What is gin anyway?

What is gin anyway?

There’s a lot of different personas attributed to gin depending on who you’re talking to and what story they want to tell you.

  • James Bond / Classy and aspirational / Martini
  • Hogarth in Gin Lane / Cheap and trashy / Neat
  • Bars in Summer / well-presented and tasty / Aperol Spritz
  • Flavoured gin brands / accessible in taste and cost / flavoured G&T
  • Cocktail bartenders / traditional and versatile / Floradora

I’m sure you can think of a few more if you put your mind to it. I’m also sure that a few brands jumped immediately to mind for a few of these.

As you can see, each of these personas evoke very different emotions, from cheap and trashy to classy and aspirational. But none of them tell you what gin actually is.

In this article we’ll explain what gin should be, what it actually is, and some defined sub-categories.

What is gin?

The most basic definition is that gin is juniper-flavoured vodka. This is shown most clearly by Chase Distillery’s double labelled bottle: one label says “Single Botanical Gin”, the other says “Juniper Vodka”. Both labels are completely correct.

Vodka at its core is pure alcohol (ethanol to use its scientifically correct term) and water. That makes up at least 99.9% of the contents of the bottle, with the rest mainly being trace impurities that have made it through distillation and minerals in the water. Add some juniper flavour to this and you have gin. Simple. End of article. We can all move on with our lives.

But that isn’t the end of it though, not by a long shot! There are many ways to add that juniper flavour, not to mention a near infinite number of other botanicals which could be added alongside the juniper.

It might be useful at this point to provide the legal definition(s) of gin. EU law states that:

“Gin can only be made from neutral alcohol. Botanicals and other flavourings can be used. Gin must taste predominantly of juniper and have a minimum bottling strength of 37.5% ABV. No other production methods are specified.”

US law is slightly differently worded, but the gist is the same with a couple of minor variations on the base spirit and minimum ABV.

So legally, gin is alcohol with a minimum strength of 37.5% ABV which tastes predominantly of juniper.

Gin = juniper flavoured vodka.

When is a gin not a gin?

When it doesn’t taste predominantly of juniper.

The problem here is the definition of the word “predominantly”. The definition of gin in the EU hinges on this one word, which itself is poorly defined. While some gins unarguably have juniper as the most prominent flavour, such as our Charity Dry, others do not. For example, Bartender Series #1: PINEAPPLE+PEPPER features juniper as a botanical alongside freeze dried pineapple, green bell pepper and pink peppercorns. Is juniper the predominant flavour? Not really, it’s discernible but it would be hard to claim that it is the foremost flavour. Is that a problem? Many gin brands and producers, us included, would argue that having juniper as a prominent flavour in within the spirit of the law. Pun entirely intended.

The issue really comes when brands create “gin” with no discernible juniper flavour whatsoever, normally heavily sweetened and flavoured, but that is an article in itself!

What are the main subcategories of gin?

London Dry gin / London gin

A subcategory of Distilled Gin (defined below). A gin can be called a London Dry gin or London gin if no further flavours or sweeteners can be added after redistillation.

Distilled gin

Gin which has had additives such as natural or artificial flavourings, or sugar, added after distillation

Cold compounded gin         

Gin which is flavoured by infusion or maceration without further distillation, usually including juniper oil. These are generally considered inferior to distilled gins and London Dry gins.

Old Tom Gin

Old Tom gin has no legal definition, but it usually refers to a historic style of gin which was sweetened and flavoured to hide an inferior spirit underneath.


Genever is the precursor of gin. Originating in Holland, it was made with distilling malt wine and flavoured with juniper. It evolved into gin after it was introduced to the UK

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