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Gin – rogue spirit or ideal mixer?
Vector illustration of a women wearing pearls, a sunhat and shades with a Martini Cocktail in hand.

By 1st Principles Distilleries Spokesperson

(15 Minute Read)

Human history is riddled with tales of failure, many times with catastrophic consequences and incalculable losses. Mistakes, it would seem, is how we learn, at least some of us.

Take, for example, the destruction caused by a lost hunter who, in the fall of 2003, lit a signal flare near the San Diego County Estates, causing the fire to spread and become the largest fire in California’s history, or consider the crew of the mighty Titanic ignoring warnings of icebergs in her path, causing the boat to sink when the ship hit an iceberg.

Fortunately, we only need to worry about ice in our drinks today, and in similar, shaky fashion, we created our modern spirits and brews – by making mistakes and improving our craft. Humans have been guzzling down scary concoctions, for centuries now, and in many instances done so illegally. While each continent has their own varieties of illegal potions, other controversial alcoholic beverages such as Whiskey, Moonshine, Vaaljapie, Witblits and Absinthe comes to mind. But few spirits can boast having such an adventurous developmental story as gin. A drink made famous due to the simplicity involved in making it – what can go wrong, right?

Often concocted in bathtubs (yes), this gin was a mixture of cheap grain alcohol mixed with all sorts of flavourings like juniper-berry oil and left to ferment and be distilled directly from the tub. Just as an aside, the term juniper-berry does not refer to a berry at all; the Juniper tree is part of the Conifer family, a group of cone-bearing seed plants. What is called Juniper berries are in fact nothing other than pinecones, and juniper-berry oil was really nothing other than turpentine! It comes as no surprise that Bathtub Gin, as it was known, apart from packing a serious punch, also had a particular vile taste and led to many illnesses and even deaths.

Gin, however controversial in its early days, has become a distinguished spirit and is versatile in its use. It can be enjoyed in refreshing cocktails such as the much-loved Gin-and-Tonic or be used as a base in more classic drinks such as the Tom Collins. Gin is popular because it dress itself in a variety of ways and it can adapt to whatever flavour profile suits the drinker best. This aromatic liquor is also perfect for drinking during warmer months.

But is gin simply just gin, and how much do we really know about it?

ANYONE GAME FOR SOME GIN TRIVIA?

Let’s start by taking a look at some interesting and fun facts about this botanically infused spirit, which also lends itself to complexity and bitterness.

  • The Dutch Made It First

While gin may be the national spirit of England, the spirit originated in Holland. The English discovered genever while fighting the Dutch War of Independence in the 17th century and brought the spirit back with them. The London-style gin we’re familiar with now would be born 150 years later.

  • Gin’s Great Grandfather Was a Doctor

Franciscus Sylvius, a Dutch physician, created genever as medicine during the 16th century. His high-proof concoction was believed to improve circulation and other ailments. During the Dutch Independence War, it was given to soldiers and referred to as Dutch Courage.

  • India Was Not Just About Spices

During the 19th century, British citizens began moving to India after the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 and, subsequently, the popularity of Gin & Tonic spiked. In efforts to avoid malaria, the demand for Indian Tonic Water grew. Gin was added to the tonic water to mask the bitterness.

  • Stopping Scurvy?

In the old days, sailing the open seas was certainly no relaxing vacation in the Caribbean. The threat of death and disease was imminent and The Royal Navy mixed gin with lime juice to prevent scurvy which was caused by a lack of vitamin C. This drink would later become known as the Gimlet (more about this cocktail later).

  • Gin Was Never Intended for the Fainthearted

Bathtub Gin was made for a specific purpose, and that purpose was never to be gentle on the palate. Drinking straight gin was sure to grow hair on your chest but was intense on the throat. In order to get the firewater down, the spirit was mixed with other ingredients to soften the harshness, which is why so many classic cocktails today use gin as a base.

YOU CAN’T TALK ABOUT GIN WITHOUT A HISTORY LESSON

Today we have approximately 5 500 different makes of gin, with numerous new ones being added each year. But of course, it wasn’t always like this, the first gins really started out in one of three main categories.

Here follows their fascinating stories.

TRADITIONAL GIN

Traditional gin is a distilled alcoholic drink that derives its predominant flavour from juniper berries. It originated as a medicinal liquor made by monks and alchemists across Europe, particularly in southern France, Flanders, and the Netherlands, to provide aqua vita from distillates of grapes and grains.

