While bourbon and tequila have enjoyed fairly consistent popularity over the years, the gin renaissance in our society is relatively new. While it was all the rage in England for centuries, its popularity in America didn’t last long before Prohibition hit. Eventually thought of as an old drunkard’s liquor due to it being cheap and easy to make, along with its negative association with bootleggers and speakeasies, gin was quickly swapped out for vodka after World War II, which many thought was a more modern and versatile spirit. It wasn’t until Bombay Sapphire debuted in 1988 that gin began a slow resurrection. Perhaps not as versatile on the mixing spectrum, its open-ended criteria in the distillation room turned out to be great for experimenting behind the scenes. And so, between 1990 and 2000, almost 100 new craft gin distilleries opened in the U.S. alone, with the UK repealing many of its stringent regulations on the spirit as well.
Depending on whom you ask, there can be anywhere from 4 to 8 different styles of gin, but here we’ve focused on the 6 most common and significant variants, with some recommendations to go along with each. Hopefully you, too, will discover all that gin has to offer. It’s truly one of the most intriguing spirits in existence, whether you’re putting together a perfect martini or sipping it straight.
What Is Gin?
Gin is a neutral grain spirit that historically came from flavoring malted wine with juniper berries. Today, gin is made, typically, by distilling a neutral spirit (i.e., a super-concentrated ethanol) — usually in a pot or column still — and then redistilling it with juniper berries and other botanicals. However, according to gin laws around the world, juniper is always required in both flavor and makeup. The infusion of juniper usually happens in one of two ways: the steep and boil method or vapor infusion. Other botanicals and flavors that are often added are orange peel, lemon peel, anise, nutmeg, pine, and cinnamon, but there is no regulation on these as long as you can still taste the juniper.
Gin regulations differ from country to country (thus giving rise to some liquors that stretch the meaning of the word “gin”). In America, for instance, the alcohol by volume must be at least 40%. In Europe, unless it’s a “juniper-flavored drink,” gin must be bottled at no less than 37.5% ABV, with some other standards put in place. However, the neutral spirit that is distilled must be of agricultural origin. The loose, differing standards allow for a wide array of flavors and techniques to be employed throughout the world when making this spirit.
Elixir Or Mood-Fixer?
Genever, or jenever in Dutch, is not only the etymological origin of the word “gin,” but the progenitor of gin, the spirit, as we know it today. This style harkens back to the origins of gin in the 11th century, when Benedictine monks first began infusing their malted wine with juniper berries for medicinal purposes. The “revival” by the Dutch in the 16th century then led to genever’s discovery by the British, who were rabidly obsessed with the spirit for the next 200 years, literally causing societal madness and mayhem. That is until its popularity waned under a pseudo-prohibition by English officials, whose indifference only made the liquor itself lose its enigma in time. Of course, it was never gone for good.
Mainly distilled in the Netherlands, Belgium, and parts of France and Germany, modern genever is more pastiche than tradition, utilizing rich and malty flavors that stem from its Elizabethan-Era popularity. Today, there are two designations for genever, which translate to “old” and “young.” Old genever, by European Union law, must contain at least 15% malted wine and no more than 20g of sugar per liter. On the other hand, young genever, which utilizes more grain and sugars, must have no more than 15% malted wine.
Bols Genever Original
The major player in modern genever is also the single oldest distillery in the world. Bols first opened its doors in 1575 (as did hundreds of others around that time) and has been going strong since, with genever being its flagship spirit for much of its history. This flagship bottle of Genever Original uses a recipe that dates back to 1820, built from a base of corn, rye, and wheat, and infused with 22 different botanicals for a tangy and herbal profile with a hint of juniper.
Old Duff Single Malt Dutch Genever
Priding itself on being 100% malted wine, just as gin was during its 18th-century heyday, Old Duff’s Single Malt Dutch Genever is one of three distilleries to still carry the Seal of Schiedam, which was created in 1902 to ensure regulatory practices of the Dutch style, pot still and all (more recent regulations are much broader). This genever is made from a triple-distilled rye and barley mash, which has been infused with juniper and English Bramling hops.
