Behind the Label: Gin

Gin, a shortening of the old English word ‘genever’, from the old French and Dutch words for juniper, the original aromatic used to flavour gin. It’s the ingredient that is still used today (the spirit must include juniper to be considered a gin), originally combined with alcohol since as far back as 70 AD. Originally used medicinally, it took some time before it took on its leisure status.

In the 1600s, the King of England implemented a trade blockade, taxing French wines and Cognacs, while providing tac breaks on local spirits production, leading to a period often dubbed as the ‘Gin Craze’. At a stage, a pint of gin was cheaper than a pint of beer. But, as with many unregulated industries, quality and safety became an issue. With the inclusion of substances like turpentine and sulphuric acid, a great many people died or even went insane.

After the invention of the continuous still, revolutionising the distillation process, better quality gin was more widely produced. As a global colonial power, British sailors travelling around the world medicated using quinine – to stave off malaria infection. Tonic water was invented to make the bitter tasting quinine more palatable, and over time, gin (which lasted longer than beer) and limes (chosen for their anti-scurvy properties) were mixed in to form a beloved modern drink that originated to help the medicine go down: the G&T.

While there are many global dominating players, locally loved liquors are common in the gin category, with producers turning to local botanicals (like South Africa’s fynbos) as a point of difference. This modern resurgence of gin came at the same time as the increase in popularity of craft beers and other small-batch fermentation and distillation facilities, where – particularly after the 2008 economic crisis – consumers were looking to local options.

As with most premium spirits, high-quality gin is enjoyed neat or on the rocks, rather than with a mix. For those new to gin, choose a simple cocktail – like a gin martini – which is a gentler introduction than straight gin, but still highlights the liquor’s subtle flavour notes and botanicals.