Think beyond a Gordon's and tonic with our favourite drops, from dry London gins to aromatic experiments
If lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that we get bored easily and that we need booze. Come aperitivo hour, you could reach for your tried and tested bottle of Gordon’s, because that’s just what’s there, or you could buy yourself something a little bit new. A little bit different. And give drinks o’clock the boost it needs.
Unlike drinks which are classified according to their distilling technique or the ingredients used to create the spirit, gin is a matter of taste. By which we mean that gin is only gin if it has juniper as its predominant flavour and an alcohol content of at least 37.5% ABV. Juniper berries have been used to make spirits practically back to year dot, but the gin of today is thought to be a derivative of the Dutch genever, commonly said to have been invented by chemist Sylvius de Bouve in the seventeenth century. Like most things relating to gin’s murky beginnings, this is hotly disputed, and a basic form of gin was in England around the same time as a sort of medicine (and not exactly enjoyed). But come what may, by the time Dutch King William III was established on the throne, gin was a part of life in this country. It hit its first prime in the 1700s, in what was called the ‘Gin Craze’, though you’d be forgiven for assuming the term relates to the spirit’s more recent renaissance – last year, the UK industry was valued at £3bn.
Whilst genever tends to be more floral and fragrant, packing a punch in flavour thanks to the malt-wine at its core (which in turn demands bigger seasoning and more sugar to balance it), gin is dryer, sharper and has a greater focus on juniper. It requires a base spirit that is usually (but not always) neutral in taste, and which can be made from a number of things. Often, it's not actually made by the people who turn it into gin, but rather bought in from dedicated stills and then mixed with that brand's specific set of flavourings – juniper berries, of course, plus any other botanicals desired (popular ones are orange, lemon, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander and angelica root). Said mixing is generally done through a process of redistilling, but a more basic method is simply to steep the spirit with the other ingredients – this will make a ‘compound’ or ‘bathtub’ gin because, well, you could technically throw everything into a bathtub and hope for the best. That’s perhaps unfair to those who make very good compound gins, but it’s far more common, these days, to see gins made via re-distillation.
London Dry is the UK’s tried and tested style. It does absolutely not have to come from London, or from England at all come to that, but it does have to be dry in the traditional sense of the word – by not containing much sugar. It also cannot have any artificial flavours in it, and the flavours it does have must have been imparted during the redistilling process – no adding in afterwards. These examples are likely to be sharp and clean tasting with more pronounced citrus notes, rather than anything too aromatic.
Distilled gins are similar to London Drys, but their flavours can be added after re-distillation and can be natural or artificial. They account for a lot of the wackier combinations (and colours) out there.
An Old Tom gin will be sweeter than a London Dry but not quite as sweet as genever (it’s often called “the missing link” between the two). The name comes from the tomcat-shaped wooden signs that apparently adorned the outsides of certain pubs in Victorian times, surreptitiously advertising shots of gin when the nation’s thirst for the stuff had panicked the government into hiking taxes on it as a deterrent. Today’s examples tend to be gentler and less tart than London Drys, often with big hints of liquorice and a notably smooth consistency.
There are myriad stories surrounding the origins of Navy-Strength gin but the name tells you all you need to know. Approach with caution, but remember that a beefier alcohol content can temper flavours, so you’re unlikely to get any nasty surprises with these (bar the hangover).
Plymouth Gin is even more straightforward. It can only be made in Plymouth and, further, has been trademarked to one brand, so you should know exactly what you’re getting.
Then there's sloe gin, which technically isn't a gin at all – it's a liqueur, not a spirit. Made by mixing gin and sloe berries, it's rich and sweet, and comes in at a lower alcohol level (at least 25% ABV in the EU).
We may by a nation of gin and tonic devotees, but that doesn’t mean that your imagination has to stop at ‘ice and a slice’ (of lemon, or even lime) when making one: take a look at the bottle to find what botanicals your gin was made with, and choose one (or a few) as your garnish. Cucumber, coriander, chilli, a bay leaf, a twist of black pepper – when it comes to the perfect G&T, variety should be your spice. One of the reasons gin remains so popular is that it can carry big flavours, so make the most of it.
The boom in gins has inspired an accompanying explosion in gin cocktails, particularly the negroni, although the classic martini is also enjoying a resurgence. Both a best with dryer gins, because broad and flowery flavours tend to get lost. You need a gin that's going to give your drink a kick.
Or, if all else fails, just pour your gin over some ice and be done. Because if it’s good enough for Ryan Reynolds, it’ll do us.