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The basics of gin: it's not just an English liquor with a pine tree taste

Updated on August 31, 2012

Most Americans have a pretty clear idea of gin. It's that liquor that's clear like vodka but tastes like pine trees. It's an English creation, good only for Martinis, gin and tonic if it's really hot, and the occasional laugh in old movies or episodes of M*A*S*H.

Admit it. If you're not a gin drinker on a regular basis, you might just as soon have a bottle of PineSol around the house. At least you could use it to clean the bathroom.

Well, put away those notions and belly up to the bar. It's time for a few basics of gin.

Gin has a lot in common with its cousin, vodka. Both begin life as a clear spirit. They're usually distilled in column stills that do an excellent job of removing impurities, leaving only the neutral spirit that is so popularly (and misleadingly*) referred to as odorless and flavorless.

This is the point where gin takes a sharp right turn with the infusion of what is termed botanicals. The big one, of course, is the juniper berry, which gives that distinctive pine tree taste and aroma, but it's not the only one. Each brand has its own recipe, with ingredients as varied as anise or orange peel, coriander or orris root.

But despite the American image of gin as the quintessential English drink, it actually originated in the Netherlands. Called Genever or Jenever, it's distilled in a pot still from a mixture of barley, wheat, corn and rye. Genever is more robust in flavor than its more familiar counterpart, London Dry Gin.

As a slightly related side note: Ever heard someone refer to a drink as Dutch courage? You can pin it on Genever. British troops fighting Spain in Holland during the Dutch War of Independence coined the phrase after discovering that a few drinks of the strong local liquor could inspired heroic – or foolish – actions.

But to continue, the most common variety of gin in the United States is London Dry Gin. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a bar in the U.S. with any other type of gin. Its clean, crisp taste is popular year round and is found in a variety of recipes, but the classic gin & tonic is a summertime favorite.

There are two other types of gin that are seldom seen in cocktails in the States – Plymouth Gin and Old Tom Gin. Plymouth Gin is now made by only one distiller, who also trademarked it as a brand name. This gin is fuller bodied and fruitier than London Dry Gin. Old Tom Gin is a seldom seen sweetened gin.

* Misleading? Yes. Seriously, if you're handed a glass of water and a glass of vodka, do you have any problem smelling or tasting the difference?


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