Monday, October 1, 2012

Gin 101

Alright kids, today's lesson is about the beverage I have been spending lots of time with recently. 

What is gin?

Basically, you take a neutral spirit base, which is essentially vodka, infuse it with herbs and spices, and then re-distill it. And boom, gin.

Juniper berries
Some spirits are defined by their base- as with bourbon, which must be made from a mash of at least 51% corn; or rye, which requires at least 51% rye (for more on whiskey: Whiskey 101). But with gin the base can be made from anything. Most commercial gins use a grain spirit as the base, but you can also find gin made from grapes, like G'Vine or Finger Lakes Distilling's Seneca Drums, and there are craft distilleries making gin from a base spirit of everything from apples to sugar cane to honey. What does define gin is its main flavoring agent, juniper berries, which account for the signature pine-y flavor. 

The use of juniper to flavor booze dates allllll the way back to some thirsty 11th century Italian monks (thanks, wikipedia). It rose to popularity among the English lower class during the 18th century "Gin Craze", when the government allowed unlicensed gin production and simultaneously imposed hefty taxes on imported spirits. So then everyone was drinking gin all over the place, and it was blamed for a bunch of social problems. Womp womp.

William Hogarth's 1751 "Gin Lane"
Gin botanicals, including juniper, citrus peel, cardamom pods and coriander
While juniper is gin's characteristic flavor, it is by no means the only one. Most gin makers these days are all about their top secret, proprietary blends of herbs and spices. Some common ones include cloves, citrus peel, cinnamon, cucumber, anise and nutmeg. 

There are many ways to infuse the base vodka with these flavors, like putting the botanicals into a basket or giant tea bag inside the still, or infusing small batches of gin with each flavor separately and then blending them all together.

Different kinds of gin

London dry style- most of the gin you will encounter is London dry style, meaning that it is clear (un-aged) and dry rather than sweet
Genever (Dutch)- this sweeter, milder gin is lower in proof than its English counterpart and made with malted barley, so that it shares some of the maltier smokier taste of whiskey. It is sometimes lightly aged.
Sloe gin- is actually a liqueur, made by sweetening and infusing gin with sloe berries. Which are apparently similar to plums (thanks again, wiki)

Drinking gin
To really taste the botanical flavors in a gin, I ditch the tonic and mix with club soda instead. Especially because most tonics sold in most grocery stores suck and will make tasty gin much less tasty. And I know it's counter intuitive, but for optimal gin tasting, keep it outta the freezer. Why? Because the farther from body temperature a spirit is, in either direction, the fewer flavors you'll be able to pick out.  

My favorite commercial gin is Hendricks, which I like in more savory cocktails like a simple G&T or martini. Of course there are a million classic gin cocktails, like a Negroni, Last Word or Gimlet, but all you really need with good gin is a splash of something bubbly and a squeeze of whatever citrus fruit you've got on hand. 

When I worked in the tasting room at Finger Lakes Distilling, people were always telling me about that one time in college when they downed 12 shots of gin and then had the worst experience ever (shocker), and have since sworn off the stuff. 

I'm not sure why, but there were definitely far more die-hard anti-gin drinkers out there than anti-anything else I have poured, and I have worked at two distilleries and two wineries. (then again, I've never worked anywhere that made a tequila...) Such a shame, gin is great! Especially the kind that doesn't come from a plastic jug. Give it a second chance people!

No! Wrong!

1 comment:

  1. Agreed. Gin is my favorite distilled spirit, and a Gin Fizz is probably the best way to have it. I prefer lime juice myself. Once in a while, I opt for either a Martini or Negroni, and sometimes I go for a gimlet.