Gin – that magical distilled concoction of juniper berries — is cool again. It’s booming as the small-batch distilling industry flourishes, and mixology fans can visit watering holes where gin is the only spirit on the menu.
The clear liquor is distilled from juniper berries, providing a unique flavor. However, this flavor has made gin divisive with liquor connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike. It’s not for everyone, but recently, more and more people are coming around to the sharp, effervescent flavor.
There are two criteria that need to be met in order for alcohol to be classified as gin —if you guessed location as one of your answers, you’d be wrong (well, for the most part, but we’ll get to that later). First, it must be at least 40% ABV (80 proof). Gin is a strong liquor. So, you might want to bite your tongue next time you think about giving your friend crap about ordering a gin-and-tonic, while you throw back your shot of Fireball. The other is the inclusion of juniper in the distilling process. Without it, and other botanicals, you’re basically drinking vodka.
Gin is a popular product at smaller or new distilleries because (as with any white spirit) you can sell what you make and bottle that same day. Any whiskey, scotch or bourbon must age. So, a distiller can make a gin and sell it front and center while he or she shelves some barrels of liquor for a couple of years to add brown spirits to the family. In the end, gin becomes a key element for both liquor lovers and the people selling the bottles.
If you want to make sense of the gin section in your local liquor store, you’ll want to brush up a little on the types of gin that are available. Here’s what you need to know:
- London Dry – Contrary to what you might think, London dry does not mean it’s from London. It’s considered the most “original” form of gin because the amounts of flavors, coloring and sugar are restricted. London Dry gins are full-flavored and are like drinking a pine-tree forest.
- Plymouth – To receive the Plymouth label, this gin must be produced in Plymouth, England (here’s where your location answer is not wrong). The Black Fairs Distillery is the last remaining one in Plymouth and the only place that still produces Plymouth gin. The flavor is similar to London Dry, but a little sweeter.
- Navy Strength – If you want to strap on your party pants, Navy Strength gin can help kick the night into gear in a hurry. Navy Strength is gin on steroids. The categorization is simply because it is more alcoholic. Navy Strength is 57% ABV or roughly 110 proof. There are a lot of tales about the origin of Navy Strength, but our favorite (and most believable) is: in order to save room on already cramped navy ships, Navy Strength gin was created to get all the sailors drunk on a limited supply of booze.
- Old Tom – Considered one of the best gins for mixed drinks due to its sweeter and mild botanical flavor. Not too malty, not too spicy, the gin’s flavor profile is great for first-time gin drinkers and mixologists alike.
A Quick and Dirty History of Gin
If you remember from earlier, juniper is one of two criteria needed to classify gin. In the 1600s, the Dutch created a spirit called jenever, which is the Dutch word for juniper (marketing was a little rough back then). Consisting of a malt wine base, jenever would put hair on your chest, or knock your socks off, or any other expression you want to use to describe the gnarly, overpowering flavor. A substantial mix of juniper berries was added to the malt wine base to mask some of the gnar. That concoction was the basis of what we now know as gin.
From here, gin has a hazy and bizarre history. Around the time of the Thirty Years’ War, gin made its way over to England. In a crazy mix of gin popularity and abundance between 1720 and 1750, the gin craze was born and almost ripped apart London. By 1751, the Gin Act was enacted by parliament to crack down on the overconsumption of gin and help turn around a bleak future for London.
By the mid-1800s, Aeneas Coffey (pictured above) invented the column still (continuous still), which revolutionized the way gin was produced (column stills are still used today). The still enabled producers to make gin quicker, with cleaner and better flavor.
Perhaps the final factor that gave rise to gin’s undeniable popularity was the British Royal Navy. To combat disease when abroad, quinine rations were given to sailors. Quinine tasted terrible, so tonic water (or Indian tonic water) was created to dissolve and mask the bitter flavor of quinine. And since gin was already popular with the British Royal Navy, sailors started adding it to the tonic water for more flavor. And just like that, we have the creation of the most recognizable gin drink today.
How is Gin Made?
Contrary to what most Phish fans may believe, there are more ways to create gin than just in a bathtub. The two most popular ways are steeping (a more traditional way of distillation) and infusion.
The steeping method is what it sounds like — the base spirit is placed in a pot along with juniper berries and other flavor profiles to steep. There isn’t an exact amount of time which the botanicals need to be steeped in the base spirit — some distillers let botanicals steep for a few days while others distill it within hours. After the distilling process is completed, water is added to reduce the alcoholic content and flavor profile. Beefeater has used this process of distilling for roughly 200 years.
