The question “What Is Gin Made From?” has no easy answer. In the simplest terms, gin is a neutral grain spirit, like vodka, which has been flavored with juniper berries. Nothing else is required or excluded by the definition. In practice, we can say a few other things about gin: it is nearly always unaged; it’s usually redistilled after being infused with its flavorings (differentiating it from flavored vodka); it is not noticeably sweet; and in addition to the juniper berries, it’s flavored with a number of botanicals. Because the spirit used is neutral in flavor, the botanicals become the hallmark of the brand, the thing that sets Bombay Sapphire off from Bulldog, Citadelle, Hendrick’s, Junipero.
Think of the botanicals as being like chili powder. Everyone has a good idea of what chili powder tastes like, and certain combinations, even if they included many of the same ingredients, wouldn’t “taste right.” A little more or less onion in the mix won’t make anyone flinch; but add peppermint or lemon peel, and it may no longer be recognizable. Classically, gin botanicals include citrus peel, warm spices like cinnamon, orris root (which smells like violets and accounts for the floral nose of a gin like Bombay Sapphire), and licorice or anise. The dominant flavor remains the juniper berry, the seed cone of the juniper tree, which is also used in traditional game recipes, corned beef, and choucroute garni, the traditional dish of Alsace. Juniper itself has several flavor notes, the most distinctive of which is contributed by pinene, the same natural chemical found in the resin of pine trees — which is why cheap gin (made with few or poor-quality botanicals) has the reputation of smelling like turpentine.
Classically, gin is not a noticeably herbaceous liquor, not a busy one. Compare it to Coca-Cola, the original formula for which includes cinnamon, nutmeg, and four kinds of citrus, all of which are just accents on the cola flavor. Similarly, gin is fundamentally a juniper-flavored drink; that’s the substance of its identity, and the name itself is derived from it. In modern times, some new gins play fast and loose with the traditional botanicals: New Zealand’s South gin uses native kawa kawa and manuka berries, England’s Hendrick’s Gin uses cucumber and rose, and Whitley Neill includes the fruit of two native African plants, the baobab and the Cape gooseberry. Some of the new gins are formulated for specific drinks: Tanqueray’s latest offering, Rangpur, includes rangpur “limes” (actually a relative of the mandarin orange) and is well-suited to the gimlet; Bulldog, infused with the Asian longan fruit, is designed for dirty martinis and tonic.
The original gin — distilled in the Netherlands in the 17th century — was aged, but gin’s popularity reached its apex in England in the next century, when unaged gin distilled from grain rejected by beer-brewers became a bargain-hunter’s phenomenon after the government imposed a heavy tax on imported liquor. The cheap intoxication of this gin was the driving force behind its popularity — it vastly overtook beer’s sales, not because of any preference of flavor, but because the juniper was strong enough to mask the harsh alcohol and a bottle of it would keep you drunk all day. Gin quickly became associated with drunks, while beer was something you drank for flavor.
Clearly that hasn’t remained the case. When London dry gin — produced in a fairly simple still and easy to make in the British colonies — was developed in the nineteenth century, the gin and tonic was born: the British used gin to mask the bitterness of the quinine-containing tonic water they drank to prevent malaria. This was one of the earliest mixed drinks, and the simplicity of the still helped to popularize gin for a new type of drinker: the cocktail drinker. The simplest liquor to distill at home or in a small business like a speakeasy, gin became the liquor of choice for the Prohibition generation and the cocktails they loved — the Tom Collins, the martini, the rickey, the gimlet, and for the ladies, the gin milk punch. When Prohibition ended, gin remained the drink of choice for many, particularly as so many American whiskey distilleries had gone out of business; since it’s an unaged product, a gin distillery can begin selling its product almost immediately, while a new whiskey distillery has a few years of waiting and hoping.
In recent years, gin — the victim of many of the drinking trends of the last half of the twentieth century — has regained much of its old popularity with a new prestige, as its complexity and combination of bold and subtle flavors appeals so strongly to the modern cocktail culture. Gin is made from juniper berries, botanicals – and history.