Episode I: Gin
There are certain incontrovertible things that all men should know, and so I’ve decided to do my best to impart this wisdom through my Mansense series (number of episodes to be decided – hopefully many).
First and foremost: gin. No man (or indeed woman) should be without some knowledge as to how that wonderful libation makes its way from still to bottle and then glass. Further, it’s should be a matter of national pride and a qualifying factor for being British.
So where did it start?
Not in England. Sorry. No, gin started life as genever in Holland – where it was sold in chemists and pharmacies to treat various ailments and maladies (I can’t speak for the success of this…). Rumour has it that English soldiers would drink genever before going into battle during the Eighty Years War in 1585 for its calming effects, thus giving rise to the idiom ‘Dutch courage’.
By the 1600’s genever was being made en-masse in the Netherlands, distilling malt sprits and wines with several botanicals, key to those being juniper.
The Netherlands came to England in 1688, as William III – ruler of the Dutch Republic – took the throne from King James II. With it, no doubt, came some of the Dutch customs, and surely genever was one of these imports.
With the rule of the country passed to the Dutch, genever rose in popularity. Before long it was to be shortened simply to ‘gin’.
With prohibitive taxes on imported spirits, and an effective free license from William III for anyone to distil spirits, the popularity of gin exploded. Drunkenness in London became epidemic, constant, and malevolent: before the middle of the century, 10 litres of gin was being consumed per person annually.
By the way, this isn’t 10 litres of Tanqueray we’re talking about here – this gin was crude. In effect very similar to the bathtub gin of the prohibition era in the ‘States, it was often flavoured with turpentine as a cheap alternative to juniper.
Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ famously depicts the scenes in London at this time. Spend some time poring over it and see just how disturbing it is.
A series of Acts of Parliament were imposed in the middle of 18th Century to try to control the chaos caused by gin, with mixed success, causing both riots and the improved regulation of retailers along the way.
London Dry Gin
The invention of the column still early in the 19th Century allowed spirits to be distilled to much higher alcohol concentrations. This gave rise to a much more neutral base spirit that was significantly less sweet that its predecessors. With this change in profile came dry gin, and since the majority of it was made in London, London Dry Gin was born.
How’s Gin Made Then?
The first part of the process is no different from vodka. You start with your wheat or barley and ferment it just as you would beer – you crush it, add water, add yeast, and let the yeast do its stuff. Then, you boil it in a column still (called continuous distillation). As you learned in school, alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, so it evaporates first. Extract the vapours and repeat, and before long you will have a spirit that’s around 95% alcohol – called Neutral Grain Spirit.
Here’s where vodka and gin split. If you’re making vodka, at this point you dilute it with your favourite spring water down to the right concentration. For gin, you do the same, but now it goes into another still ready for another round of distillation, this time steeped with botanicals.
Speaking of which, what are botanicals anyway?
Well, they’re plants, innit. You can use almost anything, provided it smells or tastes nice. The aim is to get those oils and volatile compounds out of the plant matter and into your gin in the perfect ratio to make a splendid gin and tonic.
Sound easy? It’s really not.
Here are some of the botanicals at your disposal if you fancy giving it a crack: Juniper (obviously), liquorice root, coriander seed, caraway seed, lavender, meadowsweet, cassia bark (cinnamon), cardamom, kaffir lime leaves, nutmeg, orange peel, grapefruit peel, saffron, camomile, angelica…
There are all manner of other more esoteric additions you can make, and each gin maker carefully guards their mix.
Once you’ve got your botanicals, they’re placed in the still, either directly into the liquid to steep, or on a basket suspended above. In the latter, the idea is that the heated vapours from the distillation process pass through the botanicals, extracting and dissolving their essential oils as they rise.
Thought the difficult bit was over? Nope. Now the master distiller must carefully work out when to begin extracting the good stuff – the alcohol that’s just right – known as the heart. The first and the last products of the distillation known as the feints and tails respectively are separated out.
Once distillation is complete, the spirit is diluted to the desired concentration (it must be at least 37.5% by law), but many gin producers opt for a stronger gin for better flavour. It’s then bottled and ready for you to quaff.
Anyway, I’m going to make a gin and tonic. Toodles.