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How gin is made and why it's the most diverse category of spirit

by Robin Sinhababu 5 min read

The more we know, the less we think we know. Whether we’re into astrophysics, zoology, or cocktails, every lesson we learn opens doors to a few others, and the world grows more vast and full of possibility.

Are you in a tequila, shochu, or Strega phase? Obsessed with blind tasting, Indian whisky, or mixing the perfect Blue Blazer, without an end in sight? Wherever you’re at, there’s enough information available today - and more than enough products in today’s spirits market - to make just about any niche feel like the the deepest and most infinite of them all, the one true thing. 

In this six-part series, we’re making the case for each of the six major spirit categories as the most diverse in all of booze. We did the best we could with the previous entries on vodka and whiskey, but it’s hard to make this argument about things that all taste like alcohol, or all taste like grain! Here at last we are to make the easy, well-founded, and delicious case for gin, a spirit of infinite possibilities.

 

HOW GIN IS MADE

 

As with vodka, you can start gin from anything containing starch or sugar, so any fruit, vegetable, or grain, soaking in water, will do. You’ll rely on yeast to turn the sugars in that wet base ingredient to alcohol, so if you’re starting with something non-sugary, like rye or potatoes, you’ll need to let enzymes break the starch into sugar.

 

Next, yeast will eat these sugars and emit alcohol and carbon dioxide. This fermentation can bring the mixture to between 15 and 20 percent, about as boozy as yeast can handle. When it’s heated, you’ll have any combination of aromatic spices and herbs, including juniper - a must - in a kind of basket at the top of the still, and the alcoholic steam will circulate around them before passing into a condensation chamber. Alternately, you could let the botanicals steep in the warm base liquid instead of using the basket, or you could do both.

 

You can then choose to distill this infused solution again, or you can proceed to cut it with water down to your desired proof.

 

GIN: THE UNIVERSAL LOCAVORE SPIRIT

 

Clearing with bluebells amid trees

 

The past two decades have seen a renaissance of sourcing and eating local foods, and with it an expansion of what can be grown and enjoyed locally. Epicureans are aware of more fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices than ever before.

 

Gin is the only spirit suited for keeping up with these developments. Quick and inexpensive to distill, and thoroughly responsive to changes in recipe, gin encourages and rewards experimentation.

 

Botanicals found in America

 

Theuniversality of vodka goes for gin, too, but gin’s capacity for botanicals adds yet another dimension of limitless variety to the one exemplified by vodka. Although the crops thatferment with the most character, like grapes or agave, only thrive here and there, every region has some kind of distinctive plant that caninfuse. It could be part of the local diet, familiar to all, or something off of a tree, sensed only on a walk through the woods. Gin allows anyone, anywhere, to produce a spirit with, as the wine world would say, terroir (characteristics and taste specific to an area).

 

THE ONE FOOD-FRIENDLY SPIRIT

 

Smoked sausage with juniper

 

When we think about the classic food and spirit pairings, a vodka martini doesn’t so much go with oysters as it stays out of the way. Bourbon and steak are certainly nice things that can be consumed at the same time, but they have no real synergy - any strong barrel-aged spirit will give the same effect. The famed Trou Normand is more of a palate cleanser than a pairing, and hijacking your senses with Fernet after dinner is just preposterous.

Here instead is a spirit whose distillation can admit any herb and spice available to a chef, and is therefore easy to align with corresponding dishes. If you pour a delicately herbal gin with chilled seafood, a juniper-forward gin with cured fish, or a gin rich in sweet spices with hot Indian or Thai food, you’re making sensible choices that will play just as you drew them up.

You’ll also be rewarded for smart but non-intuitive choices, like genever with Epoisses. Gin gets closer to food than any other spirit, and just as there are ideal seasonings for every dish, there’s an ideal gin, too.

Better yet, the vehicle for all these potable herb and spice accents is an (almost always) clear, easy-to-drink spirit that tends to leave the palate feeling refreshed. Gin has a place on every table.

 

PLAYS WELL WITH OTHERS

 

Tattooed bartender hands over the negroni

 

Gin’s also the likeliest spirit to make it to the table in the first place. No spirit is easier to improvise with, or more forgiving of a barren fridge or bar cart. Just soda, just tonic, or just vermouth is enough to mix classic, delicious cocktails with whatever gin you have. 

If going to three ingredients isn’t too decadent--adding just vermouth and bitters, or just Campari and sweet vermouth--the cocktails go from classic to timeless. For three ingredient cocktail recipes, highly recommend checking out the Road Town Gimlet, the Redbird and the Ginger Cocktail. With gin’s botanicals pulling the weight usually assigned to cordial and liqueur accents, a cocktail of just two or three ingredients can be complex, layered, and perfect. 

A NICHE FOR CRAFT SPIRITS

 

It’s unfair to compare any other spirit’s breadth of styles to gin’s. After all, distillers can put anything in the basket, giving us the incredible range of aromas, flavors, and styles on offer today.

Douglas fir cones on branch

With time, it’ll get unfairer yet. In 2011, St. George created their “Terroir” gin, and it was shockingly  different from other gins. It instantly evoked an evergreen forest, by introducing Douglas fir and California bay laurel to the still. Other distillers took note and begun to evoke other terroirs by sourcing local botanicals. If new recipes are crossed with different base spirits, such as in Old Tom or genever styles, it’ll be far out.

New whiskeys tend to imitate - often explicitly, and with fanfare - classic, tried-and-true methods. As well they should; longtime producers make the best stuff. Same goes for eau de vie, minus the fanfare. New rums riff on the classics mainly by varying blends and cask finishes - often delicious, but to be expected. “New” tequila and mezcal tends to mean either that something old is newly getting exported, or that a celebrity took a vacation in Mexico.

But new gins are special. Even when they’re simply going for a London Dry style, the result is inevitably distinct from its inspirations. And when they’re going for something local and new, it’s the future.

What are some of your favorite gins? What botanicals would you like to see in a gin? Let us know in the comments below.

Interested in the rest of this ongoing six-part series on spirits? Check out our other articles on how whiskey and vodka are made. 

 

Texas Hill Country junction with bluebonnets creeping

 

 


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