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How Gin Works

Gin Fizzles Out But Makes a Comeback

La Gintoneria di Davide
La Gintoneria di Davide bar in Milan, Italy, specializes in gin and cocktails, as evidenced by their large display of gin varieties. Eddy Buttarelli/REDA&CO/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Starting in the 1960s, gin lost some of its glamour. The counterculture movement dismissed classic gin cocktails as their grandfather's booze. And upwardly mobile "Mad Men" types embraced the James Bond cool of the vodka martini.

Chances are if you grew up in the 1970s and 1980s and had your first legal drink in the 1990s, it probably wasn't a gin and tonic. The traditional juniper-forward London dry gins from Beefeater and Gordon's were pretty much the only game in town for decades, and not everybody like the piney flavor of juniper. Some people disparagingly describe it as "drinking a Christmas tree."

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But gin has made a comeback. If you could put a start date on it, it was probably 1998 when Bombay Sapphire first came out in the U.S. Although sold as a London dry gin, Bombay Sapphire is not as juniper-centric, and the eye-catching sapphire-blue bottle lists 10 other botanicals (and their lands of origin) that gave it its trademark complexity: licorice (China), juniper berries (Italy), cubeb berries (Java), angelica root (Saxony), almonds (Spain), coriander (Morocco), cassia bark (Indo-China), Iris root/orris root (Italy), lemon peel (Spain), grains of paradise (West Africa).

Bombay Sapphire made a big splash in the cocktail world and opened up the market for new twists on gin. The next big release was Hendrick's Gin in 2003. For the first time, a gin-maker dared to dethrone juniper from its top position in the flavor mix. Yes, there's juniper among Hendricks' 11 botanicals, but the first things you taste in a Hendrick's gin are rose and cucumber. That was an absolute shock to the drinking establishment and flung the doors wide open for gin innovation.

Since 2010, there's been a bona fide gin renaissance. Hundreds of new gin labels have sprung up to serve a growing thirst for all things hand-crafted and artisanal. Distillers around the world are sourcing wild local herbs, fruits and spices to create their own unique botanical blends with their own "terroir," to borrow a term from winemaking.

South African gin-makers include flavors like wild geranium. Australian distillers get citrus notes with lemon myrtle. New Zealand gins include indigenous manuka berries and kawakawa leaves.

The base spirit used to make gin is even up for grabs. No longer is gin made purely from grain alcohol. There are artisanal gins made from sugar cane, grape, potato, honey, molasses, apple, pure juniper and even sheep's milk! Producers argue that subtle flavor notes from the base spirit carry through to the final product. It's also an excellent marketing ploy.

Interestingly, while the gin renaissance has absolutely been fueled by a strong consumer preference (especially among millennials) for local, small-batch food and drink with a cool backstory, smaller distillers were originally attracted to gin for more practical reasons.

Aaron Knoll, founder of the website The Gin is In and author of "Gin: The Art and Craft of the Artisan Revival," explains that if you want to open a whiskey distillery, it will take years to start earning revenue, because whiskey has to age. Vodka doesn't have to age, but the vodka market is hard to break into and is dominated by big brands. That's not the case with gin, though.

Distillers figured that they could quickly get their name out there by bottling a distinctive gin with a unique botanical profile. Gin could help "keep the lights on" while the distiller produced aged spirits like whiskey that take more time to earn a profit. Knoll says that distillers mostly drove the gin renaissance in its early days from 2010 to 2014.

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Sources

  • Barnett, Richard. "The Book of Gin: A Spirited World History from Alchemists' Stills and Colonial Outposts to Gin Palaces, Bathtub Gin, and Artisanal Cocktails." Grove Press. 2012
  • Knoll, Aaron, author of "Gin: The Art and Craft of the Artisan Revival" and founder of the website The Gin is In, where he has reviewed more than 750 bottles of gin. Personal interview

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