper flavor, with supporting notes of citrus and earthy spices like coriander. After Prohibition, London dry became the overwhelmingly dominant style—probably because it works so beautifully in a Martini—and very nearly wiped out all the other types until recently. The “big 3” brands—Beefeater, Tanqueray and Bombay—are still the most popular, but there are also some newer upstarts making great versions, including Martin Miller’s and Sipsmith.
OLD TOM GIN
With a flavor somewhere in between sweet maltiness and juniper-forward austerity, old Tom gin is the evolutionary link between genever and London dry gin. In the early 1700s, England went absolutely nuts for gin—so much so that Parliament passed a series of taxes designed to decrease consumption—and what most of those Brits were drinking was old Tom. The style supposedly gets its name from tomcat-shaped plaques hung on the sides of pubs into which you could insert a coin and receive a shot of gin: some of the earliest vending machines. The style is pretty obscure today, but some modern distilleries are trying to revive it. A few of the best out there are Ransom Old Tom, Barr Hill Tom Cat and the newly released Anchor Old Tom.
In contrast to London dry, Plymouth gin is quite sweet and goes much lighter on the juniper. And while London dry doesn’t have to be made in London, Plymouth gin is a legally protected name for gin that must be made in the town of Plymouth, England. In the past, Plymouth was a hotbed of distilling, but today only one brand—the eponymous Plymouth Gin—still remains. The tasty bottling makes a delicious Collins, and has a fun connection to American history: The Plymouth distillery is on the site of a former monastery where the Pilgrims stayed right before embarking on their journey to the New World. (In fact, the Mayflower is part of the brand’s logo.)
NEW WESTERN GIN
Because gin doesn’t have to age for years like whiskey, many new distilleries make it so they can have some cash flow, and with the explosion of craft distilleries in the last decade, there’s been an explosion in new gins doing things a bit differently. “New Western” has developed less as a well-defined category than as a catchall term for modern gins that use unusual botanicals, odd bases or otherwise don’t fit into one of the traditional boxes. This includes the popular Hendrick’s, which is flavored with cucumber and rose, as well as Pierde Almas +9, a “mezcal-gin” with a smoky agave spirit for a base, and Bummer & Lazarus, distilled from California grapes in San Francisco.
When you put gin in a barrel, the juniper is mellowed out by oak’s vanilla and caramel notes, creating something that’s sort of in between gin and whiskey. There’s quite a bit of historical precedent for aging gin—many genevers and old Tom gins spent time in oak—but barrel-aged gins were nearly impossible to find until the last five years or so, when many new brands have popped up. A few of the best examples of this trend are Citadelle Reserve Gin from France, Smooth Ambler Barrel-Aged Gin from West Virginia and Few Barrel Gin from Illinois.
Navy-strength isn’t a style, but an alcohol level: 114-proof, or 57 percent alcohol. Back in the glory days of the British Empire, sailors were entitled to a daily ration of booze, most often rum or gin. (Using this to improve the bitter taste of malaria-fighting quinine is how the Gin & Tonic was born, in fact.) But they soon found that spilling standard-strength spirit on their gunpowder would ruin it, and needed a fix. It turns out that spirits at or above 114-proof will still allow gunpowder to ignite, and that’s where the navy-strength tradition comes from. As an added bonus, the high proof is great for cocktails, since its flavor is more concentrated. Many distilleries make navy-strength gin today, including Plymouth, Hayman’s and the New York Distilling Company (that one’s called Perry’s Tot, after the famed American commodore).