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What makes a good gin?

Jared Brown, Master Distiller at Sipsmith, offers an overview of the current gin market and gives his own take on why London Dry is a style that has stood the test of time…

“In just ten years, the UK has gone from a dozen distilleries producing gin to nearly four hundred. With over five hundred distilling licences issued in the last decade, there are likely to be more—and more and more—in the near future.

In this time we have seen some outstanding new classic London Dry gins hit the shelves. But for each of those, we have also seen a dozen that push the limits of our understanding of gin. Many of these are also good, and far from this being a completely new trend, in many ways it is a return to gin’s distant history, a time when you might find a gin style produced in one pub and only for that pub.

However, there is also a reason many of those old styles were lost and forgotten. They were simply not as good as London Dry which took advantage of new (circa mid-1800s) technology. Column stills, first patented in the early 19th century, began to proliferate as consumers discovered the cleaner taste and reduction in congeners—those hangover accentuating impurities. Suddenly, spirit didn’t require such heavy flavouring and distillers could focus on the nuances of good grain and good botanicals and the polishing effects of rectifying quality ingredients on a copper pot still.

Even today, London Dry dominates gin sales, not only in name but with nearly all of the major gins being London Dry style whether they state it or not. London Dry is the cuppa of gin. It will always be on every menu because it is such a part of our cultural fabric, and also because it is simply so good.

Granted there are enormous differences between the London Dry gins available today, from industrially produced gins made from a concentrate diluted with water and spirit, a technique that proliferated in the late 19th century. But there are still others who refuse to adapt this efficient and profitable method and instead make gin in a one-shot method, adding only water to cut the spirit to bottling strength after distillation without adding any neutral spirit.

While it seems strange to think the bulk of the world’s volume of gin today is made from concentrate, if you do the math you can see why it is so alluring. Overload a still with much more than the required botanicals. Distil. What comes off the still is gin flavouring. Add twenty to twenty- five millilitres of this to a bottle of neutral spirit and water and you’ve made a bottle of gin. If we had done this at Sipsmith, Prudence, our first three hundred litre copper pot still, could have produced nine thousand-litre batches. As it stands, she has never produced more than three hundred litres per run.

By definition, London Dry must have juniper as the dominant flavour. This is murkier than it sounds. Who decides what juniper tastes like? Certainly, the juniper harvested in the American West tastes completely different from juniper harvested in north Mediterranean countries. Mediterranean juniperus communis was recognised as being the best in Europe as far back as the mid-1200s, when the Genoese merchants discovered a lucrative business exporting it to countries such as Germany and England where juniperus communis also grew in abundance. Distilling books from centuries past make reference to the superiority of this regional harvest.

The next part of the London Dry definition states that nothing may be added after distillation except water, neutral spirit, and a minute quantity of sugar. While it would be wonderful to limit this to water only (to cut the spirit to bottling strength), there will always be companies with deep pockets keeping the legal definition in line with their production methods.

There is no question London Dry will continue to stand out among the proliferation of other gin styles. It evolved in the hands of generations of master distillers to become the best that gin can possibly be, and then continued to establish itself as the world’s most popular style. And as long as people love gin and tonics and martinis, it will hold this vaunted position for the forseeable future.”