In most spirits, what you’re looking at is a combination of a well-made base alcohol and a delicious maturation process. This could be spirits like mezcal and tequila, in which the agave plant provides the majority of the flavors, or like bourbon, in which the barrel aging is the more critical contributor to the flavor. However, gin is a bit of a strange duck in that the raw material for the spirit, quite frankly, doesn’t really matter that much. It’s more of an art than a science experiment, which is what makes it interesting.
There are a couple different varieties of gin that kind of fall into the same category, but we won’t talk about the more funky things like jenever or sloe gin today. We’re just going to focus on the root of the family — the herbaceous and delicious standard gin.
One thing that makes gin interesting is that it’s a second order product. That is, in order to make gin, first you need to make a neutral spirit.
Neutral spirits are a colorless, flavorless liquid that is pretty much just raw alcohol. You can think of it like a higher proof vodka, at least 95% alcohol by volume in the United States or 96% ABV in the European Union.
The reason why you want such a high alcohol content is because you don’t want any flavors whatsoever at the start. You really do want a blank slate here and the higher percentage of the liquid is devoted to alcohol content, the less likely it is for any other flavors to slip in. This is the reason why there’s a legal maximum limit on the level of alcohol you can have in things like a whiskey or cognac (since the point of that spirit is to maintain some of the flavor characteristics of the raw materials in the finished product).
Most neutral spirits start life being manufactured pretty much the same as a whiskey, using grains such as corn for the raw material (since it is cheap to purchase and use), cooking the grains to make a sugary liquid, fermenting it with yeast to create alcohol, and then distilling it to selectively capture the alcohol content. These spirits can technically be produced in any kind of still, but the high alcohol content means that it’s usually easier to use a column still rather than multiple distillation runs in a pot still.
You might also sometimes hear the term “neutral grain spirits” used here. The distinction is that while pretty much all neutral spirits start from grains, a “Neutral Grain Spirit” by law requires some resting in an oak container, which may produce some flavoring in the spirit. For that reason, most gin distilleries simply use plain neutral spirits to avoid that oak flavoring taint.
Once the spirit arrives at the gin distillery typically they add fresh and clean water, reducing the alcohol content and providing a bit of room for the flavoring components to work their magic. Otherwise, if it was just raw alcohol, the spirit would boil off too quickly for the oils and elements in the botanicals to be expressed.
The goal with gin production is to add botanical and other natural flavorings to the spirit to create a delicious end product. The big distinctions are found in how exactly we accomplish that.
Most of the large gin producers don’t actually make their own neutral spirit, but instead ship it in. Their process really starts once the neutral spirit arrives and they can start to add their flavorings.
Juniper is typically the most widely used component (but isn’t legally required to be used to be called a gin) and other herbs, spices, and botanicals can be added based on the distiller’s preference.
- If juniper is the predominant flavor in the mixture, then it can be called a London Gin (even if it wasn’t made in London) or a Traditional Gin.
- If the juniper isn’t quite punching you in the face then it can be called an American Gin or a Contemporary Gin.
The first consideration is whether we have enough of the raw materials available at one time. From the earliest days of gin production, the process was a one-shot deal in which all of the flavoring components were used at one time to flavor the spirit and produce the gin (which, naturally enough, is referred to as “one shot” production). These days, however, smaller distilleries are using herbs and components that might not be available all year round and are resorting to a process called “multi-shot” production, in which they individually use each flavoring component to make large batches of individually flavored spirit and blend them together when needed.
The most straightforward method of flavoring spirit is called maceration, which is basically like making a gin tea. The relevant components are added to a massive tea bag and soaked in a large vat of neutral spirit, allowing the spirit to absorb those flavors.
One variation on that process is called percolation, where the neutral spirit is dripped through a container of the relevant flavoring components (much like a pot of coffee).
At this point, you’ve technically got a gin. Which is why we can have lovely things like “bathtub gin” (really just neutral spirit macerated with some flavorings). If we stop here and don’t do any additional distillation processes, what we’ve done is something called cold compounding, but that can lead to cloudy or discolored spirit as an end result. Which is why the majority of commercial gin in the world goes through a second distillation process to remove any latent color and get back to a pure crystal clear spirit.
Any gin that goes through at least a second distillation is technically called a distilled gin — although no one really seems to bother using that term.
We talked about a couple methods of flavoring, but there’s actually one that we haven’t talked about yet because it happens during distillation. Some distilleries will put their flavoring components in a large metal basket and hang it inside the neck of the still during the distillation process, forcing the spirit vapor to pass through the basket on its way out of the still. This process is called vapor infusion.
Secondary distillation is typically performed in a pot still rather than a column still, as the pot still can maintain the lighter and more delicate flavors better. In fact, some distilleries will use something called a vacuum still where the distillation happens at a lower pressure than normal, which further preserves the more delicate flavor aspects.
Post Distillation Processes
If we stop here — a re-distilled gin that is fresh off the still — what we have is a Dry Gin. That is, a gin with no additives or extra flavors following the distillation process.
For those dry gins that use juniper as the primary flavoring, use less than 0.1 grams per liter of sugar as an additive, and are bottled at at least 37.5% ABV, they can further be called a London Dry Gin. There is actually no geographic requirement for them to be made in London — they are simply made in that style.
For a couple other labels you might hear about, Plymouth Gin is an example of a trademark for a specific brand that has made its way into the lexicon as its own type of spirit. And on the other end of the spectrum, Old Tom Gin is considered to be an older recipe for the spirit but carries no legal or agreed on definition of what the heck it is.
For everything else, if it’s just labeled as a “gin” and nothing else, then the rules can get a little lax. Sugar is something that can be added to improve the texture, up to a maximum 2 grams per liter in the US or a whopping 8 grams per liter in the EU.
And that’s the end of the road! Gins are proofed down to a minimum of 375% ABV in the EU or 40% ABV in the US and shipped out for y’all to enjoy.
Hopefully you’re walking away from this with a slightly improved understanding of gin. And to keep learning, it’s time to start trying out the different varieties and find a favorite! Check out our full list of reviews here — and happy exploring!