Gin is a popular spirit. Scratch that, it’s an incredibly popular one. It’s most famously used to make a gin and tonic or as part of a martini. However, it also features in plenty of other gin cocktails and can even be sipped on its own. So, what is gin made from?
Why not take a little time to understand this, especially if you’re going to drink gin regularly? If nothing else, learning more about gin might help you to make better choices about the gin you serve at home.
Now… it’s tempting to say that gin is vodka with juniper berries and other botanicals, but that’s a simplistic explanation and misses plenty of important things. There’s much more to be said about gin, including how dramatically the different steps and ingredients can change the final flavor profile.
So, before you sign up for a gin of the month club (you know you want to!), take a minute to learn more about your favorite spirit. You could look at other spirits too, like the process behind making tequila and rum. There are some similarities in those steps, along with plenty of differences.
What Is Gin Made From?
Let’s begin our discussion here, with the botanicals. These are the ingredients that give gin its distinctive flavor. There will always be juniper present, but the other botanicals and their ratios can vary dramatically.
No surprises here – juniper berries are one of the main ingredients in gin. These little fruits aren’t classed as berries botanically, but they’re fleshy and look much like berries – hence the name (interestingly, the little fruits are closer to cones than to true berries).
There are a variety of juniper species and only some of these offer edible juniper berries. The edible ones provide a sharp flavor that is used to enhance a variety of dishes, including sauerkraut and meats.
Juniper berries are an essential ingredient in gin. Truly. According to the legal definition, a spirit cannot be considered gin unless it relies on juniper berries.
However, the dominance of juniper varies. It’s the most noticeable flavor in many gin expressions but is much more subtle in others.
Juniper plays a crucial role in gin, but certainly isn’t the only flavoring ingredient. Other botanicals are used to round out and enrich the flavor profile.
Coriander seeds are particularly important. In fact, many gin expressions consist of around 60% juniper, 30% coriander seeds, and the rest is made up of other botanicals. So, needless to say, coriander is a crucial ingredient.
Coriander is helpful because it has a bright and vibrant flavor. This is a fantastic contrast to the drying features of juniper.
Some source of citrus is often used in gin as well, typically in the form of citrus peel. This provides some sweetness as well, along with a bright flavor tone that acts as an excellent contrast.
You’ll often see at least one root in the botanical profile for gin as well. Angelica root is a particularly common addition. It provides an earthy and somewhat medicinal flavor that works surprisingly well with the other ingredients.
Sometimes you’ll just see juniper, coriander, one type of citrus, and a root in gin. This style gives the individual botanicals a chance to shine, especially the juniper.
Other types of gin use many more botanicals. You’re often looking at somewhere between 10 and 20 botanicals, although some types of gin actually contain more than 40 different botanical ingredients. Talk about complex!
Some companies also include unusual ingredients, like licorice root, green cardamom, spruce shoots, and lingonberries. Such ingredients create a very different flavor profile than traditional gin.
Video: How Gin Is Made
A Fermentable Base
Gin starts its life with a fermentable base. Grains are often used here, such as wheat and maize. However, as with vodka, almost any source of sugar or starch can be used as the base ingredient. Some of the most common include the following.
- Grains. Wheat is a popular base spirit, although you may also see barley, rye, corn, and other types of grains used as well. Corn works surprisingly well, as it creates an attractive flavor and bourbon producers already require a large amount of it (which is fantastic for companies that produce gin and bourbon).
- Fruit. Grapes and apples are the most common fruits used to make gin, although others are possible too. The nuances in the finished spirit are influenced by the varieties used, the parts of the fruit, and methods of treatment.
- Sugar Cane. Sugar cane isn’t just used for rum production. It can also be relied on as a base ingredient for gin. Gin made this way is sometimes said to be rum-like, although the flavor profile is still quite different than actual rum.
- Potatoes. Potatoes can be used too. As in vodka, these create a distinct flavor profile that isn’t easily ignored. However, some companies manage to work with potatoes well and keep the distinctive flavors to a minimum. Here, the potatoes mostly impart a rich texture to the gin that’s hard to find elsewhere.
