First Things First
Before discussing how gin tastes, it may be easier to start with how gin is made. Gin is a unique spirit, in that its key ingredient is the same throughout the genre. Unlike vodka, which can contain anything from wheat to potatoes as its primary ingredient, gin exclusively requires the use of juniper berries at some point along the process. Let’s take a look at how gin is made first.
Gin - How is it Made?
As with any spirit, gin goes through a distillation process that creates what we know as drinkable alcohol. It typically starts with fermented grains. Then, before or during a second distillation process juniper berries and a variety of herbs are added to create the overall flavor of the gin. This is where the overriding flavor profile will begin but let’s look at some other aspects first.
No Two Gins are the Same
Gin almost always contains juniper berries (which are actually seeds, not berries) but often also contains a variety of herbaceous ingredients, also known as aromatics. These aromatics include coriander seeds, orris root, angelica root, citrus peels and cardamom pods, among others. As you can imagine, the many ways to incorporate these aromatics in gin leads to an incredibly diverse selection of gin products. It is virtually impossible to taste two unique gins and have them taste the same.
Styles of Gin
There are a variety of “styles” of gin. Some have historical value, while others simply differ in ingredients and processes.
- 1London Dry Gin: It can be made anywhere, not just in London! However, it does have a few requirements to be considered London Dry - no artificial flavors/colors, distilled to at least 70% abv before being diluted, and after distillation, only water, neutral grain spirits, or a tiny amount of sugar can be added.
Taste & Flavor: Primarily juniper berries and often citrusy.
- 2Plymouth Gin: It has to be made in Plymouth, England. There are no exceptions as this is law. It is usually less dry and has more root based ingredients than London Dry.
Taste & Flavor: A sweeter version of London Dry - not a remarkable difference.
- 3New American/Western Gin: Typically made in small, craft distilleries, this gin leaves the overriding juniper flavor for a more fruit forward or floral essence. The style started in small American distilleries, however, is now being made by craft gin makers internationally.
Taste & Flavor: Not so much juniper flavor. Picks up essence of ingredients like floral, herby, or even a cucumber profile.
- 4Old Tom Gin: An old gin style that disappeared and has seen a recent revival amongst the craft distilleries. Old Tom is the namesake for the original Tom Collins cocktail. Typically sweeter, and lacking some of the strong juniper taste, Old Tom is back on the rise!
Taste & Flavor: Malty essence. Not so much juniper at first.
What is Compound Gin?
Well, some may say it’s not worth drinking, that’s what it is. In reality, compound gin is a neutral grain spirit (think: cheap vodka) that has had aromatics, herbs, and possibly juniper added directly to it to infuse the spirit with the flavors. Compound gin was made famous during prohibition, as cheap, homemade spirits were infused to try and improve the drinkability. This was also the reason for the modern cocktail - to try and mask the cheap taste of compound gins.
Okay, Get to the Point - What Does Gin Taste Like?
Gin can be made from a variety of bases (wheat, barley, etc.) but each of those base compounds tastes quite neutral. The aroma, and taste, that stands out most when drinking gin is often described as pine.
The pine taste comes from none other than the juniper berries that make their way into every gin recipe. As Cam McKenzie from Four Pillars Gin states, juniper is important because it creates an “aromatic canvas” for the other botanicals in any given combination.
Along with pine, gin can often have a strong scent and taste of citrus. This quality comes from the consistent use of citrus peels in the gin making process. Most gin will start with these two flavors and the move into hints of other aromatics like cardamom and coriander.
Gin - A Variety of Uses
The beauty of gin is that it is both flavorful and subtle all at once. This allows it to be used in creative cocktails like the negroni and straightforward ones like the martini. The depth of flavor can be both simple and complex, all in one genre. If there is one versatile spirit to have, it is certainly a bottle of gin.