What is gin all about? What you need to know about how it's made

What is gin? What are we talking about when we're talking about the essential juniper spirit?

What is gin all about? What you need to know about how it's made

What do we mean when we talk about gin? Put quite simply, gin is a spirit whose dominant flavour comes from juniper berries, but with other botanicals in the mix. It has a piney, often citrusy, and sometimes floral aromas, and tastes great with tonic water. Gin is the backbone of many classic cocktails, and gin is the spirit that makes the Martini the near-religious experience it is.

But what is gin when you get down to it? Here, we look at how it is made, the different styles of gin, and the classic gin botanicals.

There is a legal, regulatory definition of what gin should be. The European Union’s rules define gin under three categories: Gin, Distilled Gin, and London Gin.

Gin is the broadest definition available. The minimum ABV for this category is 37.5 percent, and it allows for “Only natural and/or nature-identical flavouring substances” to create the predominant taste of juniper. These gins are typically of the cheaper, not particularly great variety. There are no guidelines on the addition of sugar to the final product.

Distilled gin is a step up, and described as “a juniper-flavoured spirit drink” made by redistilling ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin of an ABV of at least 96 percent “in the presence of juniper berries” and other botanicals.

Distilled gin may be watered down to bottling strength after it is made, to a minimum of 37.5 percent alcohol.

London Gin is the strictest of the classifications according to EU rules. It is a type of distilled gin, which uses ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin of at least 96% ABV which goes through a redistillation in the presence of juniper and other botanicals. It permits a maximum of 0.1g of sugar per litre, and must be bottled at 37.5 percent alcohol or above.

Put simply: London Gin has next to no sugar added, its flavour coming from the botanicals that are distilled together, the most prominent of which is juniper. And you can’t add anything to it after distillation, such as colouring or other ingredients.

Martin Miller's Gin. Image: Supplied
Martin Miller's Gin. Image: Supplied
Martin Miller's gin employs 10 botanicals in the recipes for both their 40% ABV Martin Miller's Gin and the 45.2% ABV Martin Miller's Westbourne Strength, including juniper, coriander, angelica root, orange peel, lemon peel, lime oil, orris root, cassia bark, ground nutmeg, liquorice and cucumber distillate.

Styles of gin

London Dry Gin: London Dry Gin is the typical style of gin most people think of when they think about gin, exemplified by longstanding brands like Gordon’s and Beefeater. If the bottle has the designation of London Dry Gin on the label, it meets the EU designation of that style, and will usually feature juniper quite prominently.

New Western or New Wave gin: The 2000s saw a boom in the production of gin. Whilst many of these new gins would also take on the classic London dry flavour profile, a lot of experimentation began to take place. Gins were being made in small batches in the US, the UK, Australia, Europe — everywhere. And in each new place they popped up, they would often add botanicals that were anything but traditional. At their best, they represent a new wave style of gin championing local botanicals; at their worst, they forget that juniper should be the hero botanical of the spirit. And when they’re like that, they’re not gin — they’ve made flavoured vodka.

Old Tom: Old Tom gin was a popular — perhaps the most popular — sweeter style of gin back in the 1800s, when many classic cocktails were born.

Harvesting juniper berries on Washington Island in Door County, Wisconsin. Photo: Boothby
Harvesting juniper berries on Washington Island in Door County, Wisconsin. Photo: Boothby
Juniper berries aren't real berries. Photo: Boothby
Juniper berries aren't real berries. Photo: Boothby

How is gin made?

London dry gin is typically made through two methods, though in practice there is often a combination of the methods used. The first method is that of maceration: the botanicals for the gin are placed inside a still along with neutral spirit that is at least 96 percent alcohol.

The second method is called vapour infusion: instead of the botanicals sitting in the still and being boiled with the liquid, they are put into a basket at the top of the still. As the spirit in the still is heated, the steam rises up and through the basket, extracting flavour from the botanicals.

In reality, some botanicals — hard ingredients like roots and juniper berries — tend to benefit from the maceration method, whereas delicate botanicals such as fresh citrus and lemongrass, benefit from vapour infusion.

Martin Miller's Westbourne Strength lands at 45.2% ABV. Photo: Supplied
Martin Miller's Westbourne Strength lands at 45.2% ABV. Photo: Supplied
Martin Miller's Westbourne Strength is named for Westbourne Grove in London, where the idea for Martin Miller's took shape. The higher ABV — 45.2% — means that the juniper becomes a little more prominent, as does the warmer spices like cassia on the finish. The result is a higher proof gin made for mixing in Martinis and Negronis.

Classic gin botanicals, and what they contribute to the gin

Juniper: the botanical without which gin ain’t gin. Juniper berries are not, in fact, actual berries, but instead they are cones. They offer up piney, resiny, citrusy and woody aromas to the gin.

Coriander and fennel seeds: these seeds often contribute a citrusy, lemony character to the final spirit.

Citrus peels: dried orange peel is a common botanical in the classic London dry recipe, as is lemon peel.

Orris root: that floral character you find in many gins? It’s not always from flowers, but instead from the use of orris root (flowers often being far too delicate for the heat of the still).

Angelica root: contributes an earthy base character, as well as some perceived sweetness to the texture and taste of the gin (also, see liquorice root for the same use).

The botanicals of Martin Miller's Gin. Photo: Supplied
The botanicals of Martin Miller's Gin. Photo: Supplied
Martin Miller's Gin is made at Langley Distillery in England's West Midlands, where they create two distinct distillates: one, combining orange, lime, and lemon peels, and the second incorporating juniper, coriander, angelica root, liquorice root, orris root, cassia bark, and nutmeg. These are blended together before a cucumber distillate is added, and the gin taken to Iceland to be blended with some rather pure water.

Want to learn more?

This explainer was made possible by Spirits Platform’s Spirits Academy. Their team of ambassadors conduct trainings around the country, not just on gin — though they cover everything you need to know there —but on a range of spirits.

Get in touch with your Spirits Platform ambassador for your state to find out more.

National Ambassador Manager: Mark Hickey — email him on mhickey@spiritsplatform.com.au
National Ambassador (Tia Maria, Disaronno, Busker): Danilo Migliorini — email him on dmigliorini@spiritsplatform.com.au
NSW, ACT: Josh O’Brien — email him on jobrien@spiritsplatform.com.au
NSW, ACT: James Woodyear-Smith — email him on jameswoodyearsmith@gmail.com
QLD, NT: Jack Creighton — email him on jcreighton@spiritsplatform.com.au
VIC, TAS: Max Borrowman — email him on mborrowman@spiritsplatform.com.au