In a vapor infusion distilling process, the botanicals don’t actually come in direct contact with the base spirit. Instead, the botanicals are suspended in a basket in the still, above the base. When the base spirit is heated, the vapors rise through the basket. When the steam cools down and condenses back into a liquid, the flavor profiles from the basket are infused in the alcohol. This provides the gin with a more subtle and mild flavor. Bombay Sapphire is famously known for using the infusion method of distillation.
Steeping and infusion are the two most popular ways, but they aren’t the only ways to make gin. Hendricks gin and SipSmith V.J.O.P gin use a unique combination of both to reach their respective unique flavor profiles.
Popular Gin Cocktails
Gin and vodka are eerily close relatives — juniper being the main differentiator — so it’s no surprise that there are a handful of cocktails where vodka and gin are interchangeable. But for most gin aficionados, there is no substitute for gin in cocktails.
1. Gin and Tonic – Technically, this is a highball with its two ingredients and the most popular, recognizable and hardest to screw up drink in the gin world. It’s literally two ingredients: tonic water and gin. Of course, lime is often added for a refreshing acidic flavoring. This is a go-to gin drink for all seasons and occasions.
2. Gin Martini – There’s a good chance if you don’t specify “gin martini” at a bar, you’re going to be served a vodka martini. For gin lovers, it’s simply unacceptable. Simplicity is key with a classic gin martini: top-shelf gin and dry vermouth are all you really need. And if you’re going to take any advice ever, take it from Bond . . . James Bond, “shaken, not stirred.”
3. Gimlet – Like a summertime martini, a gimlet is another cocktail of the simple variety. Gin, lime juice and simple syrup mixed up in a cocktail shaker make up a delightfully light, and refreshing, cocktail. To really class things up, it can be garnished with a cucumber wheel on the edge of the glass.
4. Negroni – A bitter dinner-time cocktail, a Negroni isn’t as easily enjoyable as the likes of a gin and tonic. It’s gin mixed with sweet vermouth and Campari, an Italian aperitif (bitter). It’s sweet and bitter at the same time, and certainly an acquired taste.
5. Monkey Gland – A gin cocktail as delicious as its name is absurd, a monkey gland is a mix of gin, orange juice and grenadine. If you feel like taking the cocktail to another level, add a tiny bit of absinthe to the mixture. Be careful though, not because you’ll hallucinate, but because absinthe has a distinct flavor that can quickly ruin this delightful cocktail if too much is added. Would you expect anything else from a drink named “Monkey Gland?”
What are The Best Brands of Gin?
Understanding why Gin has gotten more popular is pretty simple: it’s delicious and unique. You can sip it straight like a whiskey, but gin really shines in cocktails such as gin and tonics, martinis, and gimlets.
Now that you’ve upped your gin knowledge, it’s time to go out and try the stuff. We’ve rounded up several of the best gins on the market to upgrade your evening drink or cocktail party. Keep reading to discover the best gin brands from around the world.
Whether you’re new to gin or looking for a better go-to bottle, Hendrick’s is a great option. It’s a step up from the basic gin brands, but it’s still not too expensive. Considering Hendrick’s is just 20 years old, it’s pretty impressive that you can see it in nearly any bar around the world. The brand revolutionized the gin market with two simple upgrades — cucumber and rose — which started the whole ginaissance we’re now living in.
2. Tanqueray London Dry Gin
You can get pretty deep in the artisanal gin world these days, but we think everyone should have a classic bottle of gin in their bar. Our favorite? Tanqueray Imported. It’s fairly affordable but boasts a smooth juniper-forward flavor that gives a good base for tasting more experimental gins. This makes it great for cocktails as well, such as a Gin Fizz or Tom Collins. That being said, the best way to enjoy Tanqueray may be in a classic Gin and Tonic. The 47.3% ABV makes this a strong spirit, so sip slowly.
Tanqueray London Dry Gin
One of the oldest running London Dry Gins, Beefeater is a staple in the gin community. The iconic gin gets its spicy yet sweet flavoring from a unique steeping process, where the botanicals are steeped for 24 hours in the neutral grain spirit base prior to distillation. This process pulls out the profiles of the botanicals and gives it the defined Beefeater flavoring that gin lovers have become accustomed to.
4. Tanqueray No. Ten
Tanqueray has been around since 1830, and in that time, the distillers have perfected the art of making fine gin. In 2000, Tanqueray released No. Ten, named from the small-batch still “number 10” that it comes from. This is premium Tanqueray, a versatile gin that is a great base for gin cocktails or tonic water and a slice of grapefruit. It tastes of fresh citrus, juniper and licorice, and it is a little bit wetter and sweeter than most London-based gins. This small-batch gin is a premium choice in any liquor collection.
