Gin is arguably the most versatile spirit for cocktails. Its herbaceous flavor profile can harmonize with virtually any ingredient, in any style of cocktail, whilst not dominating it 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is the base spirit in a slew of essential classic cocktails, including the most iconic of them all: the Martini (yes, originally made with gin).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) - typically grain-based but not always - and infusing it with a variety of botanicals, the most essential of which 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. You can read more about how a gin's flavor is constructed and the roles the different botanicals play below.
London Dry Gin (aka Dry Gin) - There are a few subcategories of gin, but the style that everyone most associates with gin at large is London dry gin, or simply, dry gin (there are a few distinctions between dry/London dry gin, outlined below, but they are largely trivial). These are the crisp, juniper-forward gins that carry the most familiar brands names - Tanqueray, Beefeater, Gordon's, etc. - and what you'll typically use in classic cocktails.
Up until 15 years ago, just about every gin on the market could be considered a dry gin. But the category has evolved beyond that narrow mold to encompass multiple styles, some of which are slight detours from the classic dry style (Hendrick's) while others are stark departures (Snopp Dog's Strawberry Gin!).
If you stock only one type of gin in your bar, 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!
Other Gin Categories:
Genever/Jenever ( juh-NEE-ver or JEN-uh-ver, both are used) - This is the ancestor of London dry gin. It originated in the Netherlands, Holland and Belgium. Genever is a bit like a cross between a London dry gin and unaged whiskey. It is much fuller and maltier, with juniper still featured but to a lesser extent. Aa bit of an acquired taste to be sure, but one worth cozying up to.
Old Tom Gin - Another classic style gin that's sweeter and sometimes barrel aged. Flavor-wise old tom is somewhat of a bridge between genever and London dry. It was very common pre-prohibition and factors into many old cocktail recipes. Which is why it is now making a comeback along with the cocktail resurgence, many gin brands releasing on Old Tom bottlings.
New Western - Gin's new frontier. This loosely defined category is reimagining traditional but loosely defined dry gin by dialing back the juniper and using less traditional botanicals such as floral elements, like elderflower, chamomile or lavender. I'm grouping all these new gins under New Western, though some go by other names. The classifications are purely my own, based on style and how they play in cocktails.
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
What is unique about gin, from a production standpoint, is its primary flavors are not obtained through the base ingredients of the spirit, such as tequila or brandy, or any aspects of fermentation or barrel aging, as with rum and whiskey. Rather, it is through the infusion of botanicals - herbs, spices, flowers, nuts, roots, or seeds - that gin derives its character, or more specifically, aroma.
While there are a handful of common gin botanicals, juniper is the only one that gin is required to include by law, the rest are up to the distiller. But it’s not as simple as throwing whatever flavors you think might work well together into a pot. The botanical makeup of a gin is a delicately layered fabric. Each one will behave differently during distillation and in conjunction with the others. So a distiller must select ingredients not just based on their individual characteristics, but also how they will harmonize as a group. It is a delicate balance that requires the skill of both a distiller and a perfumer.
To better understand how a gin’s aromatics are constructed, let's first look at a basic outline of how gin is made and how those botanical aromatics make their way into it:
Base Spirit + Botanical Infusion
All gins start with a base spirit. The goal is to use one that's as clean and flavorless as possible so it can serve as a canvas on which to paint the botanical's aromatics of the botanicals. A typical gin base spirit is made from grain since grains are cheap, but it can be made from anything - grapes, apples, sugarcane, etc. These spirits 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.
To add the botanicals, they are physically combined with the spirit and re-distilled, typically in a pot still, to extract their essences, specifically aromatic flavor compounds, and leave the solids behind. These essences are what give gin its soul.
Different methods are used to extract the botanical's flavors/aromas and infuse them into the spirit.
Steeping - The two most common are steeping them with the base spirit for a period of time before being distilled or adding the botanicals only just before 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 - Other gins employ a Carted-Head Still which is pot/column hybrid that puts the botanicals in a separate basket within the still. Here the alcoholic vapors pass through the botanicals, collecting their aromatics and flavors along the way.
Vacuum Pressure - Yet another somewhat newer technique is extraction through vacuum pressure. 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.
Extracts - Some gins may choose to add flavors in the form of pre-made botanical extracts after distillation. These are sometimes called compound gins. Traditionally this method was looked down upon, but several excellent gins use extracts in conjunction with one of the above methods to add a flavor that wouldn't otherwise be attainable. Hendrick's and its cucumber flavor is the most famous example.
Carter-Head still with the botanicals in a separate container (#7).
The Science of Gin Botanicals
With the exception of juniper, distillers are not bound by any botanical restrictions. They’re free to choose from nature’s vast array of plant leaves, buds, petals, fruits, peels, nuts, roots, seeds, and barks.
But despite this autonomy, the botanical lineup of most gins is surprisingly narrow. Virtually all London dry gins also contain coriander, citrus peels of some kind, angelica root, and/or orris root, plus at least one of the following usual suspects: cassia bark, licorice root, aniseed, bitter almond, or cardamom. You can see these similarities spelled out on the London dry gin category page where the botanical lineup is listed for each brand.
The reason for all this lies in chemistry. Now, don't let that word scare you off. Food chemistry is genuinely awesome.
Coriander, angelica root, and citrus peels, etc. are so complimentary to juniper is because they share complementary flavor compounds. We think of herbs and spices having their own unique flavor or aroma - which is where the majority of perceived flavor comes from. But it is actually a combination of multiple flavors in the from aromatic compounds that create what we know simply as: cinnamon. Many of these compounds are common across a wide variety herbs and spices in different levels and concentrations. So botanicals like juniper, coriander and citrus are used together because they have, shall we say, "good chemistry," and when combined they can create a singular flavor that is greater than the sum of their parts: gin!
This is illustrated in the graph below. On the left column are a list of some common botanicals used in gin and on the top row are different aromatic compounds and the flavors associated with them. As you can see, there is a lot of common ground.
Aromatic Compounds in Common Gin Botanicals
Building a Gin - Top to Bottom
Making gin isn’t just about pairing botanicals with complimentary compounds. All aromas and flavors behave differently, both in a still and in a glass. Some dissipate quickly, some reveal themselves gradually. So botanicals are chosen to supply different types of flavors - primary, supporting, and bridges builders. 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. They are grouped into three tiers based on what they contribute to a gin: top notes, mid motes and base notes. You’ll notice that for the most part, the types of botanicals common in each tier happens 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 largley leaves, fruits and flowers. Clearly, Mother Nature knows what she’s doing.
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.
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.
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.