A Complete History of Gin

Gin, the stalwart of the mid-century cocktail bar, has seen a huge resurgence in interest over the last decade. Not so long ago, you could reasonably expect to find a well-stocked bar offering Beefeater or Gordons London Dry and perhaps Bombay Sapphire, Hendricks, or Tanqueray, but not much more. 

Today, the story is quite different. The juniper-flavored spirit’s popularity has grown enormously, and gin consumption and sales have almost doubled since 2014. New producers have entered the market, creating innovative variants and forcing the old guard to up their game. 

In 2023, the gin aficionado has no shortage of choices, but where did it all start? In this article, we’ll explore how gin is made, the history of gin, and share some of our favorites. 

How Is Gin Made?

At its simplest, gin is a neutral spirit made from grain and flavored with juniper berries, which are the fruit of a coniferous tree. Producers ferment malted grain with yeast to create an alcoholic liquid, which is distilled to remove impurities and concentrate the alcohol.

For simple gins, natural flavorings called botanicals, which must include the juniper berry, are steeped in the grain alcohol, which is then filtered, diluted to a suitable strength, and bottled. 

However, most premium gins, also known as distilled gins, use redistillation to introduce the botanicals to the base. The grain alcohol is redistilled in the presence of the botanicals, extracting the essential oils that carry the flavor and aroma. 

How Is Distilled Gin Made?

Producers use different methods during the redistillation phase:

  • Steeping the botanicals in the grain alcohol for up to 48 hours before distilling it.
  • Suspending the botanicals in a basket above the grain alcohol so its vapor passes through them, extracting the flavors.
  • Reducing the pressure in the still so that the alcohol vaporizes at a much lower temperature. This is called vacuum distillation, and it is intended to preserve delicate flavor compounds that might be damaged by heating.

As we have mentioned, gin always contains juniper berries. However, a variety of other botanicals are used, including citrus, Angelica root, coriander seeds, cardamom, anise, licorice root, lavender, and more.

The mix of botanicals chosen by producers is what makes each gin unique. 

Who Invented Gin?

The traditional story has it that gin was invented by Franciscus Sylvius, a Dutch doctor and scientist, in the mid-1600s. That’s almost certainly untrue; people had been drinking gin and its precursor, known as genever, for medicinal purposes since much earlier in the 17th century. 

What is certain is that genever was quickly adopted by the populace, including soldiers, for its intoxicating qualities. The phrase “Dutch courage” originated with Dutch soldiers who were partial to a jenever (an alternate spelling) or two before they headed into battle. 

From Holland, jenever traveled to England, where it eventually became known as gin. Distilleries began to produce it in large volumes for recreational and medicinal purposes. Later in the 17th century, drinking gin expanded in popularity, particularly following the Glorious Revolution, which brought the Dutch William of Orange to the English throne. 

The London Gin Craze

Gin consumption really took off in England in the 18th century. The government of the time imposed steep taxes on brandy, which was often imported from France. Gin was, therefore, much cheaper, and it was also relatively easy to make, so hundreds of distilleries were set up all over the country. 

Widespread consumption caused concern for the incipient newspaper industry and the government alike. Everyone’s favorite beverage was denounced as “the principal cause of all vice and debauchery.” Hogarth’s Gin Lane print exemplifies the feelings of the upper classes that excessive drinking had led the working population astray. 

Consequently, the government began to tax gin, resulting in riots, which caused them to back down. Nevertheless, the gin fashion eventually waned and the government settled on a licensing arrangement to limit the number of distilleries. 

In the 19th century, there was another resurgence in gin’s popularity in both the UK and the U.S., especially in so-called gin palaces. Many of the most famous British producers — Beefeater, Tanqueray, Gordons — have their origins in the late 18th and 19th century gin booms. 

Classic Gin Cocktails

Gin can be drunk neat over ice, but more often than not, it’s mixed in a gin cocktail. You’ll find gin in many famous cocktails, including the Tom Collins, Gin Fizz, Negroni, and Gimlet, but let’s take a closer look at the history of the two most iconic gin cocktails: the gin and tonic and the Martini. 

The History of the Gin and Tonic

Gin started out as a medicine, and it returned to its roots with the classic gin and tonic, also known as gin tonic or simply G&T. At the height of the British Empire in the late 19th century, officials sent to tropical climates, particularly India, were advised to take quinine. Quinine, extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree, helps prevent malaria. 

Quinine has a bitter taste, so to disguise it, people mixed their quinine dose with sugar and soda water, creating Indian tonic water. British soldiers were also given a daily gin ration. Naturally, they mixed their medicinal tonic water with their recreational tipple, creating a popular and enduring alcoholic beverage.

When soldiers and officials returned home to England, they brought their favorite drink with them. Thus gin tonic spread from India to the UK to the U.S. Today, you can order gin and tonic with a slice of lemon or lime from just about any bar in the world. Of course, it’s also quick and simple to make at home.

The Martini

By the early 20th century, gin was a mainstay of classic gin cocktails. It found its most famous incarnation in the Martini, which was invented at the height of the 1920s Jazz Age. 

The traditional Martini is a mix of chilled London Dry Gin and vermouth, a sweet, fortified wine. For added flavor, the recipe sometimes calls for pink gin, which is a gin with added Angostura bitters. 

The precise ratio of gin to vermouth is a hotly contested topic. In the early days, a 2:1 mix was deemed acceptable, but the quantity of vermouth has declined over the years, resulting in increasingly drier Martinis. Today, 5:1 or 6:1 are more common. 

Gin in the 21st Century

We’ve discussed how gin has risen and fallen in popularity over the years, albeit always remaining a drinks trolley must-have. In the last few years, we’ve experienced what some have called the 21st Century Gin Craze, or, more politely, the Gin Renaissance. 

The old standards are still with us, producing the same high-quality products sipped by our parents, grandparents, and back through several generations. However, they have been joined by many novel variations on the juniper berries theme, including artisanal and flavored gins from small producers, particularly in the U.S.

Our Gin Recommendations

The gin enthusiast has more choices today than ever before. At Wine Deals, we stock bottles from dozens of producers, large and small. Here are a few of our favorites: