A gin martini with a lemon twist on a bartop
More than just the first component of a popular cocktail, gin is a spirit whose very ingredients bring far-flung parts of the world together. It’s also a drink with a fascinating history touching nations from Holland to England to India. What is Gin? Gin is a neutral spirit base that is flavored with botanicals, most…

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Gin: A Global Spirit

More than just the first component of a popular cocktail, gin is a spirit whose very ingredients bring far-flung parts of the world together. It’s also a drink with a fascinating history touching nations from Holland to England to India.

What is Gin?

Gin is a neutral spirit base that is flavored with botanicals, most notably juniper berries. More than 40 different botanicals from all over the world are used in its production: juniper berries from the United States and Europe, orris root from Southern Europe, and grains of paradise from Africa. Other botanicals used to make gin include orange peel, lemon peel, star anise, licorice root, ginger, nutmeg, and coriander, to name a few.
Gin is created when the distillery takes the botanicals, macerates them in the neutral spirit, and then redistills it. In another process for making gin, the manufacturer redistills the neutral spirit after the spirit vapor has passed through the botanicals. And, by the way, sloe gin is not a gin at all—it’s a liqueur made with sloe gin berries, a relative of the plum.

Gin as Medicine…and Courage

There’s a common misconception out there that gin was first created in 1595 by Dr. Sylvius de Bouve (a.k.a., Franciscus Sylvius) for the treatment of kidney, stomach, and other ailments. Yes, Dr. de Bouve was a Dutch chemist and pharmacist who did produce and help develop a juniper-flavored spirit, but the roots of gin go back to before he was even born. Juniper berries ( Juniperus communis), the principal flavoring botanical in gin, have been used for their medicinal properties for centuries. Gin historian Philip Duff has stated that the first written reference to gin as a health tonic was in 1269. During the outbreak of the plague, or Black Death, in the mid-14th century, many people used juniper oil in the hopes of avoiding contracting the disease. But it was not until 1552 that there was a reference to a gin-based liquor. Jenever, or Dutch gin, was being made and consumed during the country’s war for independence in the late 1500s. During the Thirty Years War (1618–1648), Holland increased the production of gin and the British soldiers fighting alongside the Dutch were introduced to this new elixir. Gin became known as “Dutch courage” after British soldiers noticed that their comrades consumed gin before going into battle. After the war, the British soldiers brought the taste for gin home with them and the popularity of the spirit exploded when, in 1689, the Dutch-born William of Orange became King of England. Everything that represented the Dutch culture— including gin—quickly came in vogue. Gin consumption in England tripled, and it was sold in more than 7,500 shops in London. Demand eventually tailed off with the passage of two gin acts in 1759, but in the meantime, the British Navy was busy sharing the spirit all over the world, from India to Australia.

Gin in America: From Bathtubs to Bond

Gin consumption in the United States dates back to colonial times when Dr. Benjamin Rush warned citizens about the consumption of too many gin slings, a beverage of the time. Its most infamous period in American history, however, was Prohibition (1920–1933), when “bathtub” gin became a catchall phrase for the illicit manufacturing of all different types of alcohol. Many people literally created gin in their bathtubs, combining alcohol, juniper extract, wood grain alcohol, and other flavoring ingredients. Bathtub gin became very popular because it didn’t require an aging period, and its many different ingredients helped disguise the poor quality of the base spirit.
The gin martini did not appear until the latter half of the 19th century, and there are many theories about who invented it. The most recent one, put forth by cocktail historians Anastasia Miller and Jared Brown, is that vermouth producer Martini and Rossi created the martini cocktail in order to sell more of their product. The recipe for the martini has changed over the years, with the ratio of gin to vermouth going from 3:1 to 6:1 to 12:1, all the way to the late 1990s version, when bartenders were putting minuscule amounts of vermouth in their martinis. In 1967, the gin martini took a back seat to the vodka martini, in part due to the popularity of the James Bond films and the character’s trademark “shaken, not stirred” cocktail. In recent years, gin has experienced a resurgence, thanks in part to mixologists incorporating the spirit into classic and tasty new concoctions.

Styles of Gin

London Dry gin is the world’s most popular style. Although it is called London Dry, it’s not required that the gin be made there; in fact, Beefeater is the only major gin distillery remaining in that city. A second style is Plymouth gin, which is made by Coates & Company and comes only from Plymouth, England. Plymouth has a fuller body than London Dry, but a lower alcohol-by-volume by just a few percentage points. Old Tom is a sweeter style. Genever or Hollands is a heavier, malted-barley-wine-based gin that is made in Holland. Gin is also produced by companies in Spain, Germany, and France. Over the past decade, the United States has seen an increase in the production of micro-distillery gins, each with its own unique flavor profile. Gin is produced in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, New Hampshire, New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and other states. That means the introduction of American gin, which would represent just the latest connection created by this most worldly spirit.

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