Somnolent British grannies, pine tree aromas, "Mother's Ruin"—gin brings to mind many incongruous images. Given the diverse range of styles in which the spirit is produced, it's no surprise that gin is the most commonly used liquor in cocktails, by far. And that's partly thanks to gin's wide-ranging taste profile, from crisp, juniper-laden London Dry to malty, whiskey-like Genever.
Despite strong ties to Britain, where gin was popularized centuries ago, the spirit actually originated in Holland. Legend has it that during the Thirty Years' War, British soldiers noticed the warming, calming effects that gin had on the Dutch soldiers who drank it. This eventually led to the phrase "Dutch Courage".
Gin's popularity took off in 1688 when the Dutch William of Orange assumed the English throne. At the time, England was at war with France and the British government issued an embargo on French wine and spirits. In response, individuals began distilling their own alcohol—grain was cheap and plentiful and a genever-like spirit was easy to make.
So what is gin, legally? Though it may come as a surprise, gin is technically a juniper-flavored vodka. But the way in which distillers infuse flavors into the vodka base and the botanics of choice separate great gin from cheap industrial swill. Setting aside compound or low quality gin, which is made by adding juniper flavor to a finished neutral spirit, most of the good stuff on the market is distilled gin. This means that the spirit is flavored by redistilling in the presence of botanicals, notably juniper. The botanicals in question can include citrus peels, coriander, cardamom, cassia bark and more. Below, the eight most popular gin styles to know.
1) London Dry
Tastes Like: Juniper with hints of citrus.
What is it: This classification encompasses the vast majority of popular brands. Beefeater, Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire—they're all London Dry. This gin style is drier than some of the older types on this list (Old Tom, Genever) and features a balanced bouquet of juniper and citrus.
Drink: Martini. Tanqueray Ten makes a great one—smooth and well-balanced, but flavorful.
Tastes Like: London Dry, but a bit sweeter and earthier.
What is it: Unlike London Dry, which can be made anywhere, Plymouth gin can only be produced in Plymouth, England.
Drink: Gin and tonic. A classic drink for a classic gin. And don't skimp on the tonic. Try Fever Tree tonic water or concentrates by TomR's or Jack Rudy Cocktail Co.
3) New Wave
Tastes Like: These gins tend to put less emphasis on juniper and more emphasis on other aromatics like floral botanicals, citrus, or, as is the case with Hendrick's, cucumber.
What is it: There are no legal classifications for the crop of modern craft gin distillers, but the stylistic similarities are enough to group them together.
Drink: Gimlet. Try one made with Hendrick's. The gin's cucumber flavor plays well with the lime in a gimlet.
4) Navy Strength
Tastes Like: London Dry, but with more of an alcoholic punch.
What is it: Clocking in at 57 percent alcohol, navy strength gin is no joke. This gin derives its name from British naval soldiers who would douse gunpowder with the spirit and then try to light the gunpowder on fire. Navy Strength gin bears a similar flavor to London Dry gin (citrusy juniper), but the high proof makes it a superior choice in very flavorful, aromatic cocktails.
Drink: Negroni. This intensely flavored, bittersweet cockail works best with a fragrant, overproof gin. Enter Martin Miller's Westbourne Strength. This is a bright, complex gin with a reasonable, but still elevated 45.2 percent alcohol. The ne plus ultra of navy strength gins.
Tastes Like: Viscous mouthfeel and flavors of malt and savory botanicals like lemon peel and fennel.
What is it: The grandaddy of all gins, this is the OG juniper beverage if there ever was one. "Oude" or "old" style Genever is made with at least 15 percent malt, imparting a richer mouthfeel than its "younger" counterpart.
Drink: Considering its resemblance to whiskey, genever would do well in a traditional whiskey cocktail such as an Old Fashioned.
6) Old Tom
Tastes Like: Less of a juniper bite and a mouth-coating malty sweetness.
What is it: Functionally the Palo Cortado of the gin world, Old Tom bridges the gap between London Dry and the decidedly scotch-like Genever. Legend has it that the "Old Tom" moniker comes from a 19th century British bar that secretly dispensed its gin. The bar featured a sign of a black tomcat and was outfitted with a slot into which the imbiber inserted coins and in return received a shot of gin. The patron would yell "puss" and the barkeep would reply "mew," a signal to stick one's mouth around a pipe to drink the shot. As for present day Old Tom gin, there are not that many brands on the market right now and the flavor profiles vary wildly, which is to be expected from a style that was recently revived from relative obscurity according to bartenders' imaginations.
Drink: Tom Collins. This is the only gin that should go into a Tom Collins. Ditto a Martinez. Ransom does a great job of producing a gin that approximates what Old Tom would have tasted like back in the day. A full bodied corn and barley mash is fermented in an alembic pot still and aged in wine barrels, giving it a darker whiskey-esque color and aroma.
7) Flavored Gin
Tastes Like: Depends on the flavor. One of the most common examples is sloe gin (made from sloe berries), which tastes like a juniper-laced berry liqueur.
What is it: Just like any other spirit, many gin brands produce flavored versions. Cloying variations aside (like peach gin), there are some great flavor-enhanced gins on the market.
Drink: Bees Knees. This lemon-honey gin drink was tailor-made for Barr Hill's raw honey infused gin. The only two botanicals in the spirit are the honey and juniper, which is surprising considering the product's complex taste.
8) Grape-based Gin
Tastes Like: Like juniper but with floral notes and a noticeably rounder mouthfeel.
What is it: The only other geographically designated gin on this list is Xoriguer's gin from Mahon in Menorca, Spain. It's made from distilled wine (as opposed to grain used for vodka) using wood-fired pot stills and briefly aged in American oak barrels before bottling.
Drink: Gin and tonic is elevated almost to the point of religion in Spain, and that's a fine beverage choice for this spirit. Another option is to use French producer G’Vine’s Floraison in an Aviation. The floral character of the gin blends beautifully with the similarly flowery cocktail.