How Is Gin Made? Historic Gin-Making vs. Today

Let’s talk about gin-making traditions and processes. Today’s gin is a distilled alcohol, and it always has the aroma and flavor of the juniper berry. By law, it must include juniper, but it can also have other botanicals. The word gin comes from the Dutch word for juniper, which is jenever. In French, it is genièvre

How gin tastes, though, varies based on the unique twists of the crafter. Likewise, you’ll find that the flavor of gin varies from manufacturer to manufacturer based on the quality of the berry and the way the gin is made. As we look at the process of making gin, we first need to look at its history to understand how it is made. 

Rumored Origins of Gin

Some say that gin-making can be traced as far back as the 11th century. At this time, it was said to be solely used as a medicine by the Benedictine monks in Salerno, Italy. They distilled spirits using the juniper berries they picked in the hills nearby. They used it to cure indigestion and other stomach issues.

It is also said that in the early 1300s, people consumed a form of juniper topic to ward off the Bubonic Plague, otherwise known as the Black Death. This was a blend of a neutral spirit infused with juniper berries and blended with a grain-based malt wine. This was to mask the horrible flavor.  People say that everyone in Europe drank this vile tonic to protect themselves from the deadly disease. This was also when it took off in the Netherlands. 

Where Did Gin Come From?

Most people agree that originally, gin making was based on a drink from Belgium and the Netherlands, and it was called Jenever. This drink was made by distilling malt wine and herbs to hide the really strong flavor. The juniper berries were added because they were said to be medicinal in nature. 

So, merchants sold gin as an herbal medicine in the 16th century. Some thought it was a treatment for gallstones, stomach issues, gout, and other ailments. 

You may have heard of the term Dutch Courage. The story dates back to when the English soldiers were fighting in the Anglo-Dutch Wars from 1652-1674. During this time, the Netherlands was fighting for independence from Spain, and the English went to help the Dutch in their revolt. 

As the story goes, the English soldiers used Dutch gin, jenever, after they saw the Dutch drinking it. They thought the Dutch used it to relax and be calmer during wartime. So, the English decided to drink Dutch Courage because it, too, helped them feel calm before the battle. Jenever was also said to help soldiers stay warm when it was cold. 

Another version of the story notes that the English soldiers saw how brave the Dutch soldiers were when they drank jenever. So, the English soldiers wanted a taste of this “courage.” You may find others that say the term “Dutch Courage” goes back to the Thirty Years’ War between 1618-1648. Today, we may refer to gin traditionally as liquid courage, giving us courage for many tasks.

Gin Arrives in England

After the war, the British then took the drink home with them. They had developed a love of gin, and gin-making really started to take off in London in the late 1600s. 

Gin was first distilled in Holland in the 16th century. During this time, King Charles I created the Worshipful Company of Distillers. This group supervised the production and regulation of spirits and liquors. When this happened, the quality of gin distillation significantly improved. Also, gin helped develop English agriculture because makers needed to use extra corn and barley. 

Gin became widely popular in Great Brittain during the time when William of Orange (the leader of the Dutch Republic) occupied both the English, Irish, and Scottish thrones. He encouraged the distillation of spirits through statues. He used blockades and heavy taxes on French wine and Cognac to weaken their economy, so gin could rise. 

At the same time, William III introduced the Corn Laws in England that provided tax breaks on spirit production. This meant nearly anyone could produce gin. Gin production exploded and soon exceeded that of even beer and ale. 

The Gin Craze Begins

These times were called the Gin Craze when gin was cheaper than beer. Gin shops sprung up everywhere, and at this time, anyone could make gin. 

Poor Londoners could get their fix because gin was so cheap. Amazingly, some people were paid with gin instead of money.

There was no regulation on how gin was made during this historic time. Some gin makers even used turpentine and sulfuric acid, which had deadly consequences. 

By the early 1700s, gin was sold all over London, and alcohol abuse was becoming a problem with the city’s poor. Other imported spirits were expensive, but gin was not. In fact, people even made it in their own bathtubs. Gin use was so bad during this time it was called the Mother’s Ruin

Gin was making London residents miserable. Crime rose, and people all over London were drunk and even driven mad drinking gin.

The Gin Act Arrives

Parliament in England quickly realized they had a terrible problem, and they introduced the Gin Act in the late 1700s. Now, if you wanted to make gin, you needed a license. And they added huge taxes on gin shops, which greatly increased the price of gin. Bootleggers began making their own gin, and this was referred to as bathtub gin.

