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  • What is “Gin”?

    I’m big into definitions. I love the clear boundaries that allow us to classify items in distinct ways. You would think this sounds obvious, and it is, to a point. Right up until someone asks you to provide a definition for, oh I don’t know, let’s say candy.

    I make this point after reading the European Union’s definition of what is “Gin”. Which is to say, they don’t, other than to classify it under the term “Juniper-flavoured spirit drinks”, which helps me not at all. Why? Because the list of other Juniper-flavoured spirit drinks include the following:

    Balegemse jenever, Genièvre / Jenever / Genever, Genièvre Flandres Artois, Genièvre de grains, Gin de Mahón, Hasseltse jenever / Hasselt, Inovecká borovička, Jonge jenever, Liptovská borovička, Oude jenever,  O´ de Flander-Oost-Vlaamse Graanjenever, Peket-Pekêt / Pèket-Pèkèt de Wallonie,  Plymouth Gin, Slovenská borovička, Slovenská borovička Juniperus, Spišská borovička, Steinhäger, and Vilniaus Džinas / Vilnius Gin

    The problem is that most of these don’t come anywhere near the taste needed to make a good Martini, as anyone who has had a Oude jenever from the Netherlands could tell you. That’s not to say that these spirits wouldn’t make for interesting drinks when mixed with vermouth, it’s simply that Liptovská borovička plus vermouth does not make up a classic Martini.

    This will not do. When we order a martini, we expect a specific kind of gin. So the question still remains – what kind of gin?

    Instead of the EU, let’s look at the Code of Federal Regulations here in the United States, which proclaims in its regulations:

    “Gin” is a product obtained by original distillation from mash, or by redistillation of distilled spirits, or by mixing neutral spirits, with or over juniper berries and other aromatics, or with or over extracts derived from infusions, percolations, or maceration of such materials, and includes mixtures of gin and neutral spirits. It shall derive its main characteristic flavor from juniper berries and be bottled at not less than 80° proof. Gin produced exclusively by original distillation or by redistillation may be further designated as “distilled”. “Dry gin” (London dry gin), “Geneva gin” (Hollands gin), and “Old Tom gin” (Tom gin) are types of gin known under such designations.

    In other words, Gin is either distilled (or redistilled) from a mash that contains some grain as well as junipers, or it’s a neutral spirit (for example, vodka) that has has been infused with junipers some time after distilling has been completed.  Then they give three specific examples.

    • Dry Gin – Also known London Dry Gin, it is a neutral spirit blended with botanicals, mainly juniper, but others as well. Being “Dry” it should not be sweet at all, and should have no coloring. There may be exceptions, which I hope to uncover soon.  Also called “Distilled Gin”, a designation which is horribly misleading, as all gin is distilled in some sense or another.
    • Geneva Gin – A designation which is as annoying as “Chai Tea” because Geneva Gin means “Gin Gin”, it’s better known to us as Dutch Gin. These are the gins that use the initial recipes and distilling techniques as a basic definition, resulting in a very strong, somewhat rough drink. Simply put, if you don’t know whether you’ve had Dutch Gin or not, you probably haven’t.
    • Old Tom Gin – A style of gin that’s somewhat rare (in fact, the State of Washington only lists 4 types of Old Tom Gin, and 3 of them are out of stock.) This is a gin that’s essentially a Dutch gin with extra botanicals and other flavorings.
    There are four other types of gin not listed, but should be accounted for.
    • Navy Strength Gin – Essentially a Dry gin, but at a higher ABV (around 57%/104 proof).
    • New Western Dry Gin – Think “artisinal” and you’ll be on the right track. These are the gins that are a response to the corporate gins that have focused almost solely on London Dry Gin over the past 50 years (with the notable exception of Tanqueray). These gins are more herby and use far more botanicals that those found in the Dry Gins.
    • Plymouth Dry Gin – The only “gin” recognized by the European Unionwhich means it will only and always be produced at Black Friars Distillery, Plymouth, England. What separates Plymouth Gin from the London Dry gin  is its excessive use of base ingredients, resulting in what is stated as a sweeter, earthier taste. Having never tried this yet, I have no idea on how true this is.
    • Sloe Gin – Blackthorn berries macerated in gin and sugar is all that’s needed to make sloe gin. It’s not really a gin in the classical sense, but more of a liqueur with a gin base.

    Here’s the thing about these seven categories – with the exception of Plymouth Dry Gin, there is no regulatory oversight as to what constitutes a London Dry Gin, versus a New Western Dry Gin. In other words, here in the States, the only thing that dictates the definition of the above is little more than tradition and the Code of Federal Regulations. Anyone who says these definitions are set in stone should have to point to the specific regulatory oversight that defines London Dry Gin has to be made so that it does  not contain added sweetening exceeding 0.1 gram of sugars per liter of the final product, nor colorants, nor any added ingredients other than water needs to point out where that is officially stated.

    For our sake, in search of the perfect Martini, I am going to go out on a limb and restrict the types of gin to the following – Dry Gin, Navy Strength Gin, New Western Dry Gin, and Plymouth Dry Gin. The rest others don’t make sense to me, but I may be able to be convinced otherwise if someone can make a compelling argument.

    (Photo courtesy Yersinia via Flickr)

    Tags: dry gin, gin, london gin, plymouth gin, sloe gin, tag1, The Classic Martini