Like all safe alcoholic drinks, gin is based on ethanol, an intoxicating liquid chemical that has been used socially for millennia. It is made by the natural fermentation of sugars of many kinds that are found in a wide variety of fruits, grains and other starchy produce. Distillation then creates a more concentrated form that is freer from impurities that can be poisonous. This distillate form of ethanol is the basis for so-called spirit drinks – gin, whisky, vodka and so on.
To be called gin, the basic spirit must be further flavoured with juniper. But after that many kinds of ‘botanicals’ can be incorporated, of which coriander seed, sweet or bitter orange zest, orris root, cassia bark, cinnamon and, even, frankincense might be used.
In the bad old days and well into the 20th century, cheap gins were flavoured with turpentine, which gives an approximation of juniper’s resinous flavour but that has notably deleterious effects on the human constitution.
Widely available in many forms and flavours.
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As well as gins that make a feature of special flavouring ingredients, there are distinct styles of gin.
GENEVER/GENEBRA indicates a spirit in which the flavour of juniper berries is strongly prevalent and this is commonly of lesser alcoholic strength than the usual branded gins.
GIN means a distilled spirit in to which botanical essences (flavourings) are later added.
DISTILLED GIN means botanicals in their natural form are distilled together with the ethanol.
LONDON/DRY LONDON GIN must also be distilled with its natural flavouring ingredients but must not contain more than 0.1 grams of sugar per litre. Other styles can be as sweet as they dare.
There is a great UK revival of gin making by small companies, each of which will claim to feature this or that special botanical to give a unique flavour. Many of these vaunted qualities and ingredients turn out to be rather fugitive, especially if the gin is mixed with, say, tonic water. Incidentally, this combination was never based on enhancing the flavour of gin; the gin was used to ameliorate the bitter taste of quinine in the tonic water, which was an anti-malarial treatment. Many gin purists would rather run a marathon than add tonic water.
If confronted by a new gin with flavour characteristics that appeal to you, it’s worth tasting it before buying.
Gin in a tightly sealed bottle will last for years. Once a bottle is opened the alcohol will very slowly evaporate. Therefore, it’s never a good idea to keep a bottle with a dispenser inserted for more than a few weeks or to leave a bottle that is half empty sitting out. It’s a good idea to decant a bottle into smaller ones, which can be tightly sealed until needed. Cool storage is best, whatever the size of your bottle.
Gin is pointless as a cooking ingredient as its flavours quickly disappear when heated.
A most astonishing flavour affinity results from dribbling gin onto fresh pineapple; leave it to marinate for an hour. You can add a slice of cucumber rather than lemon to gin and tonic; that is a true revelation.
Recently an English entrepreneur launched a gin in which raspberries have been macerated. It’s pink, fruity and delicious and an excellent clue to what you might do at home if you have a spare bottle of gin hanging about.