Gin: jacked up on juniper

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By Sam Bygrave

Gin & Genever: one and the same?

OK. Let’s get this straight from the beginning. Genever is not gin. Though gin was definitely based on the Dutch genever, genever has more in common with moonshine than it does gin. The Dutch have been doing genever since the 16th century, when a chemist called Sylvius de Bouve added juniper to the malt wine he had made to sell as medicine (it’s also just as likely that he added the juniper to disguise the poor flavour of the malt wine).

The English, so the story goes, got a taste for it during the Thirty Years War, noting the calming effects it had if one imbibed it before battle, and labelled it Dutch courage.

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But gin and genever are fundamentally different. Whereas gin is made with highly refined neutral spirit, genever is made from a distillate comprised of corn, rye, malted barley and distilled to a much lower ABV%, resulting in more congeners. It is this that makes it akin to moonshine or new make whiskey.

What they do have in common, however, are the botanicals used to flavour the spirit, and chief among them is juniper.

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Not just juniper.

Juniper, after all, lends itself to the name genever from which the word gin is derived. Although there are differences between the two spirits here as well: the flavour profile of oude genever will have juniper as an equal member of a cast of aromas; gin is typically defined by the noticeable presence of juniper. (Jonge genever, in contrast to oude genever, is a lighter spirit in which the juniper is only just present and more like a juniper-flavoured vodka – more on that in
a moment).

Juniper berries are not true berries; they are cones (like the cones of its distant relative, pine) that are slightly modified to be fleshier, resembling a berry. Juniperus is a plant native to the northern hemisphere and grows year round. Picking juniper berries can be difficult – the bushes (sometimes tall trees) have sharp needle-like leaves to protect them. The berries have their optimum flavour after three years, when their colour has turned from green to blue to a dark purple. They have a piney, woody and fresh aroma and this is what we associate with traditional gin.

But gin is not just about the junipers: gin is a carefully crafted landscape of botanicals, with some brands blending ten or more botanicals. Genever uses a range of botanicals too, but its base spirit’s aroma is more apparent; its juniper more subtle. Whereas genever’s aroma is raw and unrefined – it gets you by the collar and smacks you across the face – gin is like the work of an accomplished perfumier. Genever is like clay earthenware; gin is like fine china. And there is a reason why the botanicals used in gin get along so well, though it would not have been understood so well by early distillers: they all share similar or complimentary aroma compound molecules.

The smell of juniper – that is of most fruits, herbs, and spices – isn’t just one note, but instead is made up of a combination of aroma compounds. This means that the characteristic smell of juniper isn’t just piney, but woody and fresh-citrusy as well, all combined into a smell we identify with juniper berries. What you are smelling is actually pinene (pine), myrcene (woody), and sabinene (woody) amongst other things.

The botanicals commonly distilled with juniper to make gin often have aroma compounds that compliment these. Thus the lemony, floral smell of coriander seed is in part thanks to pinene, citral (lemony) and linalool (flowery) but the pinene note no doubt compliments the piney notes of juniper. The lemony note in coriander seed is reinforced by a piney, citrusy note in fennel seeds (thanks again to pinene, and limonene molecules), which is also present in angelica root.

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Do you want a lemon or a lime with that?

Brand ambassadors will tell you that their gin is best served with a certain garnish: some say a lemon twist, some might say a grapefruit – hell, these days it could be the first blush of blossoms of an elderberry tree collected on the first Tuesday of spring. But it is often a citrus, and for good reason: the volatile aromas that constitute many citrus are found in the botanicals in the gin, too. So lemon works so well with gin because it shares pinene and limonene with gin’s common botanicals. Lime works too, for the same reasons. Yuzu, bergamot, and grapefruit might be particularly good with flowery gins: they all feature linalool (in addition to citrusy and piney notes), which has a flowery character.

Of course looking at the molecules that make up each aroma is no substitute for sniffing things out for yourself – each fruit, each gin, will have these molecules in varying amounts and that affects what ends up in the glass.

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