Gin is a Flavoured Spirit

Start with vodka, add botanicals to flavour, you have a gin. Gin is simply a juniper flavoured vodka. This may burst the bubble of mystery on what the spirit might be, but that’s the reality. 

juniper and lemon with ice
Photo by Jez Timms

Gin has to be one of the first spirits I began to appreciate. It’s not because my tongue had evolved to discern between the different flavouring botanicals. I was 22 at the time. It was more because it came in a pretty blue bottle (and that is what marketing does). I will say this was fantastic as a refreshing patio cocktail when mixed with tonic. I enjoyed those highballs so much that when working the bar I always had a tall glass filled with tonic water to keep me hydrated. 

A year into my new bartending career, I went to the dentist. He asked me what the hell i was eating. Apparently the acidity and sugar in that tonic water was a bit much for my pearly whites. You ever dissolve the shell off an egg using vinegar?  

Drinking Gin with No Mix

On the dentist’s recommendation, I stopped drinking the tonic water. The tongue stud I had in at the time was starting to chip my teeth, so i took that out too. I can’t say I have the prettiest of smiles, but I might as well preserve what I’ve got left. When going out for cocktails, i found sipping gin on a bit of ice was a great way to go. No more messy nights or hungover mornings. The strong spirit slowed me down and allowed me to start appreciating the smoothness and different botanicals used to flavour a gin. 

bombay sapphire gin on display
Photo by Annie Spratt

I was very much a Bombay Sapphire guy. Why? Well it was in that pretty blue bottle on the back bar. That’s a poor reason, but it’s the straight truth. I would always pay the few extra dollars per drink just to have the Bombay… until going to Las Vegas on a guys trip.

Have you been on one of these ‘guys’ or ‘gals only’ trips to Vegas? You know there is usually a significant amount of alcohol consumed. Alcohol is inexpensive in the US. When it comes to the casinos, as long as you’re at a slot machine those drinks are free! I found that those ‘free’ drinks were not so free. The amount I was losing on those ‘one-armed bandits’ was definitely outpacing my consumption, so I decided to just start buying my drinks. At the bar, that Bombay Sapphire was now $20 for a double! We still had 72 hours until our flight home, so at that price point it would be a very expensive few days. Logic kicked in and I quickly switched over to their well brand, Beefeater.

All Gins are Not Equal

Let’s just say it. Beefeater is not like Bombay Sapphire. I kind of felt like the ‘Beef’ was more of a punch in the face than the subtleness of my go-to gin. It’s then that I really began my ‘gin research’. It became my mission. Do the same. Compare different well brands. Find something at a lower price point that matches what you are used to. Tanqueray with it’s 4 botanicals… still not the same. Gordon’s is a classic, but the only familiar notes about it were the juniper. 

Each producer typically goes with juniper as the primary flavouring element. Citrus peel is also a common addition to add some of those bitter lemon oils to the spirit. Cinnamon and spice notes are commonly added to increase complexity of the gin. You don’t have to have a refined palate to pick up each element. To appreciate each, just sip on some of that spirit at room temperate. No need to keep it in the freezer. The warmer it is, the more aromas you can pick up. Do not pop a shot in the microwave for a few seconds. Room temp is just fine.

Smoothness is all about production

Different distillation techniques result in a different spirit. This is something I really had to dive into to understand. That Bombay Sapphire has been using what they called a vapour infusion process. Cheaper gins seem to commonly use maceration to have a neutral spirit strip the flavours and oils from the botanicals. Other companies, like Hendricks, will create different ‘extracts’ and use those to flavour a neutral spirit thereby creating a gin.

Gin in a Cocktail

Of course, gin doesn’t need to be enjoyed solo. Look into the history of the spirit. The Dutch couldn’t stand the roughness of what they were making. They had to disguise it with juniper and different botanicals. If you have a gin you can’t enjoy on it’s own, then add a mix. Tonic? Sure, why not. Brits found that adding gin to their daily ration of tonic water was a great way to finish the day. Snoop Dogg famously sings about mixing gin and juice. The Tom Collins is one of your most classic cocktails simply adding lemon, some sweetness, and bubbly water.

gin martini with olives
Photo by Aditya Saxena

The Classic Martini

Martinis should be made with gin. There is a significant chunk of the population that doesn’t like gin and figures a martini should be made with vodka. Vodka, sure… plain and neutral. Add a bit of dry vermouth to impart some added bitterness and sweetness to the drink. Be sure to stir your martini so as to not bruise that gin. Keep that drink tasting nice and strong.

Aging Is Not Required

How many craft distilleries are out there now? The first product each distillery makes for sale is vodka. It’s the easiest spirit to bottle and put on the shelf. The second is gin. Each distillery tries something a bit different. It is generally accepted that flavouring a neutral spirit with botanicals makes it a gin. Here in Canada we have a yellow gin called Ungava. Another is Empress, purple in colour utilizing the butterfly pea flower.

Some distilleries will take that gin and instead of bottling it, they will age the spirit in oak barrels. This is something that always irritated me. Gin is a classic spirit and when I ask for a gin, even a local one, I expect juniper on the nose. As soon as that spirit goes into an oak barrel for any period of time, the spirit takes on a woody flavour. If I wanted wood, I would drink a rum, tequila or brandy. I would order any of the whiskies!

I’m not a gin snob, but gin should be clean and smooth! Smooth like a fine vodka. Prominent in juniper aromas. After all, the name ‘Gin’ originated from the Dutch word for juniper!

Chris S.

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