Gin is just flavoured vodka
Gin. It’s huge right now. There are new distilleries opening up all the time. And for good reason… it’s a wonderful drink. I can’t think of any other spirit that can have such a diverse range of flavours.
Take Tanqueray for example, this uber classic London dry gin is only made with 4 botanicals. Clean, dry and simple, yet an elegent and respected classic. Then you can go to Hendricks which is a soft and subtle gin with the addition of rose petals and cucumber. Going further afield you get Ophier, a gin made with Indian spices such as cumin. Then you can have barrel aged gin which has notes similar to whisky and brandy due to the influence of the oak in the ageing process. Then you have at the other end of the spectrum Monkey 47, with 47 botanicals. Can you taste them all? No. But they all do.. something. It’s a wonderfully complex gin and one to go back to, as every time you seem to pick out something different.
With literally hundreds of botanicals to choose from there is such a vast array of flavours that one can experience with gin. And it doesn’t stop there either; different methods of production and ageing one can also produce an even wider range of taste sensations. It’s no wonder that gin has pre-defined styles, some of them legally protected (such as Plymouth Gin), as is the case with other alcohols and spirits such as scotch whisky and cognac.
How do you define gin?
But what is gin exactly? How do you define it? And how is it just flavoured vodka?
Good question. Let me explain…
To see what I mean we need to look at the description of what gin is: Essentially gin is a neutral based spirit that has been flavoured with botanicals of which juniper berries is the dominant flavour.
To take it further if we look at the definition of vodka we get a clear, odourless and relatively tasteless spirit that can be distilled from many different sugar sources (grain, grapes, sugar beets etc). By many definitions vodka is a neutral spirit.
Let’s get even more technical.
When you look at how vodka is produced on a large commercial scale they often use wheat, rye, corn or sugar beets as the base fermentation material (ie the sugars the yeast need to ferment into alcohol). Then they distill this using huge industrial stills to distill all the alcohol out ending up with around relatively flavourless 96% abv: This high strength flavourless spirit is called neutral spirit. This almost pure ethanol then gets on sold to various vodka brands who dilute this to drinking strength and sell to the public under their own brand with all the usual marketing tricks they use – this is the cheaper brands we’re talking about here.
Incidentally this is also the exact same process that these same commercial ethanol manufactures use to produce the base neutral spirit they then sell to gin distillers. It may not be a well known fact, but most gin distilleries don’t produce their own base alcohol – they buy it in bulk from the big commercial ethanol manufacturers. They then redistill this base spirit with their special mix of botanicals to create their own gin.
Given that gin distilleries buy their neutral spirit from the same commercial ethanol manufacturers that produce vodka it’s fairly safe to say conclude that all the gin distilleries are doing is flavouring vodka with various botanicals.
So there you have it, technically gin is just flavoured vodka.
Or is there more to the story?
Now, some of you may be cottoning onto the fact the botanicals might have something to do with it. But on it’s own doesn’t hold much weight as most gins have citrus peel such as lemon, orange or lime, or even berries as botanicals. And you can find vodkas with all these flavours, and plenty more. A botanical is really just another name for something that comes from a plant, so there is no defining property specifically relating it to gin here. Speaking of botanicals, however, we are starting to get on the right track.
So what really separates gin from flavoured vodka?
Lets get to the bottom of it…
It's all about the juniper
Ultimately this whole argument hinges on a bit of word trickery – and one vital ingredient: juniper berries.
If you look at it technically gin is simply flavoured vodka, that doesn’t change. However from a legal, cultural, and culinary standpoint, if you flavour that vodka with juniper berries, you then get an entire different alcohol category called gin. All gins must contain juniper berries as a predominant flavouring ingredient, however the amount of juniper or the “predominance” of that flavour isn’t regulated. The rest is pretty much all open to do what you like with. The range of botanicals is almost limitless. You can distill it. Distill only parts of it. You can infuse it. You can age it. You can add flavourings after the distillation such as the case with Hendricks (they add a cucumber and rose essence) or some of the new strawberry gins that are all the rage right now – they add strawberry “flavour” and pink colouring to their gins, some of which aren’t necessarily very “natural”. You can even add essential oil flavourings to vodka and call it gin, and this is what some of the cheapest of cheap gins actually do!
There are a few rules however. In the EU it must be a minimum of 37.5% and a minimum of 40% in the US – this applies to all spirits however, including the likes of vodka, rum, whisky, tequila etc. If you want to label your gin as a “London Dry” gin this is a category which states the gin must be distilled and cant have any sugar or additives added to the final product. As Hendricks uses rose and cucumber essence as an additive after distillation it cannot call itself a London dry. It’s worth noting a London Dry gin does not have to be made in London however, it can be made anywhere. The “London Dry” label just denotes certain qualities about the gin, which are legally defined. Another example is Plymouth gin. Plymouth gin is a legally protected style that must be distilled within the city walls of Plymouth and use water from the river.
If you don’t want to specify your type of gin then the doors are open, so long as you use juniper berries. You don’t even have to distill it. You can literally infuse vodka with juniper berries and other various botanicals for a few weeks, strain that, and call that gin. What’s more is anyone can do this at home with a bottle of vodka and some juniper berries from the supermarket.
So, at the end of it all, yes, you can call gin flavoured vodka, but it’s so much more than that! It’s a spirit category with one of the widest flavour profiles of them all. There are probably more gin distilleries than any other kind, and with so many distilleries out there the range and diversity of gin is vast!
Call it what you like, it doesn’t matter. What does mater is that Gin is a wonderful drink to be enjoyed!
I like to have a martini, Two at the very most. After three I’m under the table, after four I’m under my host.
– Dorothy Parker
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