Old Tom Gin

This gin is lightly sweetened and generally not aged except for the time it took to travel to its destination. This particular gin got a bad rap because so many people were making their own and it tasted awful. It became known as bathtub gin because distillers (if you want to use such an eloquent term) used things like liquorice and other agents to sweeten the gin. Old Tom was the street name for this gin.

Nowadays Old Tom is a particularly good gin; the botanicals are infused, and the sweetness comes from a larger amount of liquorice that’s used in the distillation process. It’s richer in flavour than London Dry which is why Old Tom works better in mixed drinks, fortunately it tastes nothing like its primordial version.

Genever

This is an original style of gin, dating back to 16th-century Holland (Netherlands). The base grains are malted so that the grains begin to germinate and then the process is halted (much the same as whiskey), to give it a more robust flavour. One can add different botanicals, including juniper, but the difference between Genever and dry gins is that juniper is not the predominant flavour.

The gin is a lot more malty and tastes and flavours which can be added includes cloves, caraway, ginger, nutmeg, and it won’t often taste of citrus like with London Dry. Genever is even richer in flavour than Old Tom, meaning it’s best in rich cocktails, with something like sweet vermouth, or stirred with a tiny bit of bitters and a touch of sugar like a gin Old Fashioned.

CLASSIC GIN

Classic style gins are juniper infused and the term classic is often confused with the term London Dry. Classic gin refers only to the general juniper-forward taste impression and not any specific process or ingredient list.

London Dry

This gin originated in England but is produced all over the world. It’s one of the most common gins and typically what you get in a Gin-and-Tonic (G&T) or a Martini. Some London Dry gins steep fresh citrus peels or dried peels before distillation and that gives them a bright citrus flavour which is why a twist of lemon really does magic in a Martini.

A dry gin means there’s no added artificial flavouring such as sweeteners, the flavours are all natural from the botanicals and is a very natural presentation of gin.

Navy Strength Gin

This is essentially a London Dry gin that’s overproof. This version, a powerful spirit that packs a punch at 57% ABV, was once in common rotation by The British Royal Navy.

What makes it unique is that it’s intense and many distillers strive to create a balance between its flavours and a high ABV. Many experts reckon it’s like a London Dry, but it’ll put hair on your chest!

Plymouth Gin

Plymouth Gin is technically a style of gin, but only one distillery produces it, it’s one of the oldest recorded distilleries in the United Kingdom and is incredibly restricted to this southern port city that is located 190 miles from London.

Plymouth is very special as it was named in the Savoy Cocktail Book, and is used in 23 gin recipes in the book. It was one of the most significant cocktail books in the world and still is to this day.

What makes Plymouth Gin so unique? It resembles London Dry but it’s drier and has earthier elements. In general, it’s also a bit sweeter with more citrus flavours. This gin typically has seven botanical ingredients such as cardamom, coriander seeds, orris root, dried orange peels, juniper, and Angelica root, all which provides earthier notes.

VAPOUR INFUSED GIN

This gin is made with a special infusion method which does not bring the mix of juniper and botanicals into contact with the liquid spirit at all. The botanical-infused vapour then condenses into a botanical-infused spirit, and water is added to reduce to bottling strength.

1st Principles Range of Gins

The 1st Principles range of subtle vapour infused grain-based gins are specifically designed to complement condiments. Delicately balanced to be subtle and reserved with its botanicals and not to dominate.

The original range consists of a Classic Dry gin, a freshly brewed Rooibos gin, and a freshly brewed Honeybush gin, all made from first principles using fresh, locally grown as well as imported botanicals.

The Cocktail gin is an entirely different kettle of fish; designed to be juniper upfront for those cocktails where you desire a strong botanical undertone. This gin is made on a grape-spirit base, infused for an extended period with 22 different botanicals and then re-distilled with the botanicals in the pot. A classic dominant dry style gin.

In general gin also responds well to a variety of botanicals, hence the trend and popularity of infusing gin with botanicals. Some of the more popular botanicals include:

A single star anise seed pod.

Star Anise – a visually stunning infusion, star anise-flavoured gin is perfect if you’re a fan of liquorice flavours.

