Jumping for juniper joy: A guide to gin and its different styles


Gin has been growing in popularity of late, so let’s take a closer look at the juniper-laced category. – Photo: THE STAR/Michael Cheang

It is a good time to be a fan of gin in Malaysia. While whisky and cognac remain the biggest draws among Malaysian spirits lovers, gin has definitely been on the rise.

While the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent movement control orders have seen the temporary halting of major gin-related festivals like the East Imperial Gin Jubilee and GinRum.Me, that has not stopped the growth of the category, it seems.

Recently, there has been an influx of new gin brands into Malaysia, including Hernö from Sweden, Peddler’s Gin from China, Ortodoxy Colombian Aged Gin and more. Major gin brands such as The Botanist, Roku Gin, Hendrick’s and Tanqueray have also been stepping up their presence.

But what makes gin, a gin? Simple – juniper. A gin would not be called as such if it had no juniper in it. Heck, since it basically starts out as a neutral spirit, you could say that without the juniper, it might as well be a vodka.

Most gins are also infused (or sometimes distilled with) a myriad botanical ingredients, which give the spirit a range of flavours that sets it far apart from the neutrality of vodka. Some of the more common “traditional gin botanicals” include angelica root, coriander, orris root, lemon and orange peels, cinnamon, cassia bark, cardamom and licorice.

Some gins tend to have more exotic and unconventional botanicals, like Peddler’s Gin, which uses Buddha’s Hand, a strange hand-shaped type of citron fruit, among others. – Photo: THE STAR/Michael CheangSome gins tend to have more exotic and unconventional botanicals, like Peddler’s Gin, which uses Buddha’s Hand, a strange hand-shaped type of citron fruit, among others. – Photo: THE STAR/Michael CheangMost gin brands will have its own unique bouquet of botanicals – London dry gins like Beefeater and Tanqueray tend to be more juniper-forward, while popular gins like Hendricks, The Botanist and Gin Mare rely on certain botanicals to achieve its signature taste profile.

Some use the base spirit to achieve their own signature flavour (like the rye-based Kyro Gin and grape-based Sorgin), while others add more exotic and unconventional botanicals into their gins, like Peddler’s Gin, which uses Buddha’s Hand, a strange hand-shaped type of citron fruit, among others.

One thing is for sure, no matter which gin you prefer, it is still one of the most versatile and accessible spirits out there. It’s just so easy to make a Gin and Tonic after all, and gin is also the base for scores of classic cocktails, including the Negroni, Martini, Tom Collins, Gimlet, Bramble and Bees Knees.

But in case you need some help sorting through the different sorts of gins out there, here is a quick guide to some of the better-known sub-categories of gin.

London Dry Gin

Being more juniper-forward than other gin styles, London dry gins like Tanqueray work really well in cocktails like the Gin and Tonic. Photo: THE STAR/Michael CheangBeing more juniper-forward than other gin styles, London dry gins like Tanqueray work really well in cocktails like the Gin and Tonic. Photo: THE STAR/Michael CheangOne of the most common gin styles in the market, London dry gin is more about how you make the gin rather than where you make it (hence, London dry gin does not have to be made in London).

For a gin to call itself “London dry gin” the distiller is not allowed to do anything to the spirit after it has been distilled. You can add water or more neutral alcohol, but nothing to alter the flavour.

All the flavour has to come from the process of distillation, so it is up to the skill of the distiller to get the balance of the flavours and botanicals right.

Taste-wise, London dry gins tend to be more juniper forward and, well, dry. Being one of the most common and popular styles of gin, it comes as no surprise that London dry gin can be used in practically almost any gin cocktail, especially classics like the Martini and Negroni.

Its flavour also works best in a refreshing Gin and Tonic!

Old Tom Gin

Since Old Tom gins are such an old style of gin, it is the base for many classic cocktails like the Tom Collins. – Photo: Herno GinSince Old Tom gins are such an old style of gin, it is the base for many classic cocktails like the Tom Collins. – Photo: Herno GinIf London dry gin is too dry for you, then check out Old Tom gin, a sweeter style of gin that supposedly dates back to 18th-century England.

Back then, Dutch genever was still pretty popular, and English distillers hadn’t quite figured out how to make the drier style of gins that we have today. So, when they made gin, they would add sweeteners like liquorice or sugar to make it more palatable.

The name “Old Tom” is supposedly derived from the wooden sign boards shaped like a black cats (known as “Old Tom cats” in England) that were hung outside pubs during 18th-century England.

Since Old Tom gins are such an old style of gin, many classic cocktails like the Tom Collins, Martinez and the Ramos Gin Fizz were created with its sweeter profile in mind.

The rise of cocktail culture and craft gins has contributed to a resurgence in the style, with brands like Herno Old Tom Gin, Porter’s Tropical Old Tom, and Citadelle No Mistake Old Tom gin gaining a foothold in many cocktail bars worldwide.

Sloe Gins

If you want to be technical about it, sloe gins are actually gin liqueurs, though they are the only ones that can legally add the word “gin” on the label without naming it as a liqueur.

Sloe gin is a traditional English spirit that dates back to the 17th century that is made with sloes (Prunus spinosa), a type of small tart berry that is related to plums.

The process involves pricking then macerating sloe berries in gin and sugar, which helps balance out the tartness of the berries and also draw out their flavour. The berries are soaked for about three months, and then strained off to create a sweet, tart and fruity spirit that is around 15-30% ABV.

In Britain, sloe gin is typically drunk neat as a winter warmer. It also mixes well with tonic water or soda, and in classic cocktails like the Charlie Chaplin (made with sloe gin, apricot brandy, lime juice and simple syrup).

Aged Gins

Ortodoxy Colombian Aged Gin is rested in ex-Dictador rum barrels for a number of weeks. – Photo: THE STAR/Michael CheangOrtodoxy Colombian Aged Gin is rested in ex-Dictador rum barrels for a number of weeks. – Photo: THE STAR/Michael CheangYes, gins can be aged as well. But while whisky or cognac are “matured” in casks for years in order to get the full spectrum of flavours from the cask, the process of ageing gins tend to be shorter.

So, with aged gins, you tend to get terms like “gently rested” or “rested”. For instance, Orthodoxy Colombian Aged Gin is rested in ex-Dictador rum barrels for a number of weeks, while Herno Juniper Cask gin is rested for 30 days in barrels made with juniper wood. The results tend to be gins that are more harmonious in nature in terms of their botanicals, mellow enough to drink neat on their own, and also have extra flavours that have been imparted from the wood.

Navy Strength gins

Navy-strength gins are basically gins with a much higher alcohol content than usual. Most conventional gins tend to have below 50% ABV, and there are also high-strength gins that are above that, but for a gin to be known as “navy-strength”, it has to have a minimum of 57% ABV.

The name itself was supposedly inspired by an 18th century practise by the British Royal Navy, used to test the alcohol content of the gins they carried aboard their ships. They would soak the ship’s gunpowder in the gin and if it could be ignited, then the gin was supposedly navy-strength. (While that’s a cool story, it has been reported that the term “navy-strength” was actually a marketing term coined in the 1990s).


Michael Cheang is loving the increasing number of new gin labels coming into Malaysia. Follow him on Facebook (fb.com/mytipsyturvy) or Instagram (@mytipsyturvy).

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