Gin for beginners: types of gin and cocktails too!
It turns out there's more to gin than the taste of "pine." Learn more about this complex botanical beverage, including style notes and tasty cocktails.
April 14, 2021
If you ask someone who is unfamiliar with gin what it tastes like, nine times out of ten you'll hear two words - "pine needles." And yes, most of the time in this country if you've ordered something like a gin and tonic, it will have been made with a gin famous for its evergreen notes. But what if we told you that's not the only kind of gin you can find? What if we told you there are actually four main types of gin, and they're pretty wildly different? Actually, that question doesn't make sense because that's exactly what we're telling you, so get your questions ready and hold out your glass, and we'll pour out the rest of the story about this quintessential spirit of spring and summer.
What is gin?
This is a great place to start - gin is a distilled neutral spirit (think vodka), that has had various botanicals steeped in it to impart specific other flavors. It's typically bottled at 80 proof (40% ABV) but you will see some fluctuation between styles and brands.The one constant is that in order to be called gin, it has to be flavored with juniper berries in some amount, which also differs by style.
If you go looking, you will find opinion-havers in certain corners of the internet claiming that gin is just a kind of flavored vodka, which is technically correct - the internet's favorite kind of correctness. There is some nuance however, like the fact that certain kinds of gin aren't allowed to contain certain ingredients like sugar or artificial flavors which isn't true for other spirits. Learn more in our liquor beginner's guide or dig into our botanical guide.
What are the most common types of gin?
London Dry Gin - this is the one you've most likely had before, even if you're not an enthusiast, as it's likely the one most often stocked in your neighborhood bar and most prominently displayed on liquor store shelves. Originating in England (the "London" part was a dead giveaway), it's now made all over the world and is the style most people associate with the word. However, contrary to what the name may imply, this spirit doesn't have to be distilled in London, or even in England these days - think of the name as more of a quality standard than a flavor profile or location requirement.
The flavor profile is very forward on the Juniper (think pine forests and Christmas trees, which is why some bottom shelf gins smell like an air freshener) and citrus are typically the main flavors. Since the "dry" in London Dry means no sweeteners or artificial flavors can be added, if you pick up other flavors it's going to be from other botanicals in the mix. Those botanicals can vary wildly, from almonds to cinnamon to coriander to licorice, which allows different distillers, brands and bottlings to have their own unique flavors.
Tanqueray uses four botanicals (including the juniper), Bombay Sapphire boasts ten, and The Botanist Islay Dry lives up to its name with 22 botanicals. Let's all just agree to remember that it's not the number of botanicals you have, it's how you use them.
Contemporary or Modern Gin - this style of gin is where things can get a little weird - exactly how we like it. Modern gins have a lot more leeway in terms of how much juniper is present in the botanical mix. There will always be juniper present, but it will often take a back seat to other flavors.
The flavor profile can get floral like Hendrick's or Empress 1908, you might see sage like in Prairie, or you might even see something like raspberries in Nolet's Silver. The possibilities are nearly limitless, and you'll find contemporary gins that have been distilled all over the world.
Tomcat or Old Tom Gin - this is a gin variant that gained popularity in 18th-century England. Until fairly recently it was rare to find, but this style has experienced a resurgence thanks to the upswing in interest for craft cocktails. It is slightly sweeter than London Dry, but slightly drier than the Dutch Jenever, and it's sometimes called "the missing link" between the two styles. The name has a few (probably apocryphal) origin stories, but the most likely is due to wooden plaques shaped like a black cat (an "Old Tom") mounted on the outside wall of some pubs in 18th-century England.
This is a mellower-tasting style of gin than London Dry, with a sweetness that rounds the more famous style's sharper edges. You might see it with a brownish tint or it might be clear, depending how it's distilled and made. Ransom's Old Tom has a "maltier" flavor than other gins, while Caledonia Spirits' Tom Cat boasts of "whiskey-like notes of oak, spice and a finish of juniper and raw honey."
Genever - Sometimes spelled "Jenever," this Dutch gin is a traditional spirit in the Netherlands and nearby countries like Belgium. There are two types of genever: oude (old) and jonge (young). Contrary to what you might think, this isn't a reference to aging, but different distilling techniques pre- and post-1900.
So what does all that mean for the flavor? If you try Bols Genever, expect a flavor of "malt, stone fruits and juniper," and if that sounds appealing we offer dozens of Genevers (subject to local availability) for you to try.
What's the best way to drink gin?
Just like any other spirit, the best way to drink gin is however you think it tastes best! It's not as common to drink gin on the rocks, but it happens - some people even like to sip it straight. We've rounded up some of our favorite gin cocktail recipes for you - most of them are commonly made with London Dry, but feel free to try them with whatever gin you have!
- The Martini is the first gin drink that springs to mind for most people, and the classic ratio is six parts gin to one part dry vermouth, garnished with a twist of lemon or an olive. If you add olive juice, you have a dirty martini, and if you garnish with a cocktail onion it's a Gibson. Contrary to popular belief, a martini made without vermouth is just cold gin.
- Gin & Tonic is probably next on the list in terms of popularity, and at its most basic it's a shot of gin topped with a high-quality tonic water. If you find the tonic water too bitter, turn your drink into a gin & sonic by using half soda water.
- A Gimlet is a refreshing, summery drink made with five parts gin, 1 part lime juice, 1 part simple syrup.
- The Negroni is the place to go if you're in the mood for something a bit more bracing - equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, garnished with an orange slice. This cocktail is sweet, strong and bitter, and dares you to keep sipping.
- Gin & Juice is also delicious on a summer evening - a shot of gin topped with a splash of the fruit juice of your choice. Garnish with a 90s hip hop soundtrack.
- The London Mule is like your standard whiskey and ginger ale, but with gin swapped in. Add a half ounce of lemon or lime juice, and you've got yourself a gin buck.
- Tom Collins is another classic that's tart, sweet and refreshing. Make it with two parts gin, one part lemon juice, one part simple syrup, topped with soda water and garnished with fruit.
- A Salty Dog will scratch a grapefruit itch - one part gin, five parts grapefruit juice, garnish with grapefruit. If you're feeling salty (and in this situation you should be) salt the rim of the glass or add a nice pinch to the drink itself...the salt will trick your brain into thinking the drink is sweeter than it is!
- Last but not least, if you're on the bitter side, give Pink Gin a try - it's literally just a shot of chilled gin with a dash or two of Angostura bitters, which gives it a nice mellow pink hue without stepping too much on the botanicals.
We hope you learned a little something about our favorite botanical beverage today, and don't forget to check to see if Drizly is in your city so we can deliver gin (and other goodies from your local liquor store) in sixty minutes or less.