Tanqueray No. Ten
5. Plymouth Gin
Plymouth Gin is a popular spirit for making gin cocktails because its fruity tasting notes along with its ever-so mild bite go well in just about any mixing application. With juniper, coriander and cardamom as the tasting notes, it does have a little spice to it, but overall, this gin is more citrusy and earthy. Plymouth has been around forever — since 1793 — and the liquor has won about every award that a gin can win. If you’re a gin-lover, then it’s a must-have for your home bar cart.
6. Bombay Sapphire
Everybody needs a stepping stone; your first beer probably wasn’t a double IPA that would have ripped your taste buds clean off. Bombay Sapphire uses 10 botanicals that are vapor-infused in the distillation process. This eventually leads to a mild, lemony taste that shows up and leaves quickly. There is no harsh bite or overly powerful flavors, which makes it a great liquor to experiment with as you open the door to the vast world of gins.
7. The Botanist Islay Dry Gin
As the only gin in the world that comes from the tiny island known as the “Isle of Islay” off the coast of Scotland, this dry gin is really a delicacy every gin lover needs to get their hands (or taste buds) on at least once in their lifetime. Each bottle packs an unusually tasty flavor that includes 22 botanicals that are hand-foraged locally across the isle. It’s a totally smooth sipper that will genuinely knock your socks off.
The Botanist Islay Dry Gin
8. Brooklyn Gin
Although Brooklyn Gin hasn’t been around for nearly as long as the likes of Tanqueray or Beefeater — only 200 years young, but who’s counting — it has taken the small-batch gin market by storm. The distillers hand peel the oranges used to infuse the gin, giving it an unmistakably fresh, citrusy taste. Other botanicals include juniper, angelica root, lemon, lime peel and lavender. It’s a super clean gin that you can enjoy fresh over ice. The distillers take a little extra time with the fresh ingredients and it really pays off.
9. Fords Officers Reserve Gin
Fords Officers Reserve is “over-proofed” aka “Navy Strength” gin, meaning it will put a little hair on your chest when you drink it. This London dry gin recipe contains nine botanicals. This gin is then finished in oak barrels, and the final result is a bold 109-proof gin. Even though it’s stronger than most gins, it still maintains a great floral and citrus aroma.
We love Fords Officers Reserve because the tasting profile allows you to use it as a base for mixed drinks. It is also surprising how well this gin works with mixers because of its extensive botanical profile, but through some gin magic, it all seems to work. This is a bartender’s secret gin weapon and one we highly recommend adding to your liquor cabinet.
Fords Officers Reserve Gin
10. SipSmith VJOP London Dry Gin
The VJOP in the SipSmith name stands for “Very Junipery Over Proof.” Not only does this gin taste and put off an extra piney aroma, but it is also stronger than most gins. The extra juniper also gives a peppery finish that leaves a little heat in your mouth. This gin includes a “three-phase” juniper process. Juniper is added for three days into the base spirits, adding more flavor after it macerates. Then, vapor is used to infuse even more juniper before it’s bottled. This is for those who can’t get enough of the pine.
SipSmith VJOP London Dry Gin
11. Four Pillars Navy Strength Gin
Sailors created “Navy Strength” booze as a way to get drunk without taking up too much space on their ships. It’s the strongest of the strong when it comes to ABV %. And this gin by Four Pillars certainly lives up to the Navy Strength label. It’s a boozy 58.8% alcohol that is only released once a year. This high-strength gin is made in Australia and made from oranges, limes, turmeric and coriander. This powerful gin has been awarded the Master status at the Global Gin Masters the last five years. It’s powerful, delicious and highly sought after.
Four Pillars Navy Strength Gin
12. Gordon’s London Dry Gin
If you’re stocking up on gin for a party or just shopping on a budget, go for Gordon’s. It’s a classic London dry gin, and although it’s affordable and widely available, it still offers a nice gin experience. Gordon’s recipe upgrades the juniper taste with some orange peel and anise, creating a bold flavor that won this gin Double Gold at the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Gordon’s London Dry Gin
13. Ransom Old Tom Gin
Most gins are either a classic London dry gin or a slight variation. However, there’s also old Tom gin, which came before the London drys that we typically drink today. Think of old Toms as the hipsters of gins. If you want to get a little adventurous, pick up a bottle of this Ransom Old Tom gin. It’s aged in wine barrels (giving it that odd caramel color) and uses a base wort of malted barley for a unique malty flavor.