The Missing Link
Old Tom gin arose in the 18th century following the taxes and regulations imparted by the British government, which drove the production of the spirit underground to be clandestinely poured by a willing bartender. The name is supposedly derived from the plaques, which depicted black cats, placed outside of these underground establishments.
This style links the genever of old with the London Dry variety that came about after the invention of the Coffey still in the mid-19th century, after which Old Tom faded in popularity for a while until a slight resurgence in recent years. The flavor profile of an Old Tom is typically sweeter and softer than a traditional London Dry or genever.
Hayman’s Old Tom
As London’s oldest gin-distilling family, Hayman’s has been at its craft since 1863. With current offerings including Hopped Gin and Small Gin, the spirits brand has never solely relied on its tried-and-true tradition, but on innovating the gin world as well. Created in 2007 after consumer interest started to lean toward pre-Prohibition liquor, Hayman’s Old Tom recalls the origins of the company in the 19th century and provides a rich sweetness that allows it to be a great gateway for those looking to test the waters of this unique style. Like most Old Toms, this one goes great with sweet red vermouth for a Martinez cocktail, a precursor to the martini.
Barr Hill Reserve Old Tom Cat
Vermont might not be the obvious choice for helping spearhead the resurgence of Old Tom, but the folks at Barr Hill provide an American touch that makes its Old Tom Cat something special. Aged for 6 months in new charred American white oak barrels and punctuated with a touch of honey, this spirit truly possesses one of the most unique profiles in the gin world. The tan color nearly implies the oak and caramel palate, but Barr Hill’s Old Tom Cat must be tasted to be believed.
The New Standard
The broadest category, London Dry encompasses other styles as well, but simply comes to represent a pure form of gin. With the invention of the Coffey still, or column still, in 1831, distillers could now make a cleaner-tasting spirit. Where alembic pot stills had to be cleaned after every use, the column still could be run continuously (although redistillation to add botanicals typically occurs in a pot still). This new level of smoothness in flavor was dubbed London Dry. And as cocktail culture was sweeping the nation in America after the turn of the century, this new style was filling up bars everywhere, right as the dry martini as we know it today was in its most nascent stages.
Despite the name, London Dry doesn’t have to be from London at all. Although, the most well-known brands like Tanqueray, Beefeater, and Bombay are from England. While all gin must possess the characteristics and flavor of juniper, London Dry is the most juniper-forward option out there, but also commonly features citrus, coriander, and angelica root. The flavoring must be natural and occur entirely during the redistillation period, and only water, neutral spirit, and 0.1g of sugar per liter can be added post-distillation.
Tanqueray London Dry
The England-based distillery has nearly 200 years of history and, since 2016, is the number-one selling gin in the world. Its original London Dry is undoubtedly one of the most accessible gins on the market, with a budget-friendly price tag that doesn’t need to sacrifice any flavor in the process. One of the paradigms of the London Dry style, Tanqueray blends juniper, coriander, angelica, and licorice for an herbal profile and a refreshing taste that you can drink straight or with tonic water.
Produced in antique copper stills from the UK’s own Langley Distillery and coming in a unique purple bottle, Highclere Castle gin is classy before you even take your first sip. But what else would you expect of a spirit originating from one of the most famous estates in the entire world? Known for its Downton Abbey fame, Highclere Castle dates back to the 17th century, but its gin-making is relatively new. Sourcing botanicals like lime flower and oats from the estate itself, this London Dry also has notes of orange zest, lavender, and cardamom.
Last Of A Dying Breed
Back in the 18th century, during the Gin Craze, the British Government saw a benefit in honoring liquor that was created far away from the slums of London, in the southern England town of Plymouth. Thus, the Plymouth style was viewed more favorably and earned its designation of approval.
