What is Gin made from?

Written by Seb  /  Edited by Natalia  /  Design by Andy

Traditionally gin producers don’t make their own spirit. Making gin is all about using botanicals to turn a spirit base into gin by flavouring it, most importantly with juniper.

However, this doesn’t mean that the base spirit is not important to gin. In fact, the evolution of gin’s base spirit has been a key factor in gin’s story.

As distillation methods improved, so did the quality of the base spirit. This improvement made a huge leap forward after 1830 when the Continuous Still was developed. This allowed spirits to be distilled, for the first time, to the point of neutrality or 97.3% ABV (Alcohol By Volume) a complete game changer for gin.

Before the 1830s and to be clear, for a long time after, gin’s flavour came from both the botanicals in a gin’s recipe and also the flavours of the spirit being used. So, early gins were more like unaged whisky, flavoured with juniper and other botanicals. A much heavier product than we think of today as gin. After the Continuous Still came into service, for the first time, the modern gins we know today could be made. Using a neutral spirit base (GNS or NGS – Neutral Grain Spirit) would allow gin distillers to show off their botanical recipes at their best.

The evolution to the style of gin we know today was not immediate, in fact it took decades. However, change was happening, and this can be clearly tracked in the evolution of how gin was being mixed in cocktails.

The Dry Martini is the best example of this. It’s not a cocktail that was born fully formed, as we know it today. Like gin, it evolved. Infact, the journey to the modern Dry Martini arguably started with a recipe (Martinez) where gin was actually offered as a substitute in a whisky cocktail. Proof of just how much influence the grain spirit used as gin’s base made for a far heavier spirit than we know today.

Add to this the fact that gin was also moved and stored in wooden barrels, and it’s not hard to see why gin was being subbed in for whisky cocktails and not the light and dry recipes we’re so familiar with.

As technology developed, gin went into glass bottles and the base spirit got lighter and more neutral. The Dry Martini evolved from a sweet and heavy drink, more suited to these earlier gins, to the elegant icon we know today.

Juniper

You can’t make gin without juniper. As Desmond Payne, the world’s most experienced gin distiller would say on the importance of juniper for gin producers

“No juniper, no gin, no gin, no money, no money no gin!”

That sums up juniper’s importance pretty well.

Juniper is an ancient plant that goes all the way back to when the earth had a single land mass (Pangea). As the continents separated, juniper was taken to every corner of the globe. Today you can find juniper all over the world, but it will be very different depending where it’s from.

It’s a rugged shrub or small evergreen tree in the Cypress family. Gin typically uses ‘common juniper’ (Juniperus Communis) found in Northern Europe, the hills of Northern Italy bring the most famous growing area.

Its berries have been used for millennia. It’s a natural diuretic, and mild antiseptic. It was used in British cooking in the Middle Ages, it goes especially well with game meats. While monks in Italy put it into medicine. It’s likely that juniper combined with alcohol for medicinal purposes was the early prequel to gin, before juniper was added to alcohol for simple enjoyment.

It’s not an easy harvest however. Juniper can’t be harvested like your average crop. It’s grown on hillsides and has never been successfully cultivated. Instead you have to walk up the hill, throw a blanket under a juniper bush and whack it to release the juniper berries that are ready to be harvested. You then gather up the blanket, collect the berries up and move on to the next bush.

Botanicals

Along with Juniper, the key to a gin’s flavour profile is its recipe of other botanicals. Although high quality gin can be sipped neat with a little water, it’s not the typical way to drink it. When we think of gin, we think of mixed drinks. In fact, its ability to be mixed into cocktails is why gin is intertwined into the history of the cocktail, and why it’s still such a popular base in recipes.

Gin is light, dry and easy to work with, and yet it’s full of flavour and character. Great gins, like great cocktails, need to be well balanced. The balance of the gin is vital for it to be used in a wide array of different cocktails. This balance, in a large part, comes down to the gin’s botanical makeup.

As botanicals are natural ingredients, their character will change depending on where they’re grown and the climatic conditions they’re grown in. In wine, this is called ‘terroir’, to describe how local growing conditions impact grapes and the final product.

For this reason vintage wines will vary in character and quality from year to year. However, when it comes to gin, we expect it to taste the same every year.

How can gin remain the same from year to year when it’s flavoured by natural ingredients that are subjected to different growing conditions every year?

It comes down to botanical selection. Gin is not aged, therefore products from different years cannot be blended together to maintain a consistent flavour. The consistency has to come by carefully selecting and buying botanicals every year that deliver the correct flavour profile needed to recreate the same product.

Some of the larger, more famous brands out there may go through up to two hundred different juniper samples before deciding what to purchase.

Although a gin’s recipe of botanicals is set, exactly where they are sourced from each year will change to ensure a consistent product year after year. So, buying botanicals is not just about buying enough for how much gin you expect to make that year, it’s very much part of producing a consistent product. Get it wrong, and you won’t be able to recreate the gin’s unique profile.

There’s an ever increasing array of different natural ingredients used as botanicals to flavour gins these days. Some of the most traditional and common ones are:

Citrus peels, used for bright, crisp, and fresh top notes.

Coriander seed, used for both citrussy and earthy, woody notes. It really helps to balance a gin between the lighter top notes and the heavier notes from the root based botanicals..

Angelica root delivers earthy dryness. This really helps to deliver the dry finish associated with a Dry style gin.

Orris root. The root of the iris is delicately floral in nature, but more importantly it helps to bind the essential oils of all the botanicals to the alcohol during distillation. Therefore, it acts as a preservative or fixative, keeping all the gin’s flavors and aromas locked in from the still to the final drinker, and it’s also why orris is widely used in expensive perfumes too.

Beyond the recipe of botanicals used to flavour a gin, HOW their essential oils are added to the base spirit is also essential to the final outcome and character of a gin. For details on this, read: How is Gin Made – A Quick Guide and What is London Dry Gin? 

Water

Water plays two key roles in gin production. Firstly, you need to add water to the still along with the neutral spirit and botanicals. This is so that you don’t have to burn the still dry to distill all the alcohol off the still, which would not be a good idea. Therefore, water is added to the still so that all the alcohol can be distilled off, leaving just water and the spent botanicals in the still at the end of the run.

The second time water is used in the process is when it’s added to the middle cut before bottling. This water is added to reduce the alcohol strength of the middle cut to the perfect point for bottling. Quality gins will be bottled no lower than 40% ABV or 80 proof, to ensure enough flavour and complexity is carried into the bottle as alcohol is the carrier of a gin’s flavour.

Gins bottled at higher alcohol strengths retain even more of the essential oils captured during the distillation process, which delivers even more flavours to the end user. Higher strength gin must be handled in a way that adds sufficient dilution to the cocktail to unlock all those amazing flavours, instead of delivering a drink that is unpleasantly strong.

This is an important reminder that, after all the time, care, and attention that goes into making the best possible gin, it can all be undone by the final user. Great ingredients are only ever as good as the person using them. Thankfully you have Candra to always steer you right!

As always, don’t forget to show us what you made by tagging us!
@Candra_Drinks  #MakeBetterDrinks  #CandraDrinks

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