A Brief History
The origins of gin are traced back to the spirit known as 'jenever' (or 'genever'), first made in the Netherlands sometime in the 16th century. Jenever was essentially distilled 'malt wine' (a fermented mix of grains such as barley, wheat and rye) with an infusion of juniper (a very common herb whose 'berries' have a distinctly medicinal taste). It is said that the infusion of juniper was necessary to drown out the harshness of the distilled malt wine! Jenever is, in fact, still produced commercially today and a rather popular drink in the Netherlands and Belgium.
Jenever found its way to England via travellers from mainland Europe who brought the drink with them. As it happened, a Dutch king occupied the English throne at the time, and he wasted no time in exercising his conflict of interest - an immediate import ban on French brandy was issued, and consumption of jenever went through the roof. It quickly became one of the biggest spirit success stories in history. Many enterprising Brits started to distill their own jenever using local ingredients. Over time, the malty distillate that jenever is made from disappeared in the British style jenever, having been replaced by a more neutral spirit. Jenever become known simply as gin. Whether this shortened name was first invented (ie. 'blurted out') by an inebriated fellow, we shall never know.
Gin changed the way British people drank and made alcoholics out of otherwise normally restrained people. This could hardly be blamed on the citizens though, as many resorted to drinking gin purely because it was safer to drink than the regularly putrid tap water at the time. At the height of this 'Gin Craze' of the 1700's, the average person's gin consumption was close to 1 litre per week.
The Gin Act of 1751 introduced by the British Parliament restricted the sale of gin to unlicensed merchants. In parallel, the government's attempt to change public perception included commissioning and releasing a set of artworks by William Hogarth. The most recognisable is entitled 'Beer Street and Gin Lane'. Beer Street, on the left, depicts wealthy citizens dressed with class and participating in aristocratic activities... all while drinking beer. Gin Lane, on the right, depicts a populace infected with illness, intoxicated to the core and starving to death... all while drinking gin.
The Old Tom Gin
When gin was first made by Brits, they used pot stills. Although these stills were able to make a powerful spirit around 50% ABV, the poor quality of the ingredients and techniques used by the Brits meant that the resulting spirit had a rather unpleasant taste. One of the time-tested solutions to covering up an unpleasant taste is to add sugar, and that's exactly what the distilleries did. This sweetened form of gin became the norm before and during the Gin Craze.
After the government's subsequent crackdown on gin production, the industry became a blackmarket, prompting crafty distilleries and thirsty gin drinkers to resort to more ingenious ways of dispensing gin hidden from plain sight. One of those ways was by means of a tube mounted within the door of a bar - the customer would place a coin in a slot above the tube outlet, and someone inside would release gin through the tube. To mark the location of these inconspicuous tubes, distilleries drew a black cat (known as Old Tom) on the door next to the dispensing station.
This sweetened form of gin, then, got its name 'Old Tom Gin'. Distilleries still make Old Tom Gin today - some Aussie versions are made by Kangaroo Island Spirits and Settlers Spirits.
The London Dry Gin
In 1830, a new type of still appeared. Known as a 'Coffey' still (whisky fans might recognise the name from one of Nikka's products), it was able to produce a much cleaner tasting neutral spirit to be used as the base for gin. Because of this, gins made using Coffey stills eventually needed no added sweeteners. This type of gin became known as a 'Dry Gin'. Combined with the fact that most distilleries making this type of gin were based in London... and there you have it: 'London Dry Gin'.
Nowadays, like so many things, a rather intimidating list of regulations go into classifying whether a gin is truly a 'London Dry Gin'. Here is an excerpt of the EU law that governs this part of our lives (distillers take note!):
There are countless examples of London Dry gins made here in Australia. Some, like Loch Gin, are very traditional and use only traditional botanicals. Others, such as Four Pillars Rare Dry Gin, are a more modern and localised expression, with some traditional botanicals substituted with local alternatives such as lemon myrtle.
The Process of Making Gin
Gin is typically made starting with a strong neutral spirit - a spirit that is distilled multiple times to round out all the harsh edges and eradicate almost all traces of flavour. These days, distilleries have the choice of making the base neutral spirit from scratch or simply buying a commercial neutral spirit to use as the base. One might conclude that the former is more romantic and authentic, but if the final result is anything to go by, much of the time the time-saving latter alternative can work just as well.
But completely neutral tasteless spirits are not always used as the base. Some distilleries prefer to start with a spirit that strongly reflects the taste of its ingredients (or 'mash bill'). Tasmania Distillery (maker's of Sullivan's Cove whisky) uses their new-make malt whisky spirit as base for their 'Hobart No. 4' gin, although we suspect the main reason for that is more to do with convenience. That's not to say the result isn't tasty though!
At the point of being a neutral spirit, what the distiller has is a high strength alcohol with little to no taste, but may sometimes still bear some resemblance to the ingredients used in the mash (particularly if made from grain). It's then distilled again in the presence of various 'botanicals' which impart flavour back into the spirit. Now the only rule for making gin is that the main botanical ingredient must be juniper - a berry (well, actually technically it's a seed) traditionally used for medicinal purposes. But otherwise, the choice of all the other botanicals is totally up to the distiller. This gives the distiller extraordinary flexibility in creating a unique gin - after all, the number of permutations is almost limitless. But with extraordinary flexibility comes immense difficulty. If you've ever tried blending together individually distilled botanicals, you'll know just how hard it can be to achieve a coherent flavour.
If you haven't been to a gin blending session, we highly recommend one - many local distilleries run them. We know of good quality sessions run by Archie Rose (Sydney) and Bass & Flinders (Mornington Peninsula).
Botanicals in Gin-making
Here are some typical (and also a couple of not so typical) botanicals used in making gin. How many do you recognise?
Over the past few years, Australia has seen an explosion in craft gin production. It's not hard to see why. With an abundance of unique flora, there is no shortage of interesting local ingredients to put in a still. Brendan from Applewood Distillery (SA) likens gin to an 'edible perfume' - a somewhat surprising but totally logical conclusion (incidentally, we came across some gin scented perfumes too). What results is an incredibly diverse variety of gin - some distilleries feel a moral obligation to use local 'bushtucker' as a way of honoring the land, while others make great gin from local and imported spices. Yes, it's true that gin can be distilled anywhere with no regard to local influences. But with Australia's native botanicals so unique, there's a lot to be gained from using them.
Gin @ White Possum
Gin Guzzler Subscription - This is a monthly subscription like no other. Each delivery includes a bottle of premium Australian gin, tasting notes, a botanical sample, botanical notes, and sometimes we even include a bottle of quality tonic water from our friends at CAPI. A Gin Guzzler subscription goes for 12 deliveries, and you can opt for a monthly or quarterly delivery interval.
Grasslands Gin - This is our very own gin! It's designed to be the perfect companion to tonic water (in a G&T) or vermouth (in a Negroni). It's got a distinct citrus accent imparted by sweet dried oranges and the zest of lemons and limes.
'Flight of the Juniper Possum' Gin Tasting Set - Our Australian gin tasting set is the first of its kind. With the recent explosion in Australian gins, there are lots of different ones to try! In this set, we've compiled 12 of our favourite local gins and bottled them into sleek matte black bottles. The set comes with a tasting and inspiration guide with detailed information about each gin and its distillery.