Gin is arguably the most versatile spirit for cocktails. Its herbaceous flavor profile can cozies up to virtually any ingredient in any style of cocktail without dominating or fading into the background. Thus, gin is the base spirit in a slew of essential classic cocktails, including the most iconic of them all: the Martini (yes, originally made with gin).
Gin is basically flavored vodka. It is made by taking a neutral spirit (aka vodka) which is typically grain-based but not always, and infusing it with a variety of botanicals. The most essential of these are juniper berries, which have a bright, pine needle-like aroma. Other commonly used botanicals include citrus peel, coriander, angelika root, orris root, cassia bark, and licorice root, among many others. More about these botanicals and how they combine to create a gin's flavor can be found below.
London Dry Gin (aka Dry Gin)
There are a few subcategories of gin, but the most familiar style is London dry gin, or simply, dry gin. There are a few technical distinctions between dry and London dry gin, outlined here, but they are largely trivial from a flavor standpoint. These gins are the crisp, clean, juniper-forward and boast the most recognizable brand names in their ranks - Tanqueray, Beefeater, Gordon's, etc. They are the gins you'll typically see used in classic cocktails.
Up until 20 years or so ago just about every gin on the market could be considered a dry gin. But the category has evolved beyond that narrow model to encompass multiple styles. Some are slight detours from classic dry gin, such as the tremendously popular Hendrick's, while others are stark departures, Snoop Dogg's Strawberry Gin!
My advice, if you stock only one type of gin, make it a dry gin. But this expanding gin map is one that warrants exploring, even for the most casual of gin drinkers.
Prepare for a deep dive on this page!
Non-Dry Gin Categories:
Genever/Jenever ( juh-NEE-ver or JEN-uh-ver, both are used) - This is the ancestor of dry gin. It originated in the Netherlands, Holland, and Belgium. Genever tastes like a cross between a dry gin and an unaged whiskey. It is much fuller-bodied with a distinct malty character. Juniper is still present but to a lesser extent. Full transparency, it's an acquired taste, but we wouldn't be here without it.
Old Tom Gin - Another old style of gin with a broad definition that's somewhat open to interpretation. They are generally sweeter and sometimes barrel aged. Flavor-wise Old Tom is somewhat of a bridge between Genever and Dry Gin. It was very common in pre-prohibition times and thus, factors into many old cocktail recipes, like the Martinez. It's made a small comeback in the 21st century alongside the craft cocktail resurgence.
New Western - Gin's new frontier. This loosely defined category reimagines the classic Dry Gin by dialing back the juniper and bringing less traditional, and often unexpected botanicals to the fore such as elderflower, chamomile, or lavender. There isn't a legal definition of this style so I'm grouping all these new gins under New Western, though some go by other names. I'm basing it purely on how I find they play in cocktails.
Gin Categories &
London dry, or simply "dry", is the style of gin you should stock first. It's what you will typically use in classic cocktails and includes all the most familiar brands. They range from sharp and herbaceous to light and floral but they all live in a similar flavor arena of pine, citrus and spice.
From the resurrection of old styles like the maltier genever and sweeter old tom gin, to the tradition-breaking new western gins from the craft movement, these are the not the gins you're accustomed to. Each style, even each bottle, is a completely different experience that is revealed with every gin and tonic, martini and tom collins.
How Gin is Made
Gin derives its primary flavor profile, or more specifically, aroma (more on that later), from an infusion of natural botanicals to extract their aromatic compounds. This makes it unique compared to other spirit categories which rely on their base ingredients, such as the agave in tequila or the molasses in rum, or a post-distillation technique such as barrel aging - whiskey! - to imbue them with their soul. With gin, the spirit is just a foundation, a canvas, onto which a distiller paints aromatics using a palette comprised of herbs, spices, flowers, nuts, roots, and seeds.
Crafting a Gin is a highly delicate task that requires the skill of both a distiller and a perfumer. Juniper is the only botanical required by law to be included in gin, though several others are commonplace. The rest are up to the distiller. Though one doesn't simply cherry-pick botanicals based on their individual characteristics. How one ingredient will behave in a Gin depends on the others it is being paired with. Discerning how botanicals will behave as a group descends into the realms of organic chemistry - and we're down the rabbit hole baby!
