The History of Gin

by David Alan
Illustration by HIllary Weber-Gale

Gin is considered to be the quintessential English spirit; thus it may come as a surprise that the drink owes its early history to the Dutch, and much of the contemporary innovation in gin is happening not in England but in her former American colony.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Dutch were masters of the seas, and like other European powers who had access to points east, they brought back all manner of exotic ingredients from their travels. In the days before modern preservation practices, distillation was an effective means of preserving precious spices and botanicals. By the middle of the 1600s, a spirit known as genever started to gain popularity in Dutch cities. Genever, not surprisingly, takes its name from the Dutch word for juniper, and is an early style of gin that was made from redistilling malt distillate with juniper, caraway and other botanicals. Genever was also believed to serve a medical function, at a time when most medicines were compounded from plants.

When genever reached British shores, the name was shortened to “gin” and it became immensely popular in the 17th century. During a period known as the “Gin Craze,” gin shops appeared by the thousands in England, largely because of favorable taxation that imposed a steep duty on imported spirits. Eventually, the free-for-all was brought under control by various “Gin Acts,” which sought to legitimize the manufacture of gin (much of 17th and early 18th century gin production was done using rudimentary equipment in the home). By the 1830s, the column still began to revolutionize the spirits industry. Unlike the traditional pot still, which produced spirits in small batches, the column still was capable of producing very high-proof spirits on a nearly nonstop cycle (for this reason it’s also known as a continuous still). This development coincides with the industrialization of gin, and with the emergence of the London Dry style.  

In the young U.S., a cocktail culture was in full bloom—by the 1890s, American bartenders had already developed most of the basic tools and techniques found behind today’s classic cocktail bars, and many of the cocktails of the era were made with gin. Chief among these was the martini, consisting merely of gin, some portion of vermouth and perhaps a drop of bitters—it bore not even scant resemblance to the fruity, juicy “martinis” of today’s popular culture. The martini was the pre-eminent gin cocktail for much of the 20th century, that is, until the arrival of vodka—a Johnny-come-lately spirit in the U.S. despite its ancient historical relevance in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. With a little help from the James Bond franchise, vodka was able to unseat gin as the most-consumed white spirit in the U.S. by the end of the 1960s.

By the 1980s, gin was a moribund category in the US. In an era of electronic music and postmodern art, there was no room for the liquor your grandfather drank, and gin was decidedly old-fashioned. The classic gin bottle looked stale on a back bar populated by the sleek new vodka bottles. The flavor profile of gin was also out of line with popular tastes—heavy in pine and juniper at a time when drinkers wanted something simple and clean. Enter Bombay Sapphire, which came to market in 1987. “Bombay Sapphire Gin essentially changed the category, using a modern and innovative bottle design and a flavor profile which was balanced and citrus-forward,” notes Gary Hayward, U.S. brand ambassador for Bombay Sapphire.

The gamble worked. Sapphire was hip and new, and the formula dialed back the juniper and brought the citrus and other botanicals to the front. The clever blue bottle certainly didn’t hurt, nor did the award-winning marketing campaign. While Bombay Sapphire was a runaway hit and did great things to elevate the gin category, it wasn’t until the classic cocktail renaissance of the last decade that gin finally and fully re-entered the American drinking mainstream.

In 2000, William Grant & Sons launched Hendrick's, a Scottish gin that’s finished with cucumber and rose hips. “Hendrick's really dusted the cobwebs off of gin” when the brand launched in the U.S. in 2002, according to William Grant’s portfolio ambassador Charlotte Voisey. “We opened the doors and said, Gin doesn’t have to be just this way. It can be what you want it to be. We can make it refreshing, approachable, pleasant—something that everyone can enjoy.” Adding cucumber to the spirit was not just a playful move, but also a way to position Hendrick's as a refreshing gin—perfectly timed as American consumers were embracing fresh ingredients, farmers markets and locavorism; and as bartenders were beginning to follow the lead of their colleagues in the kitchen by incorporating culinary ingredients and techniques into drinks. 

It wasn’t long before American distilleries followed suit, and the locavorism that had taken the culinary world by storm soon created a sea change in the beverage alcohol world. In the decade since Hendricks launched in the U.S., literally hundreds of new gins have hit liquor store shelves. And it was only a matter of time before Texas distillers got in on the game.

In 2011, Austin’s Treaty Oak Distilling Co. became one of the first outfitters to produce a Texas gin. “The renaissance in American gin has provided a lot of opportunity for small distillers to present a personality and a sense of place through the use of local botanicals,” says Treaty Oak’s founder Daniel Barnes. “With Waterloo No. 9, we replaced some of the traditional London Dry ingredients with local ingredients such as grapefruit, pecans, lavender to showcase what we think is representative of Texas.”

Treaty Oak is also at the forefront of another innovation—in the form of aged gins. Waterloo Antique is a combination of gins that are aged for one and two years in oak barrels. “At one year, it is still very gin-like,” says Barnes. “At two years, it takes on the character of spiced whiskey.” Though there are a handful of distillers experimenting with barrel-aged gin, the concept is new enough that when Barnes sought to put the term on his bottle, it was rejected by the federal agency that oversees alcohol labeling, because they didn’t think aged gin existed.

With over 500 years of history, gin is, at once, old and new again. It’s a resilient category, surviving (if barely) the vodka insurgency of the post-WWII era to once again become the darling of cocktail bartenders and consumers alike. There has never been more evolution and innovation in this historic spirit category.

Styles of Gin

Genever (or Jenever): Malty and similar to whiskey that hasn’t yet been aged, genever is a style of gin with a less prominent botanical quality. Sometimes referred to as “Holland gin” in early American cocktail books, genever is still common in its native Netherlands, and comes in two styles: oude, the traditional style, and jonge, a lighter-bodied, more modern style. Bols Genever, produced in Holland, is widely available in the US.

Old Tom Gin: This sweeter, fuller-bodied predecessor to London Dry gin was popular in the 19th century and was likely used in some early gin cocktails. Though out of production for generations, the classic cocktail movement has encouraged new releases from small labels such as Ransom and Hayman’s.

London Dry Gin: A classic juniper-forward, dry style of gin that emerged in the late 1800s and is still the most popular style in the world. Well-known labels include Tanqueray, Beefeater and Gordon’s.

New World Gin: Alternately known as “New Western,” “New American” and “International” style, this category is green enough that there’s not yet been a consensus on what to call it. It refers to the modern gins that are re-imagining the traditional botanical makeup—often with an emphasis on local flavors and culinary traditions. Hendrick’s and Aviation are some national brands; Waterloo No. 9 and Genius are local examples.