Riots broke out, and distillers disregarded the law, continuing to make gin

Once changes were put into place, gin became a higher quality drink, and its production was more refined. The government tamed gin drinking by introducing a distiller’s license that was much too expensive for many people. It also became illegal to run a gin operation without a license, and if someone reported it, they were compensated with money.

By the 1740s, the law was repealed. 

The changes weren’t all bad for everyone, though. 

The Gin Act Changed Things

When the Gin Act was created in around 1751, things changed again. The country lowered license fees. As a result, licensed retailers were the only ones who could buy gin from distillers. As grain prices increased due to a bad harvest, these distillers started making a better product. This made gin too expensive for the lower class people, and fewer people drank gin or were affected by it.

Historic Gin-Making

Originally, gin (then known as jenever) was made when people distilled malt wine to about 50% alcohol by volume. Because it was so strong and foul-tasting, people added juniper berries and sometimes herbs and spices. The juniper also was said to have medicinal properties. In the early days, it tasted similar to vodka or whiskey. Once the English discovered the drink, as we mentioned earlier, they began distilling their own gin. Historically, gin distilling began around the 16th century in London. During this time, there were two main methods: the Dutch method and the British method. 

The main difference was the Dutch added flavorings to the mash, so theirs was coarser tasting. In addition, Dutch gin usually has a lower alcohol content than English gin and is more flavored. In Britain, America, and Spain, people mostly drink English gin. However, Dutch gin is enjoyed by people in the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium.

Dutch gin tastes very different from English gin. You’ll find that Dutch gin (really jenever) is distilled two or more times in the same factory. Crafters add barley malt and maize to the mixed cereals of rye and wheat. They then age it in oak barrels, so it often tastes like whiskey. In England in 1830, a French-born Irishman by the name of Aeneas Coffey introduced a new still. Before this, distillers used a traditional alembic pot. This meant they couldn’t produce a lot at one time. 

Coffey modified the existing continuous column still, revolutionizing liquor production. For gin makers, this meant a cleaner, purer spirit. This still was much more efficient and easier to take care of. It saved distillers money, so they could ram up production.

The Gin of Today

Things did change in the 1800s when sailors started adding limes to their gin. The limes were said to have anti-scurvy properties. Inevitably, this turned into the Gimlet when a lime cordial and gin were combined. 

Modern gin arrived in the 1920s, which is known as the first Cocktail Age. Gin became known as not only a refreshing drink but a cosmopolitan one. This idea of the cocktail party traveled from Britain to America, and gin became the favorite drink of ladies in the afternoon. 

London dry gin was easy to mix into the fashionable drinks of the time, and the Martini was born.

In modern times, there are hundreds of categories and brands of gin on the market all over the world. English gin is strong and heavily flavored with juniper, while the French drink gin with an abundance of lemons. Americans like it straight, on the rocks, and in mixed drinks.  

Today’s gin is either distilled using the Dutch or English method, depending on the location and the taste people are looking for. In addition, many master distillers are using botanicals and herbs to flavor their gin, so it is no longer the harsh drink from centuries ago. 

Both Dutch and English gins are loved by many, and the taste really is a personal one.

The Production of Gin

When it comes to the production of gin, the European Community Regulation governs spirit drinks, and it says there are only two ways to produce gin.

  1. Distilled gin is produced using a traditional method. Think London gin and Plymouth gin.
  2. Gin is produced by flavoring alcohol with a natural flavoring that gives it a taste of juniper. This method is known as compounded. This may not be called distilled gin under European Community rules.

 According to the “rules,” you can make gin from any spirit alcohol that is at least 96% alcohol by volume. This base is a neutral spirit that is either grain or molasses and should have no flavor.

 Flavorings are known as botanicals, and these vary by the producers. All gins include juniper. Other botanicals may be orange peel, lemon peel, spices such as nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, herbs, and other spices. A fine gin has six to 10 botanicals.

The distillation process varies. Often producers dilute the spirit with water and use a still. The flavorings are added. This is a long process, and in the end, a tasting panel checks it to make sure it meets product specifications.

Final Thoughts About Gin and Gin-Making

Now that you know how gin is made, and we’ve looked at historic gin making versus that of today, you’re ready to venture out on your own and discover your favorite gin. 

People say that “to know gin is to love gin.” It appears that millions of people love gin straight, on the rocks, or in their favorite cocktails. 

It’s so popular that gin revenue in the United States is expected to grow more than 9% annually through 2025. Today’s gin has a blend of sophisticated flavors, and you can find gin in high-end cocktails and mixed drinks.

So, are you ready to become part of the 21st-century gin craze?

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