When is gin really gin?

"It’s actually required by law for gin to contain juniper berries as the predominant flavor. If a spirit does not contain juniper berries or has another flavor as the most dominant, it can not be considered a gin." Mitchell van der Krogt - Drinks of Today (Netherlands)

That statement might be true for the Netherlands - well Europe maybe - but not here. Apparently there are rules for all of the other spirits but not gin. Which is a tiny bit weird. The closest bit of anything like regulation is this from Consumer Affairs and Food Standards ANZ which defines a spirit as:


"a potable alcoholic distillate, including whisky, brandy, rum, gin, vodka and tequila, produced by distillation of fermented liquor derived from food sources, so as to have the taste, aroma and other characteristics generally attributable to that particular spirit"


Which is not really all that helpful, although I guess the generally attributable characteristic of gin is the taste of juniper. But then regulate too much - like the various grand cru wines of France and you limit innovation:


"People don't often call for regulation of a product until it's already being abused, but by the same token the growth and the strength of a product sector is often because of that lack of red tape to begin with, so one must tread carefully here." Matt Bailey - Scottish Malt Whisky Ambassador for Australia


The pretty illustration at the top of the page comes from my last old delicious. magazine which is about to hit the recycle bin. It's the November 2014 edition, and the article is headed 'Spirits rising' and is a very brief roundup of some Australian craft gins that were becoming trendy at the time. These days there are apparently over 100 craft gin distilleries around Australia and there exist bars that serve hundreds - one in Singapore serves over 100 gins! For it is not just Australia that has leapt on to the craft gin bandwagon. The Brits, I think, claim to be the originators of the trend - well they would - but now just about every spirit producing country does it.


Gin originated as a medicine made in monasteries and by alchemists. Then in the 17th century after William of Orange became joint monarch of England with his wife Mary, he banned the import of brandy - to get at the French - and thereby triggered the import of jenever (gin) from Holland as a substitute.

The English took to it with abandon leading to the notorious gin palaces, so horrifically illustrated by Hogarth in the 18th century. Well the water was not drinkable so the poor turned to gin and to beer instead. And we all know about gin and tonic, India and quinine. Although here's a little aside on tonic water which apparently no longer contains quinine - well not usually:


"taking too much of the stuff can cause a mostly reversible (and extremely terrifying!) condition called cinchonism, which can involve deafness, nausea, vertigo. Ouch!" Seth Porges - Forbes


I actually like gin and tonic and I used to drink it occasionally as a pre-dinner drink. But it is very alcoholic, which rather limited one's ability to drink much wine with the meal that followed, so in the end I gave it up and never drink spirits - or liqueurs these days. Well the occasional home-made limoncello. But not gin.


The young it seems do drink spirits - and cocktails which contain spirits. Gin, in fact is the major component of perhaps the most famous cocktail - the Martini. And until recently the young were drinking vodka of which Andrea Frost, in that delicious. article says:


"The unique feature of the finest vodka in the world ... is that it tastes of nothing."


But then, if we are to believe Fairfax Hall of the Sipsmith Distillery in London, in 2009 craft gin was born. He began exporting to Australia in 2012, visited in 2011 and noted just a handful of Australian distillers back then. Since then it has boomed.


Arguably the top brand Four Pillars began it's operations in 2013 in Healesville - a mere hop, skip and a jump away from here. In 2019 and 2020 they won the International Wine and Spirit Competition, award as top International Gin Producer. They did not win this year, but were finalists. That's some accreditation. On the left here is their Christmas offering Australian Christmas Gin which they describe thus:


"Cam distills Christmas puddings, then ages this gin for a year in 100-year-old Muscat barrels. The gin has aromatics of classic juniper and a hint of cinnamon, backed up with a rich palate and a hint of sweetness from the Muscat. Sip it neat, mix it with ginger ale or beer, or try it in some great cocktails." Four Pillars Gin


Four Pillars is one distillery that actually maintains that they remain true to the spirit of juniper, but distinguish themselves because "our signature is the use of whole fresh citrus in every gin." - not always the same citrus but always citrus, although I do not know which citrus is in the Christmas version. I am sure they are hugely successful - a quick check of their gins for sale on their website show that many of them are sold out, although you can still buy them at Dan's and probably elsewhere too. Very expensive though - some are over $100.00 a bottle. Which is why you wouldn't be buying it unless you had tasted it elsewhere would you?


Actually I have been sitting on that delicious. article for some time, but was prodded into actually doing something with it by reading an article in Thursday's The Age about another Christmas themed gin - Gingerbread gin from The Craft & Co. who operate out of a distillery in Collingwood. The don't just do gin - they also do beer, wine and other spirits, and have a bar, cellar door, an eatery and a function space in the same location. However, the article was centred on this Gingerbread gin which was created, not because of the association of warmed gin and gingerbread which were consumed on the frozen River Thames over 300 years ago at Christmas time, but because of the diverse Australian food culture in which ginger plays a primary role. It's not very gin like though - well it doesn't sound as if it is:


"a unique, unfiltered gin that retains all the warmth from the macerated ginger root, smashed nutmeg, cinnamon and tonka beans."


I should also say that there are different ways of distilling and flavouring gin. Some major, and minor producers simply buy in the distilled spirit (grains of various kinds that are fermented and distilled) and add their flavours in a second process.


"There are two primary ways to flavor your gin: You can either add flavors to a distilled spirit and bottle it, or you can infuse botanicals into the spirit by distilling them together. Depending on your chosen method, you get a different kind of gin, and a different flavor profile." Seth Porges - Forbes


I believe the purists say that the flavour should be obtained by adding your botanicals and other tastes in the first distilling process. Or maybe you can do a bit of both.


The number of additives that you see is mind-boggling. Just take a look next time you are in Dan's. The competition must be immense, but then I guess it's also adding yet another thing to do when visiting almost any area of Australia. Instead of tasting wine you can taste gin. Unlike wine, you don't have to have an attached vineyard. You can be in grotty Smith Street for example. Well perhaps I should say trendy grungy Smith Street, although stretches of Smith Street are still a bit dicey.


And how do you choose which one to buy? Well you could go on looks and those marketing blurbs but I have to say, that if Four Pillars are the top of the tree here in Australia - I emphasise the 'if' because honestly I have no idea - then their bottle design is not that wonderful. Well not for me anyway. You could visit one of those bars - but you obviously can't taste your way through over a hundred different gins. No, no, no. So you need to canvas expert opinion, awards, etc. although that too is so subjective isn't it? Difficult.


Sos it gin if you can't taste the juniper and should you therefore stick to traditional London gin? One critic described the highly flavoured gins as 'flavoured vodka' - but they've done that already, and that's a trend too, so why not just call it flavoured vodka? There's obviously a market for that as well as flavoured gin.

Yet another example of the 'authenticity' thing, and also yet another example of the 'small is beautiful' era that we seem to be in, in so many fields. And innovation gone wild. I wonder what's next.


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