Ransom Old Tom Gin
14. Nolet’s Silver Dry Gin
As mentioned, gin actually descended from Dutch spirits. So it’s only fitting that Nolet’s, one of the best gins on the market, comes from Holland. This premium gin uses rose, peach and raspberry to complement the juniper taste, creating something you can really sit back and sip. It makes a great gift for gin lovers too, as they probably haven’t tried this imported gin yet.
Nolet's Silver Dry Gin
15. Glendalough Rose Gin
SPY received a sample of Glendalough’s Rose Gin, and to say the least, we were skeptical. While we appreciate how creative distillers can get with gin, rose isn’t exactly a favorite flavor of ours. It’s too often too syrupy and, well, just plain gross. Luckily, that wasn’t the case with Glendalough’s wacky gin. In fact, it was delicious. The rose profile is more of a hint than an overpowering slap in the face, and even when sipped straight, this gin tasted just right on a summer’s night.
If you want something a little unique in your liquor cabinet, we absolutely recommend Glendalough’s Rose Gin. This gin is great straight up and even better served on the rock with a little bit of tonic.
Glendalough Rose Gin
16. Madam Pattirini Gin
With inspiration taken from the Wild West, Madam Pattirini’s gin is an iconic bar cart staple that packs quite the mysterious flavor like the legend herself. This gin has an extremely bold flavor by mixing delicate tastes of juniper, Nigerian ginger, cardamom and Sicilian lemon to create a concoction unlike any other. This stuff is Utah-made through and through and works as a scrumptious gift to any gin lover.
Madam Pattirini Gin
17. Suntory Roku
Japanese liquors of all kinds (especially Japanese whisky) are taking the States by storm. One of the biggest distilleries in Japan is Suntory, and like their award-winning whisky, their gin is top-notch. “Roku” (Japanese for six) refers to the six unique Japanese botanicals used in the gin, although it also utilizes some classic botanicals such as coriander seed and angelica root as well. The result is a light mix of floral, citrusy and spicy that makes it great for sipping or making a killer gin martini. For any craft cocktail lovers looking for the best gin brands in the world, Suntory’s Roku should absolutely sit on their shelf.
18. Monkey 47 Dry Gin
Looking to sample a high-end bottle of gin (or treat a gin lover to some of the best gin on the planet)? Try this Monkey 47. It uses a whopping 47 botanicals — all picked from the Black Forest in Germany — to create a truly elevated tasting experience. One reviewer said it was like a punch to the mouth (the good kind) with juniper, pepper, flowers and Monkey’s secret weapon: lingonberries.
Monkey 47 Dry Gin
19. Drumshanbo Irish Gunpowder Gin
Gunpowder tea is a traditional UK blend known for its powerful flavor. Dark and stout, gunpowder embraces the theory that any cup of tea in which you can see the bottom is just hot water. Drumshanbo Irish Gunpowder Gin uses that black tea as one of its botanical additions to give their gin unusual spine and character. Drumshanbo also adds a blend of coriander, caraway, lemon, grapefruit, lime and other ingredients to counter the strength of the gunpowder. It all adds up to a unique flavor.
Drumshanbo Irish Gunpowder Gin
20. Malfy Gin
Originating from a distillery in Moncalieri, Italy, Malfy Gin comes to the world from a region known traditionally for wine. Light and fruity, Malfy’s varieties capture that golden, magic hour sunshine of Mediterranean late afternoons beneath the trees. While Malfy offers a traditional original blend, they also use regionally grown produce to bottle lemon, orange and grapefruit infused flavors for cocktail use.
21. Portobello Road No. 171 Gin
Originating from that London street made famous in cinema and song, Portobello Road No. 171 Gin is a relative newcomer to the spirits world. It nods to the traditional London Dry flavor, but it enhances its recipe with a recipe of more exotic botanicals — including nutmeg, licorice, angelica and orris roots.
Portobello Road No. 171 Gin
22. Hayman’s Royal Dock
A gin with history, this sprit has been provided to Her Majesty’s Royal Navy since 1863. The Hayman clan is Britain’s longest-running gin-producing family, and the flavor is classic and dry with a bit of a peppery bite. It’s bottled at that navy strength north of 100 proof, so its flavor does not fade in blending. It’s best for use in cocktails in which the gin must take the foreground.
Hayman's Royal Dock
23. St. George Botanivore Gin
While its beatified name might indicate a London origination, St. George Botanivore Gin is an American concoction originating in the Bay Area. The “Botanivore” in its title refers to the candy store of botanicals its west coast homeland offers. While juniper is always the most prominent ingredient, the forests of Northern California lend this gin notes of pine and sage for a total aromatic effect.