To better understand how a gin’s aromatics are constructed, let's first look at how those botanical aromatics make their way into the base spirit in the first place:
Base Spirit + Botanical Extraction
The best base spirit for making gin is one that's as clean and flavorless as possible so the botanicals are free to shine unimpeded. A typical gin base spirit is made from grain, purely because grains are cheap, but it can be made from anything - grapes, apples, sugarcane, etc. Base spirits for gin will be distilled in column stills to a very high proof (London dry Gin requires a legal minimum of 70% ABV). Up until this point, making gin is the same as making vodka, (you can read more about the basics of distillation here).
To add the botanicals, they are mixed in with the spirit and distilled a second time, typically in a pot still. This extracts their essences in the form of aromatic flavor compounds and infuses them into the spirit, leaving the solid plant materials behind.
Different approaches are taken to facilitate botanical extraction.
Steeping - This is the most common. It is essentially like making tea. The botanicals are either steeping in the base spirit for a period of time before being re-distilled or they are added only just before re-distillation. The former has more extraction upfront while the latter extracts from the ingredients when they are more fresh - there are proponents of both.
Carter Head Still - A Carted-Head Still is a pot/column hybrid still that puts the botanicals in a basket within the still. Here, the distilled alcoholic vapors pass through the botanicals, collecting their aromatics and flavors along the way before being condensed. Hendrick's uses this method.
Vacuum Pressure - A newer technique, this enables a distiller to use less heat when operating the still, which avoids "cooking" the botanicals and, in theory, retains a brighter, fresher flavor - albeit a more expensive one. My uneducated hot take: it sounds great, but from what I've tasted, the final product doesn't move the needle for me enough to warrant the extra trouble and cost.
Flavor Extracts - Gins don't have to infuse raw botanicals. They can add flavors in the form of botanical extracts after distillation. These are sometimes called compound gins. Historically, this method has been associated with low-quality gins, think bathtub gin. But several excellent gins use extracts. It allows them to access flavors that otherwise might not be attainable. Hendrick's (again!) and its cucumber flavor is the most famous example.
Carter-Head still with the botanicals in a separate container (#7).
Why are Some Botanicals so Common in Gin?
While gin distillers are not bound by any mandates on botanicals outside of juniper, most classic Gins consist of a similarly narrow botanical lineup. Virtually all London Dry Gins contain coriander, dried citrus peels, angelica root, and/or orris root, and at least one of the following: cassia bark, licorice root, aniseed, bitter almond, or cardamom. You can see what I mean on the London dry gin page where the botanical lineup is listed for several brands.
Complimentary Flavor Chemistry
Why do so many gin recipes look alike? The answer lies in their chemistry. Coriander, angelica root, citrus peels, etc. are used so often because they are particularly complimentary to Gin's hero botanical: juniper. By complimentary, I mean share many of the same flavor compounds.
We think of herbs and spices as having their own unique flavor or aroma - juniper tastes like juniper and lemons taste like lemons. But their singular flavor is actually the result of a variety of different aromatic compounds which, when arranged in a specific way, result in the specific flavor we identify them with. In fact, this is true of all foods and flavors.
Applying this to gin, many herbs and spices used in gin share some of the very same flavor compounds in their makeup. These synergies help to strengthen and boost the flavor profile overall. So you might say botanicals like juniper, coriander, and citrus are used together because they have "good chemistry."
Examples of this phenomenon are laid out in the graph below. The left column lists some common botanicals used in gin and on the top row are aromatic compounds that many of these botanicals here. Look at all that overlap! Pinene (pine) is present in 7 of 12 botanicals, 8 of 12 contain linalool (citrus), and 7 of 12 contain myrcene (woody). It's no wonder these ingredients harmonize so well.
The Aromatic Compounds in Common Gin Botanicals
Building a Gin - Top to Bottom
Making gin isn’t just about pairing botanicals with complementary compounds either. All certain types of flavor compounds behave differently, both in a still and in a glass. Some are very present up front and dissipate quickly, others reveal themselves gradually. Botanicals are chosen to play different roles - primary, supporting, and bridge builders - the that everything stays balanced. It’s a bit like constructing a house. You need a solid foundation, a well-built frame, and a beautifully designed interior and exterior. All the elements need to be planned out, coordinated, and executed.
Below is a profile of some of gin’s most common botanicals grouped into three tiers based on their function: top notes, mid notes, and base notes. You’ll notice that for the most part, the types of botanicals in each tier happen to resemble the composition of a plant. The base notes are provided by roots, the mid notes are seeds, nuts, and barks and the top notes are the largely supplied by leaves, fruits, and flowers. Clearly, Mother Nature knows what she’s doing.
