Every year, the Oxford English Dictionary recognises new words. Those from 2019 include cannabusiness (weed-related commerce), spritzy (fizzy) and any number of irritating new dog breed crosses.
Surprisingly, though, it hasn’t yet included ‘ginaissance’, a term that has sprung up to indicate the transformation in the fortunes of the G in G&T.
Gin is everywhere: on A-boards outside pubs and filling up supermarket aisles, dinner parties and drinks lists alike. New distilleries seem to open every week in the UK alone. For a drink that was deader than corduroy 30 years ago, these are heady times indeed.
Key to gin’s revival are two factors: firstly, it’s relatively cheap and easy to make and since you don’t need to age it (unlike, say, Scotch or Cognac) producers can get their money back on it quickly. And secondly, unlike vodka, it has flavour.
‘Gin is different,’ says Desmond Payne MBE, master distiller at Beefeater Gin. ‘When you look at whisky, it’s grain and that’s it; when you look at brandy it’s just grape. But when you look at gin it’s anything you want, so long as there’s juniper in there.’
Gin is basically a neutral spirit that is then flavoured with botanicals – herbs, berries, spices, bark, roots, flowers, bits of vegetation, anything, frankly. To make a classic London Dry gin such as Beefeater, this botanical mix is usually put in the still to macerate for a while with the neutral spirit, then boiled. The steam condenses and is collected to form a turbo-strength spirit, which is then diluted down to the desired strength with water.
Distilled gin starts out the same way as London Dry Gin, but flavours can be added afterwards, while cold-compounded gins infuse a neutral spirit with botanicals with no further distilling. Ableforth’s Bathtub Gin, which infuses a base spirit of gin with botanicals, is a good example of when this works.
Nowadays, botanicals are a stylistic choice. But go back 300 years and there was a more pragmatic reason for their use. Distillation technology wasn’t up to much in the 18th century and flavours were needed to mask imperfections in the spirit.
The key botanical is the one that gave the drink its name: juniper. Back in the 16th century British soldiers fighting the Spanish in northern Europe used to drink a Dutch spirit before battle (hence the term ‘Dutch courage’), named after the berry that flavoured it. Genever gradually became ‘gen’, then ‘gin’.
Juniper berries are the biggest wild card for gin distillers. They have to be foraged – usually in inaccessible, mountainous places – and the crop sizes change a lot from year to year. In small years, the foragers take a fair bit of incentivising to go wandering the wilds, beating bushes with a big stick and prices go up…
But juniper is the sine qua non of the drink. Officially, it should be the dominant flavour and it gives the drink its fresh, piney ‘walking through a forest’ character as well as some of its dryness. It’s there centre stage in all the ‘classic’ gins – Tanqueray, Gordons, Beefeater, No3, Portobello Road, Haymans, to name but a few – but it’s not the only flavour.
The fab four
‘Pretty much every gin in the world will have four base botanicals: juniper, coriander seeds, a root (usually angelica), and then a citrus peel,’ says Tom Hills of East London Liquor Company. The exact proportions vary, but typically juniper will make up 60% of the mix, coriander seeds 30% and everything else the remaining 10%.
It’s easy to see how these core elements work together. Alongside juniper’s drying pine-needle note, coriander seeds add a bright, shiny, high-toned citrus spice, the citrus peel brings a sweeter, mid-palate citrus lift, while the orris/angelica root hold the whole thing together with a gentle, drying spice/chocolate rumble.
Some gins have very few botanicals (Tanqueray, for instance, has only four), while others have dozens. Between 10 and 20 is most common, though Monkey 47, from the Black Forest has, well, 47.
‘Gin must be about a balance of flavours to create one flavour,’ explains James Hayman of Hayman’s Gin. ‘We compare it to an orchestra – several different instruments creating one piece of music.’
When I was writing this article, I was sent a bottle of a new Indian gin, Greater Than. ‘When we started off on this journey, we distilled almost every spice, herb, fruit and flower that we could get our hands on,’ says the gin’s founder Anand Virmani. ‘Each distillate was marked and kept on shelves. We would then put on our creative hats and bring together flavours we thought might work together. Some worked. Many didn’t.’ The creation process took two years.
