What is Gin? An Expert Guide For Everyone
Updated: Jun 24
Gin is known all over the world, with wild and wonderful takes on flavours and experimenting with various ingredients. Plenty of people drink gin but not many know how it is made, even those who don’t drink it understand that it is such a versatile, and internationally renowned spirit.
Here we are sharing our knowledge about some of the most common questions when it comes to gin. A few to take note on are; What is gin made from?, How is gin made, and looking into the different ways to make gin and the ways in which it can be distilled.
What is Gin?
The majority of us will recognise gin by its distinct flavour and aroma, but unsure on what ingredient gives it the spirit that distinct flavour and aroma. The answer to this is juniper. Junipers are a small, berry-like botanical. In fact, a drink can’t be called gin unless it has juniper in it. Think of it like Champagne, it can’t be called that unless it’s made in Champagne, in France.
While there are other ingredients in gin, many of which we will cover below, juniper is sometimes barely detectable, the berry is the cornerstone of true gin.
Gin VS Vodka!
Before delving into gin, it’s worth covering the difference between gin and vodka. They can sometimes be confused for each other, which is understandable as they are both clear spirits and are used to make similar drinks, such as martinis or gimlets. But when it comes to the nitty-gritty details, they are in fact very different.
The most important difference between gin and vodka is the ingredients: vodka is made from distilled potatoes, rye or wheat. Gin, on the other hand, is made by distilling malt or grain and infusing it with juniper berries and other botanicals. Gin is a more complex spirit than vodka, both in terms of what it’s made with, and the diversity of flavours it offers.
How is gin made?
There are numerous ways to make gin, but most will begin with a base alcohol that is distilled. This liquid is then blended with juniper and other botanicals to give it distinct flavours and aromas.
These natural ingredients steep, or macerate, in the alcohol, releasing their flavours before being distilled again, resulting in a fusion that ends with a smooth yet intricate spirit.
This is the original method for making gin, steeping remains a common process, particularly for distillers who create unique brands and products. To do so, they start by heating ethanol in a pot still: a drum-like container that collects the alcohol and condenses it over time. This creates a strong, robust base into which botanicals are infused. The mixture is next steeped for another day or two, becoming more and more concentrated before water is added to strike the right balance.
Vapour Infused Gins:
Vapour infused gins begin much like steeped gins: ethanol is placed in a still. Rather than adding the botanicals directly to the ethanol, they are placed in a basket above the alcohol. As the liquid warms, it releases vapours, which in turn releases the botanical blends’ essential oils. These oils then infuse the vapour, and the gin with their core flavours.
This process is reliable for lighter gins with more floral flavours, such as Bombay Sapphire, which was one of the first brands to adopt this innovative process.
Vacuum distillation is one of the newer ways to make gin and proves that this centuries-old spirit is still evolving.
While traditionally gin’s distilled at around a boiling 78°C/172.4°F, vacuum distillation uses a relatively cool 40°C/104°F. This leaves more of the botanical essence intact, rather than fully using them together, providing a more blatantly multilayered beverage – and proving that you can teach an old spirit new tricks.
This isn’t as common as it once was, ageing gin creates a deeper, smokier flavour akin to scotch. That’s because aged gin is stored for months in oak barrels previously used for Scotch or Vermouth, which in turn imbue the gin with these flavours, leading to a fuller, more acerbic gin.
While all gins include juniper, various brands and types of gin contain a diverse potpourri of botanicals, herbs, spices and fruits. Here are a few of the most common gin ingredients.
Just to clarify, juniper berries aren’t real berries. They’re technically fleshy cones, more related to a pine cone than a blueberry. These berries are picked and then crushed or chopped before being blended with the base alcohol, releasing their fresh, citrusy essences.
We should also mention that soil, climate and minerals all impact the juniper’s flavour. This explains why even similarly distilled gins can taste remarkably different – just one of the many reasons gin is such an adaptable tipple.
Sometimes referred to as Chinese parsley, Coriander is the second most common gin botanical, after juniper. Coriander became so essential to gin because of its spiced nut essence that imparts the spirit with more body.
Another prominent gin botanical, sweet Angelica Root adds a bit of sweet levity and wholesome earthiness to gins, creating a more approachable flavour profile that’s fit for everyday drinks and special occasions.
Sourced from the iris flower, Orris Root adds a clean, spring-like sweetness to gin, somewhat similar to the Angelica Root, but it’s far rarer because the roots must first be dried for five years. Therefore, Orris Root it’s often found in higher-end brands, such as Hendrick’s Midsummer Solstice Gin.
Lemon’s signature tartness may make it seem like a one-note ingredient, but lemon’s far more profound than many realise. It brightens the infusion, creating a more delicate and docile spirit by toning down the juniper that puts many people off gin. If you’re new to gin or prefer a breezier experience, seek out gin brands with lemon, such as Malfy’s Gin Con Limone, or our very own The Lemon One.
As with lemon, orange tempers the gin’s pungent juniper, which is why many gin brands, such as Perfume Trees, leverage dried orange peels when distilling their gins.
You may not think that a gingery, autumnal spice like coriander would go well with resinous juniper, but the two botanicals have been used hand-in-hand for centuries. Somehow these two zesty flavours are mellowed when brought together, creating a smoother, sweeter gin.
Licorice is probably as divisive as juniper itself. It’s sweet and bitter, sour and salty, all at once. That said, while not everyone will appreciate a licorice-infused gin, those who do will revel in the ways licorice and juniper interact. Somehow becoming more than the sum of their parts. They’re lush, sharp and resolute without being overpowering.
Ground up cassia bark, sometimes called Chinese cinnamon, provides a warm, piquant undertone that provides gin a full-bodied flavour that’s particularly suited to winter months.
A simple ingredient that imbues gin with a deceptively elaborate tinge, black pepper can transform a muted gin into a livelier version of itself. Oftentimes black pepper’s blended with lemongrass, as well, to create a more nuanced flavour profile.
Light, sweet and undeniably refreshing, a little cucumber goes a long way in taming gin’s juniper. If you are just starting out with gin, or if you’re looking to get an invigorating gin cocktail on a hot day, we suggest either buying a cucumber-infused gin or simply adding a slice or two to your next cocktail.
Explore our Sussex Gin Range of flavours to give your taste buds something new:
The Indian Spice and Mango One - BRAND NEW
A note from the team
We are constantly adapting and growing, expanding our flavours and bringing exciting new products to the market.
To purchase any of our products or gins, please visit our website to exceed your gin expectations, Harley House Gin Distillery
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Until then old sport,
The Harley team.