The anise plant is an herb member of the carrot family from central Asia and the Mediterranean. The seeds have high concentrations of anethole the which is a primary source of what we think of as licorice. It’s so strong in fact, that anise is used to supply licorice flavor much more often and than actual licorice root, including in licorice candy. Unlike some of the other spices, this one doesn’t share the diverse mix of the citrus, woody, and floral notes. It contributes it’s one specific flavor and not many others, though it does add some sweetness.
Anethole can also come from fennel seeds, a related herb, which also has a lemon note. Star anise is also sometimes used for licorice flavor, which are the seeds of a fruit from yet another plant that also contains other spice flavors like cinnamon and clove.
Where there’s cinnamon and cardamom, you can bet nutmeg isn’t far behind. Nutmeg is the pit of an apricot-like fruit that grows on a type of Indonesian evergreen. This beloved spice that we grate over our egg nog (mmmm) is tapped for gin now and again because it has particularly strong piney, floral and citrus notes for a warm sweet baking spice. So it is natural choice for a bridge building botanical.
This is an Indonesian relative of black pepper, which it’s very reminiscent of, only more intense with a wider flavor palette that includes citrus, eucalyptus with woody and floral notes. So it's a perfect fit for gin. Its main contribution is bumping up the peppery heat, in addition to giving nods to the other botanicals.
Almonds are the seed of a type of drupe, or stone fruit, a class that includes peaches, apricots and plums. The almond fruit however, is not nearly as tasty. They are cultivated around the Mediterranean, Northern Africa and in California. There are two types: sweet almonds - the kind we eat - which have a honeyed, nutty flavor, and bitter almonds (pictured above) which are actually toxic but contain a compound that has a sweet cherry like flavor. Bitter almonds are used to make almond extract - which thankfully neutralizes the toxicity - marzipan, and are more common in gin because of their fruit note. Though sweet almonds are used as well for a little added finesse and body.
These are the fresh, bright, green, piney, floral, and citrusy aromatics. They are more common in leafy herbs, fruits, and flowers and contain the lightest and most volatile compounds, so they evaporate quickly and are the first to reach your nose. But their aromas can be fleeting - unless something holds them in place. This class of compounds is also called terpenes which are frequently featured in aromatherapy. Their aromas tend to be more generic, as in floral and citrusy, not specifically rose and grapefruit.
The big botanical on campus. The juniper plant is a member of the conifer family and distant relative of the pine tree that is grown across the Northern Hemisphere. The berries that hold all those delicious flavors are actually not a berries, but essentially concentrated pine cones full of oily seeds lined with soft scales. As we know, juniper’s fresh pine scent spearheads gin’s most recognizable flavor. It also has hints of woody herbs like thyme and rosemary as well as, citrus, flowers and spice, that it passes the baton off to other botanicals to round out and define.
Coriander is the most common gin botanical not named juniper, or as Dave Broom puts it: “the Robin to juniper’s Batman” (I tried to come up with a comparably clever metaphor, but how can I possibly top that?). The coriander plant is a member of the carrot family and grown throughout Southern Europe, Western Asia, India and beyond. The herb is known in the U.S. as cilantro (Spanish for coriander) the fragrant and, to some, soapy herb we often find sprinkled on tacos. But the seeds used as a spice - and in gin - have their own distinct flavors which match many of juniper’s, including pine, woody spice, and in particular an ethereal lemon-y lift that helps build a bridge to more pungent spice and brighter citrus flavors.
If you’ve ever added a twist of lemon to your Martini (highly recommended) you’re well aware of how well citrus and gin play together. After pine, citrus is gin’s second most discernible flavor. The peels are full of vividly aromatic oils, and all types are used. Lemon is the most common, followed by bitter orange. Sweet orange, lime and grapefruit also get in on the action. The peels are usually dried, though sometimes they are fresh, other times the whole fruit is thrown in the still. On the rare occasions when no citrus is used in a gin, like say with Tanqueray, you can still count on a citrusy element to be present because many of the other botanicals will contain citric compounds.
