“I’ll have a gin and tonic,” said the man in late afternoon golfing attire.
“What kind of gin do you prefer?” I asked, as I always do with people who are not specific about their brand. I have learned that if you don’t, they invariably have a preference, but only after their drink is made, causing the first 10 seconds of interaction to result in a loss for the bar when that drink gets thrown out.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Does it?”
“I’d say it does.”
“But I’ve read that vodka is pretty much all the same, and that gin is just juniper-flavored vodka.”
Now I’ve actually written that vodka is pretty much all the same, and some gin is, in fact, little more than juniper flavored vodka. But not all gin.
Do just a little research into to classic cocktails and gin comes quickly to the forefront. Classic martini: gin. Vesper: gin. Aviation: gin. Last Word: gin. It goes on and on. But do a little more research and you will find that each cocktail calls for a different kind of gin. Now when you deal with vodka you are talking about tiny subtleties, fractions of a percentage that minutely alter flavor or feel. But with gin it’s an entirely different ball game.
There are two main types of gin — Dutch and English gin. Dutch gin, sometimes called jenever or Holland, is big and robust and practically unheard of in the United States. In fact the best-selling gin in the world, Ginebra de San Miguel, a 100-plus-year-old gin that outsells Bombay, Beefeater and Tanqueray combined, is a Dutch-style gin made in the Philippines. And it is not available in the U.S.
The gin most Americans are familiar with is English gin. But within that category fall the three main types of gin — compound, distilled and London. U.S. law stipulates that gin’s main characteristic flavor must be from from juniper berries and be bottled at not less than 80 proof, and that gin “produced exclusively by original distillation or by redistillation may be further designated as ‘distilled.’”
For further clarification the European Union definitions are used for the three main categories of gin:
• Gin (or compound gin): If it just says gin on the bottle, what you are drinking is basically a neutral spirit that has had flavorings added to it after distillation, sort of like an alcoholic tea. These products don’t have to be distilled to high proof, so you might get flavors from the original distillate (sugar, wheat, corn, etc.) as well as from the water added to it (the purest ethanol possible is 192 proof or 96 percent ethanol and 4 percent water), plus the juniper and literally any other flavor the company wants to add in almost any combination. All of which means that these products taste radically different. Sometimes they are not even shelf stable in regards to color, and sometimes they actually “louche,” or when gin turns slightly opaque when combined with water or ice.
• Distilled gin: Don’t be fooled. The product must say “distilled gin,” not just have “gin” and “distilled” on the label somewhere, so read carefully. These products have the juniper berries and other additives distilled with the original distillate. They are usually regarded as a superior product because the distillate is controlled, start to finish, and they are both flavor and color stable.
• London gin: Not to be confused with English gin, London gin is produced like distilled gin, but uses only the highest grade ethanol. It must be made using only all-natural plant material to flavor it (no essences or additives), and it may not have anything added after distillation except for a trace amount of sugar and water to bring it down to proof. London gin is sometimes supplemented by the word “dry,” but dry is a subjective and somewhat arbitrary term. Not all “dry” gin is London dry. London gins can be made anywhere in the world, but Beefeater is the only London dry gin in the world actually made in London.
All of which means that unlike vodka, which is an argument over the subtleties of the taste of water, whatever gin you mix your favorite tipple with makes all the difference in the world. Gin can be as different as apples and oranges, because legally, it can have both. Or neither.