- Unusual ingredients. Then there are all the unusual ingredients. Some companies really stretch the imagination here, using ingredients like pineapple, whey, maple sap, molasses, and even agave. Such ingredients aren’t that common, partly because they’re more expensive than wheat and similar options. But, some companies do love to experiment and produce some truly remarkable spirits.
We can’t forget about water either. As boring as it may seem, water is a critical aspect of gin production. It’s particularly important for diluting gin down to the desired bottle strength.
Some companies focus on using the best possible water for their gin. This may include using deep spring water or some other high quality source of water. Doing so can lead to subtle improvements in the flavor and quality of gin.
While water doesn’t have a dramatic approach, small flavor changes shouldn’t be ignored. These all add up and help to make some gins truly stand out.
The final ingredient, if we can call it that, is yeast. Yeast is needed to kick off the fermentation process and is essential for making gin. Companies generally don’t provide details about the specific yeast strains they use, so there isn’t much information we can provide here.
Still, the specific strain likely has some impact on the final flavor and texture of the gin.
How Is Gin Made?
First of all, we need to talk about the different types of gin – as these have distinct production styles. You’ll mostly just need to worry about the first two, but the third is still worth knowing about.
- Distilled Gin. This type of gin is common in the United States. It’s made by distilling a fermented alcohol base or a mash. This is a similar style to how whiskey is produced.
- Redistilled Gin. Redistilled gin is slightly different. Instead of relying on a mash, it is made by distilling a neutral spirit instead. Distilled and redistilled gin are then infused with juniper berries and a variety of botanicals to provide their distinct flavor profile.
- Compound Gin. Compound gin is less common than the previous two styles and is often considered inferior. This is simply made by mixing a neutral spirit with juniper berry essences or extract. The process still provides the same flavors as distilled or redistilled gin, but some complexity may be lost. There may also more natural and artificial additives in this type of gin.
Distilled gin and redistilled gin aren’t that different. They mostly just vary in their starting point.
So, with distilled gin, a gin manufacturer initiates the process themselves, by carefully selecting ingredients, creating a mash, and then distilling it. This gives them full control over the ingredients, their quality, and the final nuances of the neutral spirit.
With redistilled gin, the gin manufacturer is simply buying a neutral spirit instead, then working with that. Doing so gives them less control, but does reduce costs and allows the company to streamline their processes.
Unfortunately, this means that many gins on the market use the same or similar base neutral spirit, leading to many similarities between them (a similar pattern sometimes happens with vodka).
Differences don’t stop with the base gin. Companies also vary in how they distill the spirit and infuse it with botanicals.
- Vapor Infusion. Here, companies often rely on a suspended basket that contains the botanicals. This is never immersed in the spirit. Instead, as the still heats the spirit, vapors pass through the basket and release essential oils. A modified still is needed for this technique to work.
- Steeping. This classic technique involves mixing the botanicals and alcohol in a traditional pot still. The botanicals may be quickly removed or allowed to step for as long as two days.
- Cold Distillation (also called vacuum distillation). This approach uses a vacuum environment, keeping the temperature relatively low and reducing the boiling point of ethanol. Doing so means that the botanicals are exposed to less heat, which could then lead to an improved flavor profile.
- Individual Botanical Distillation. While many companies distill all their botanicals together, some conduct separate distillations for each type of botanical and then combine these in the finished product. Doing so may provide greater contrast between the additives and a better overall flavor profile.
- Blended Approaches. Some companies combine the results of multiple approaches. For example, they may distill some botanicals through vapor infusion and others through steeping, then blend the finished distillates to create a balanced product.
Styles Of Gin
Gin can also be broken down into different styles. These don’t refer to how the gin is produced but to differences in where they are made and in the flavor profile.
The following sections highlight some of the most well-known examples. Of course, there are plenty of other styles out there too, along with artisan gins that don’t fit well in any style.
