The history of gin

The juniper berry, from which we get the distinctive aroma of gin, has always been part of the human pharmacopoeia (at least since the Romans)... Read more

The history of gin

The juniper berry, from which we get the distinctive aroma of gin, has always been part of the human pharmacopoeia (at least since the Romans)... Read more

The history of gin

The juniper berry, from which we get the distinctive aroma of gin, has been part of the human pharmacopoeia since time immemorial (at least since the Romans). We know for sure that in the 11th century, monks distilled juniper berries that had been macerated in wine. The first official record of a drink called "genever" dates from the 13th century. In the 14th century, it was thought that genever protected against the plague (this turned out to be wrong...). The oldest recipe found was published in the 16th century.

The most direct ancestor of today's gin appeared in the Netherlands in the 17th century. At that time, alcohol or malted barley wine was redistilled with juniper, aniseed and coriander. This was the genever still known today in Holland, Belgium (where it is called "peket") and France. It was most often sold in pharmacies to treat stomach or kidney problems.

Gin conquers Europe

During the Anglo-Dutch wars, British soldiers discovered genever, which they nicknamed "Dutch Courage". They themselves became fond of this alcohol, which they took with them when they returned home. Genever quickly became popular in England, where it was called gin (an abbreviation of genever). It is now distilled from pure grain alcohol instead of wine. Turpentine is often added, giving it resinous notes and more and more bitterness.

At the end of the 17th century, English gin experienced a veritable explosion when the crown heavily taxed foreign spirits (particularly French brandies) in order to discourage their importation. It took advantage of this to deregulate the sector, and widely authorised distillation, without a licence. Moreover, gin was a very good outlet for poor quality malts, not good enough for beer, and large quantities were happily sold.

England, the true home of gin

What became known as the 'gin craze' followed, with thousands of gin shops opening across the country. Although beer remained popular, gin competed with it, especially among the poorer people. Its low price and rapid intoxication quickly led to social problems and the first gin law in 1736. This law introduced prohibitive taxes, which in turn led to strong protests and even riots. Abandoned in 1742, it returned in 1751 in a different form. Distillation and distribution were henceforth regulated and limited to those licensed in the sector.

From the end of the 18th century onwards, the "Old Tom" dominated until the end of the 19th century. It is a watered-down gin, often to mask its uncertain quality. In the middle of the 19th century, the distillation column was introduced into the world of spirits. It was the advent of a drier, lighter style, less concentrated in juniper than its Dutch cousin: London Dry.

The birth of the Gin Tonic

At the same time, in the English colonies, particularly in India, malaria was causing havoc. To combat the disease, quinine was used to prepare tonic water. This quinine has an extremely bitter taste, to the point of being almost undrinkable. A little gin is added to improve the taste and make it last a little longer. This is the genesis of a great classic cocktail: the Gin Tonic.

Gin had its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, with Dry Martini leading the way. It went out of fashion in the 1970s in favour of vodka, and was revived in the late 1980s with the appearance of Bombay Sapphire. New cocktails, new methods, new spices and flavourings were developed. It is a source of all kinds of creativity.

In 2013, there is a new boom, in the wake of the micro-distilleries that are flourishing around the world. Gin is often the first spirit produced by these distilleries, as it does not require direct agricultural material or ageing. The Gin Tonic is once again king and reigns over the summers of the 2010s.

Gin production

Gin is a spirit flavoured mainly with juniper (genus juniperus). This is the only flavouring required by the regulations, and its taste must dominate. Many herbs and spices can then be used. Coriander seeds, fennel, cumin, citrus peel, angelica root or iris are often used.

It is always made from neutral alcohol (96%), in which the taste of the raw material is no longer present. Most of the time, these are grain spirits, but also molasses (from sugar cane or beet). The distiller's main job is to flavour the gin. The key is to extract the essential oils from each spice or flavouring.


Simple flavouring by maceration can be used, but the highest quality gins are obtained by redistillation. Two techniques are then possible:

- Maceration of the alcohol and botanicals with water in the vat of the alembic, followed by distillation (there may be some maceration time before distillation). The spices can either be placed in the vat as they are, or in a cloth, like a large tea bag. This results in gins that are quite strong in flavour.

- The infusion of the botanicals in a basket located in the swan neck of the still. It is simply the alcohol vapours that come into contact with the spices on their way to the condenser. This results in lighter, more delicate gins. Another, quite similar, way of making gins, which is rather rare nowadays, is to use a "Carterhead" still (invented by John Dore in the 1960s), with a small column equipped with a copper compartment where the aromatics are put.

Botanicals can be distilled at once, in groups, or even individually. In most cases, they are distilled together, and an individual botanical may be distilled so that its aromas are particularly noticeable after blending. More rarely, the distiller chooses to process each botanical individually, blending them at the end.

Sometimes we come across what are called "Double Gins", where a first distillation is done with one group of botanicals, and then a redistillation with another.

After distillation

After distillation, the gin is rested in a stainless steel tank and the alcohol content is reduced as slowly and gently as possible. Distilled water, spring water or osmosis water is used for this. At bottling, the gin should have a minimum alcohol content of 37.5%. Even though we are beginning to see some wood aging, aging is not the rule at all.

The different categories of gin

Gins can be classified into three main categories, with some additional names:

- Gin or compound gin. It is obtained with essences, aromas or maceration in a neutral alcohol, but without redistillation. This is the "basic" gin found in supermarkets.

- Distilled gin. After maceration or infusion, it is redistilled by batch and in a still. Flavours may be added after redistillation.

- London Dry. The term refers to a style, not an appellation of origin. This gin is obtained only after batch redistillation in a still. Its alcohol content at the end of the still must be over 70%. No sweetening is allowed (or almost, since it is limited to 0.1 grams per litre).

Then there are some secondary names such as :

Old tom. An old style of gin that has the distinction of being watered down.

Sloe Gin. A gin and sloe liqueur with an alcohol content of 15-30%.

Plymouth Gin. Only produced in the eponymous distillery, it is a kind of "Navy Gin". Like Navy Rum, it is a strong spirit, bottled to the degree beyond which gunpowder carried in ships could still burn even after being soaked in alcohol.

Gins and their uses

Gin is one of the most fashionable spirits. It is now made all over the world, and craft distilleries have made it their speciality. The cocktail boom of recent years has given rise to a taste for bitter flavours, of which Negroni and Gin Tonic are excellent examples.

Here are the recipes for these iconic cocktails


Fill an Old-fashioned glass with ice cubes and pour :

- 3cl Gin

- 3cl Campari

- 3cl of red vermouth

Stir and garnish with orange peel

Gin Tonic

Fill a large Copa glass with ice cubes and pour :

- 6cl Gin

- 15 cl of Tonic

Garnish with a slice of lemon or cucumber.

For example, we can recommend Monkey 47, which as the name suggests has 47 different botanicals. Ki No Bi, distilled in Kyoto, Japan, is one of those that can be enjoyed dry. You can also discover the Mediterranean flavours of the Spanish gin Mare, or Kreyol by Juillet, on a rum base. Citadelle is a French gin designed by the Ferrand cognac team, who are also behind the Plantation rum range. Read less

Special feature