A member of the mint family from the Mediterranean and a defining botanical in many of the new western gins. One has to be careful that lavender’s familiar perfume-y notes don’t overly sharp and to the point of tasting soapy, or at least perceived that way, lavender is a frequent aromatic addition to soap. But in the right amounts it adds an intriguing counterpart to juniper’s traditional pine-needle top notes.
The leaves of the bay laurel, a Mediterranean evergreen tree or shrub, are a common addition to many savory dishes and soups. They also have applicable gin flavors like pine, citrus and flowers but what it really brings to the table is a distinctive cooling eucalyptus quality that makes it unique.
These are often found in spices and range from warm and sweet to intense and cooling to sharp and peppery. They come on slowly and tend to stick around longer so they provide an intriguing contrast to the lighter top notes. To be clear, many of these botanicals do contain some of those top note terpenes, but their primary flavors are from a more durable type of compound called phenols which are more distinctive. For example: cinnamaldehyde (cinnamon), gingerol (ginger) and anethol (anise). On a related note, phenols are also responsible for carrying the aroma of peat smoke that gives some scotches their memorable flavor.
Everyone’s favorite baking spice (or mine anyway) comes the bark of a tree belonging to the laurel family that coils into “sticks” when it dries. There are two main types of cinnamon: true cinnamon aka Sri Lankan or ceylon cinnamon which is more subtle, delicate and floral, and cassia cinnamon (pictured above) from China, which is more intensely burning - think red hot candies. Cassia what you probably have in your spice cabinet, it has a heavier bark and used for most cinnamon sticks are as well. Both are used in gin, though the sharper edged cassia is more common.
Cardamom’s eclectic blend of aromatic realms - floral citrus, warm baking spice, cooling eucalyptus - makes it an ideal bridge builder between gin’s top and mid-note aromas like juniper, citrus, cinnamon and nutmeg. It comes in little seed filled pods from a tall flowering herb member of the ginger family that is indigenous to India, though today Guatemala is the biggest producer. A long blooming season means each pod must be closely monitored and harvested separately which is painstaking labor, and responsible for cardamom being the third most expensive spice in the world after saffron and vanilla.
Grains of Paradise
This divinely named spice comes from the seeds of a west African plant that is a member of the ginger family. Aromatically speaking it’s closest to cardamom, combining warming baking spice, woody evergreen and peppery heat along with a few floral, citrusy notes thrown in. So it is another adept botanical unifier on the three way bridge between spice, citrus and herbs.
While those lovely top and middle aromas get all the glory, without a solid foundation doing the grunt work many of them would fly away never to be smelled again. These behind the scenes botanicals form a base of heavier compounds to hold on to and bind together those more excitable compounds, or lend sweetness to bring them out. You won’t see them featured on the graph above because their role isn’t necessarily to supply prominent flavors but rather to create an infrastructure on which gin’s recognizable flavors can be built.
The licorice plant is a type of bean from southwest Asia. As mentioned above, the flavor we most associate with licorice comes from the anethole a compound, which is abundant in anise and fennel, but curiously not nearly as much in licorice root. In fact, the flavor of licorice candy is typically from added anethole derived from anise.
Licorice root's main contribution to gin, as well as candy, is sweetness. It contains high amounts of glycyrrhizinic acid which is over fifty times sweeter than sugar which is very helpful to balance out some of the drier, bitter ingredients, and flush out the brighter ones. Especially uesful since London dry gins by law may only add miniscule amounts of sugar, 0.1 grams of sugars per litre.
Orris root is a rhizome - a root-like underground stem that grows horizontally - of the sweet iris flower that has been processed to cultivate “fixative” properties. A fixative is a perfume trade term for a substance that retains volatile compounds to keep their aromas present. This process involves drying the rhizome for up to three years which is the time it needs to oxidize and develop irone, the key substance that helps bind everything together. Naturally, this makes it very expensive. But it’s benefits are indispensable to many perfumes, potpourris and, of course, gins. Orris does impart a faint note of violets as well.
Angelica root is considered by many to be the third most important ingredient in gin after juniper and coriander. It is a member of the carrot family and a relative of parsley and dill native to Northern Europe. The leaves share many of juniper’s top notes like pine and citrus. These flavors are also present in the roots in addition to an evocative bouquet of earthy, woody and somewhat dusty aromas that provide an apropos base note for the loftier aromatics, as well as some dryness. Angelica roots also contain the musk fragrance exaltolide, which is another type of fixative used in perfumes. Sometimes angelica seeds are used as well which lend brighter aromatics.