London dry gin is better considered a style of gin (Bombay Sapphire and Beefeater Gin are both famous examples). It was originally developed in England, although it is now produced in many places throughout the world.
Juniper is prominent in this style of gin, along with plenty of citrus flavor notes. These citrus notes often come from the use of citrus peels before the spirit is distilled. This gin is also devoid of artificial flavors. All the flavors come from the botanicals instead.
As the name suggests, London dry gin also avoids sweetness. Its dry nature can be appealing and is perfect in many cocktails.
Plymouth gin is an offset of London dry gin. It has many of the same features, although it is specifically produced in Plymouth, on the south coast of Devon (while London dry gin is certainly not limited to London).
A big difference is the flavor profile, as there is an earthy flavor tone, along with more citrus notes than with London dry gin.
You can probably guess this one from the name. Navy strength is such named because it was once popular with the British Royal Navy.
Not surprisingly, the gin is much stronger than normal. It often has an ABV of around 57%, while regular gin tends to be between 40% and 45% instead. The extra alcohol content is helpful in some cocktails and is still enjoyed by many.
Old Tom gin doesn’t have the greatest reputation. It was once known as bathtub gin, as it was often poor quality and produced in homes.
However, times have changed and Old Tom Gin is now produced commercially, with a much better quality than ever before. A notable feature is that the gin tends to be much sweeter than usual.
Much of the sweetness comes from licorice. Don’t worry, though, the gin doesn’t taste like licorice at all. It simply has a delicious flavor profile.
Many countries and companies have entered the gin distilling field, leading to countless different styles and flavor profiles. This is a good reason to experiment with gin, rather than just sticking with a few favorite companies.
After all, countless botanicals can be used, creating endless possibilities within gin.
Finally, we have North Western Dry Gin. This is a modern version of gin that focuses on the flavors of botanicals. Juniper is still present, but it isn’t as prominent as in other styles of gin.
This is a great style for anyone who isn’t a fan of juniper. It also allows for greater variation between one type of gin and the next.
What Is The Difference Between Vodka And Gin?
Gin and vodka do have similarities, as both can be using pretty much any base source of starch. They’re also generally clear, unaged, and fast to produce.
Most of the difference lies in the flavor profile. Vodka generally lacks any distinctive character. This was even a traditional legal requirement (although lack of distinctive character was removed from the American regulation in 2020).
There are flavor and texture differences between vodka expressions, but these tend to be nuanced. The minimal flavors make vodka an excellent cocktail ingredient, as it works well with most combinations of ingredients.
Gin has a much more distinct flavor profile. This comes first from the juniper and then from the other botanicals.
The flavor profile can vary dramatically between gin expressions. Not only do companies rely on different botanicals than each other, but they also tweak the ratios of these botanicals.
The flavor profile makes gin stand out when sipped or served in a gin and tonic. It’s excellent in more complex cocktails too, as long as you balance the ingredients and flavor profile carefully.
Truly making gin at home is illegal in many places, as there are laws against distilling your own spirits. However, gin is essentially a neutral alcohol that’s been distilled with botanicals. So, if you buy the base spirit, you can then turn that into gin. To this, you’ll need a neutral vodka or perhaps Everclear (any good infusing vodka will be fantastic here).
Plus, if you’re using an already distilled spirit, you shouldn’t be breaking any laws. After all, it’s distilling spirits that’s illegal, rather than infusing spirits.
Expensive gins often rely on many different botanicals, creating a delicious and nuanced flavor profile. But, are these expensive gins actually better?
Well, unlike spirits like whiskey and tequila, gin isn’t aged, so that’s never a factor in the quality or the price. Expensive gin may be made using better quality base ingredients, which is helpful, but this doesn’t always translate into flavor differences in the gin itself.
In many ways, the best gin is going to depend on the flavors you enjoy. Some people prefer the complexity of many botanicals, while others prefer simple juniper-forward spirits.
Why not experiment with different gins and discover the types of gin you prefer? Craft gin of the month clubs are a fantastic way to do just this.