If the idea of an Indian gin surprises you, then it shouldn’t; the gin wave has rippled all over the world. Brands are taking the basic juniper-based gin template and giving it a defiant twist with local ingredients. Four Pillars (Australia) uses lemon myrtle and Tasmanian pepperberry; Kongsgaard uses Danish apples; Gin Mare uses Spanish olives, citrus, basil, rosemary and thyme; Ki No Bi uses yuzu, sansho, red shiso and bamboo leaf; Glendalough is foraged from the Irish mountains around the distillery.
It’s over-egging it to say that terroir has come to gin, but it’s undoubtedly true that a growing number of gins are now an expression of a place. Of course, ‘expression of place’ only works as a concept if the actual gin itself is good, and some ingredients need to be treated with care. A gin that tastes massively of lavender, say, or has strong vegetal aromas, might make a powerful initial impression, but – like a big fruit-bomb of a wine – you could well struggle to finish a glass.
While there’s no doubting that ‘exotic’ doesn’t necessarily equal ‘better’, it’s also true that the explosion of styles and flavours has created an amazing choice. Whether you like punchy juniper or sweet citrus flavours, perfumed flowers or exotic spice notes there really is a style out there for everybody. ‘That’s the purpose of gin,’ says Beefeater’s Desmond Payne. ‘To be exciting.’
It’s certainly that. My money’s on ‘ginaissance’ making it into the OED for 2020.
Ten gins to try
Tanqueray No Ten
£29-£33, Widely available
Super-citrusy in its botanical mix and its flavour – lemons, oranges and blood grapefruit – but beautifully balanced, too, this is a seamless melding of flavours. Fantastic with tonic, but also in a silky-smooth Martini. Alcohol 47.3%
Ki No Bi
Made mostly with Japanese botanicals (including ginger, sancho peppers and shiso) there’s a real deftness of touch here. The main flavour is yuzu – giving a lifted citrusy gin that can be drunk neat over ice as well as with tonic. Alc 45.7%
Ableforth’s Bathtub Gin
Six botanicals, among them cloves, cardamom and cassia bark, are cold-infused into a gin for seven days, creating a pale yellow gin with a bright, exotic, spicy nose – think cloves, cinnamon and candied lemon. Alc 43.3%
This small-batch Edinburgh gin makes a big statement. Fennel and Szechuan pepper are the most noticeable botanicals, though hearteningly for purists it still tastes like gin underneath. Alc 41%
£29-£33, Widely available
There are a dozen botanicals here, including cubeb berries, grains of paradise and elderflower. Flavour-wise, this is mostly about flowers – elderflower and rose petals in particular. A good gin if you’re not a big juniper lover. Alc 41.4%
With lavender, elderflower, chamomile, linden flowers and pear among the botanicals, this is a soft, sweet-flavoured, highly distinctive gin – a bit like distilling an early summer English garden. The polar opposite of a dry classic like Tanqueray. Alc 43%
Made with 31 botanicals, 22 of them Islay-foraged plants like bog myrtle, gorse flowers and meadowsweet. No single flavour dominates – there is a beautifully round, honeyed, heathery meadow-grass character to this. Alc 46%
Glendalough Wild Botanical Gin
Classic gin base supported by more than a dozen locally foraged Irish plants such as yarrow, daisies, watermint and woodruff. This is rather like lying on a summer hillside – a combination of sweet gorse notes, aromatic grasses and lemon balm. Complex and dry. Alc 41%
Drumshanbo Irish Gunpowder Gin
Another small-batch Irish gin. Along with traditional botanicals, it has dried gunpowder tea in the mix – giving an unmissable aromatic profile and a dry, slightly tannic finish. Palate-cleansing. Alc 43%
A huge number of botanicals in this Black Forest gin, including many local grasses and plants. Key, though, are lingonberries, which merge with the other ingredients to give a flavour like fruit pastilles rolled in juniper and herbs. Big and complex but still balanced. Alc 47%