Freshly plucked blueberries in abundance.

Blueberry – sweeten your gin by infusing it with cooked blueberries.

Lemongrass – use sweet and floral lemongrass to complement any gin’s botanical flavours.

Grapefruit that is cut in two halves.

Grapefruit – Fresh grapefruit adds a pleasingly tart note to any gin.

Infuse homemade gin with fresh botanicals.

Rosemary – Fresh Rosemary helps to heighten the savoury elements in your gin.

FAVOURITE COCKTAILS MADE WITH GIN

A Martini Cocktail made with gin and vermouth, and garnished with three olives on a stick.
The Martini

The Martini is a grown-up cocktail from the late 19th century that allows gin and vermouth to shine. Expert’s advocate stirring to prevent bubbles or ice shards.

The French 75

The French 75 is the world’s favourite champagne cocktail. It can be traced back to 1915, at the New York Bar in Paris, later known as Harry’s New York.

Two French 75 Cocktails presented on a white dinner table with a cork lying in the background.
The Gimlet

The gimlet is the perfect mix of lime juice and gin, and a staple on any classic cocktail menu. You can trace the drink back to the 19th century when sailors mixed it with Rose’s lime cordial to make a medicinal tonic.

The Gin Fizz

The Gin Fizz is the best-known member of the fizz family of cocktails. It was first listed in the cocktail guides of the late 19th century. The drink became one of America’s most popular choices, forcing bars to employ teams of Bartenders to take turns using their muscle to create frothy perfection.

The Gin Sling

The gin sling dates to the late 18th century. It is often confused with the modern Singapore Sling, but an old school gin sling features fruit Brandy and is less sweet than its seductive relative. The sophisticated cocktail is the perfect union of dry, sweet, and sour flavours, and a fantastic choice of new interpretations.

FAN-FAVOURITE

One of the fan-favourite cocktails to make with 1st Principles gin

Honeybush Naartjie Tumbler 

WHAT YOU WILL NEED

20ml 1st Principles Honeybush Gin

Naartjie Rind

Mint Leaves

Tonic to Taste

A Glass of Your Choice

TO MAKE

Combine the gin, naartjie rind, mint, and ice in a glass of your choice. Top up with tonic water and or soda to taste.

History seems to be a good teacher and although we make many mistakes (and it’s safe to say we are likely to continue making them), there are some good evidence out there that every now and then we do learn from them.

Gin certainly has a rich cultural and historical heritage and has made leaps and bounds since its original inception in bathtubs. While Genever was frequently referred to as Dutch Courage, tongue in cheek (as it was either drank to be brave, or it required bravery to drink it?), it also went by another sinister name, Mother’s Ruin which, being such a cheap spirit to make, was the liquor of choice in brothels and was also rumoured to initiate labour.

But the world is changing and, while we thank The British Royal Navy for their endeavours to create a gin-based tonic to combat scurvy, we are all too aware these days of the health benefits of a healthy diet and being more attentive as to what we eat and drink.

Gin in a weird sense qualifies to be called a rogue spirit being embroiled in war, prohibition, scandal, death, dangerous sea voyages, and, admittedly, I can think of very few people who would throw caution to the wind when advised not to drink liqueur made in a bathtub.

Gin certainly comes from a questionable and boisterous history but there are few, if any, other spirits which features such a variety of uses and imbibing permutations.

It can really be enjoyed in a great number of ways and with Rooibos now being formally classified as a superfood, your next dose of a healthy intake may be as delightful and easy as pouring yourself a cocktail…

1st Principles Distilleries Logo on transparent background

1st Principles Distillery are the creators of some of the world’s finest hand-crafted spirits and are located in the picturesque and fertile Olifant’s River Valley in the town of Vredendal.

Owner and founder Joubert Roux is well-known for producing authentic products with a longstanding heritage, full of personality and founded on 1st Principles.

Keeping within the crafting traditions, 1st Principles produces ingredients on-site, and where possible, use locally sourced botanicals.  With an extensive online range of handcrafted spirits, cocktail mixers, natural ingredients and paraphernalia, 1stPrinciples Distilleries are the specialists for all your handcrafted cocktail supplies.

For more information, to book a tasting experience call us on +27 (0)27 213 2431 or send a WhatsApp to +27 (0)76 132 5614 or send us an email to [email protected]

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