Plymouth gin was, and is, an entire style unto itself, trading in the citrus notes of its London Dry counterpart for earthier tones brought out by roots such as orris. Plymouth even carried a geographical indication up until 2015, when the last remaining distillery, called Plymouth, declined to renew that status. The company saw the indication as moot since it now owned the trademark for the name “Plymouth” anyway.
Plymouth Gin Original
Also known as Black Friars Distillery for once housing a Dominican monastery in the 1400s, Plymouth has a fascinating history even before it began producing gin in 1793, making it the oldest operating distillery in England. Its Original 82-proof gin is still crafted on the same premises as it was back in the 18th century and is now the last remaining producer of the Plymouth style in the world. Single distilled using seven different botanicals for flavor, Plymouth Original has softer juniper notes than typical gins.
Prior to the 19th century, there was no way to measure the strength of liquor. And so, the British Royal Navy devised a way to test that the gin they were rationed wasn’t watered down. They would add gunpowder to the spirit and then use a magnifying glass to heat the liquid with the sun’s rays. If the gunpowder would ignite, then that meant the gin was above 55% ABV, but if it didn’t light, then the gin was below the proper proof. These “proof spirits” were then stored next to the gunpowder, so that if they leaked they wouldn’t damage the powder for later use. Today, we call this “Navy Strength.”
Leopold’s Navy Strength American Gin
Not only does Leopold’s Navy Strength American Gin clock in at 114 proof, but it contains twice the amount of juniper than the company’s standard bottles, allowing the higher alcohol content to feel more balanced than your typical high-proof spirit. This Colorado-based distillery utilizes its grains from family farms and its own in-house neutral spirit for distillation to ensure quality control. Made with citrus like bergamot, this is one of the few Navy Strength gins that can be consumed straight, although it’s great with tonic as well.
First launched back in 2007, Sipsmith is London’s first new gin distillery in 200 years. The brand’s own V.J.O.P. (which stands for “Very Junipery Over Proof”) is one of the most premium Navy Strength gins available and contains perhaps the most amplified juniper notes you will find on the market. With notes of dark chocolate rounding out the pine flavor of the juniper, V.J.O.P. uses triple the number of juniper berries compared to the Sipsmith’s London Dry, which are then distilled in a copper-pot still to reach upwards of 115 proof.
A Modern Take
New Western, or modern gin, is not bound by any specific legal classification but is a representation of an inventive approach to making the spirit. Modern distilleries have been known for their highly-delineated blend of botanicals, which have included rose, cucumber, lavender, and licorice, among others, that aren’t used as often in London Dry gin. This evolution has ushered the spirit into the new age while still being able to coexist with more traditional styles, as you’ve seen here. While modern gin has cropped up in countries such as Japan, Brazil, and Spain, the majority of distilleries have thrived in North America, in particular, the United States and Canada.
Aviation American Gin
One of the best and most popular New Western gins on the market — and at a great price — Aviation American Gin combines its juniper flavoring with six other botanicals, including lavender, orange peel, anise, and, curiously, sarsaparilla. Known by many for being part-owned by actor Ryan Reynolds, this Oregon-based distillery is one of the few brands that has transcended the idea of celebrity-owned liquor to become not only a mainstay in bars and shops but a symbol of quality. Named after the enigmatic pre-Prohibition cocktail, Aviation is made in small batches and looks great on the shelf with its Art Deco-inspired bottle design.
St. George Botanivore
Based in Northern California, St. George gained recognition in 2007 when it produced the very first American absinthe following a near-100-year-old ban getting lifted on the spirit. From there, people began to take notice of what the independent distillery was doing elsewhere. Of its array of expertly-crafted and innovative spirits, from the Green Chile Vodka to the Terroir Gin that tastes like a literal forest. However, St. George’s Botanivore has always stood out above them all. Made from a beautifully balanced blend of 19 different botanicals that come together as a singular profile all its own, this gin might very well be the epitome of the New Western style.
The Complete Guide to Bourbon Styles
Once you’ve learned all about the different types of gin, make sure you bone up on your American whiskey with our complete guide to bourbon styles.