Gin has had a weird and wild ride over the past 500 years. The Dutch were producing the piney drink in the 1500s, but adding herbs to liquor is a tradition that goes back further still to the tinkering of medieval alchemists.
Juniper berries, which give gin its characteristic scent, have been used as a spice since ancient times. When, precisely, someone first plucked them from the bush and plopped them in liquor is anyone’s guess. Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia (77 to 79 CE) included a recipe for a wine-based “proto-gin,” reports Aaron Knoll in his entertaining Gin: The Art and Craft of Artisan Revival.
Gin was a fine drink when the Dutch first made it. Their Genever came from barley fermented into beer, then distilled and flavored with juniper. (Jineverbes is the Dutch term for juniper.) This gave it much more flavor than much of gin sold today, which is made from flavorless “neutral grain spirit.” The Dutch still produce many brands of Genever gin, with Bols probably the most well-known producer globally.
Gin went down-market in the 18th century. Distilleries began cranking out cheap grain alcohol, often adulterated with toxic flavorings, which was lapped up by the poor. The artist William Hogarth’s 1751 ghastly etching of Gin Lane mayhem aptly depicts the ugly social consequences.
Gin’s social cache rose from its nadir as the British Empire flourished. The London Dry style – crackling crisp from juniper, lemon and other citrus fruits – became synonymous with gin. Better brands emerged, such as Beefeater and Tanqueray. The gin and tonic became known world-round, thanks in part to its value as an anti-malarial. (The high quinine content of early tonic, not the gin, was the curative. Adding gin and lime made the bitter tonic pleasant to drink. Old Raj Gin was unabashedly marketed as high imperial fare.
New market entrants, which arrived around the fin de siècle, have made major inroads against imperial London Dry style. The first wave of these new gins, like Bafferts, were much less piney and tended to highlight citrus flavors. They were designed to lure the millions of vodka drinkers to gin. Reflecting globalization, they sometimes came from unusual places, like Belarus.
The next wave of new gins are far more interesting. Many came from American and European micro-distillers, and amount to reinventions of the spirit. Often these new gins, such as Glorious Gin by New York’s Breukelen Distillery, are produced from flavorful high-quality grains, instead of re-distilled bulk-purchased ethanol. Some of these contemporary gins derive wild flavors from atypical botanicals. Minnesota’s Vikre distillery makes gins flavored with cedar, spruce and sumac. Uncle Val’s Peppered Gin from California is spiced with red peppers, black peppers and pimento, in addition to juniper, cucumber, lemon, sage and lavender. Other new gin producers impart novel flavors through barrel-ageing. California’s Ballast Point distillery uses this method to impart a cinnamon aroma in one of its gins.
There are more than 260 gins out there already, and more surely will come. With the rising quality and growing diversity of choice, 21st century consumers are in an enviable position.
Kevin R. Kosar is a senior fellow at the R Street Institute and the author of Whiskey: A Global History. He is the editor and founder of AlcoholReviews.com and a frequent contributor to The American Spectator’s Saloon Series, a cultural investigation of the modern cocktail.