Though we like to believe that gin was an artisanal spirit infusion made by benevolent monks seeking the water of life, the reality is that juniper berries were added to distillate to cover up the flavour of mediocre or crappy distillation practices* which was then sold to the lower class. Remember, when distilled spirits became a tradeable commodity in the 16th century most distillers were only doing single distillations in pot stills with limited ageing. Double distillation didn’t become a thing until the 18th century and that was propelled by the brandies in Cognac. The sanitation practices were also suspect and the distillation equipment was rudimentary. This meant spirits were far harsher than they are today, so to remedy this, distillers added flavouring to cover up the taste and it was found that juniper was excellent for this purpose. In different regions of the world, other flavourings like caraway and anise (fennel) were used to mask the fusel flavour of distillate, and even today are culturally relevant (Aquavit, Ouzo, Araki, Sambuca, etc.). Gin may have been marketed as “healthy” but it was not, just take a look at the “Gin Lane” painting, though propaganda, excess consumption of gin in the 1700s was a thing. Most writers today believe juniper was used for health and promote that belief in their writing and that changed history, it makes for a better story I guess.
Now, when you are doing a distillery tour, you may or may not want to share this information, because it does handcuff your marketing department, but honesty is always a good policy and well-distilled spirits plus juniper still makes an excellent drink. Modern distillation practices are magnitude better than they were 200 years ago and culturally, juniper is the desired flavour.
Today, gin is different partially because we have better distillation methods that produce cleaners distillate which is far more palatable and gin is now a more complex concoction incorporating multiple herbs and botanicals. Some would say gin is a flavour vodka of sorts, and technically that isn’t wrong, but gin has a distinct history and it has contributed greatly to culture, and especially cocktails. We can’t say that about any other flavoured vodka, so gin should stand on its own.
Consistency is key. If your gin tastes different from batch to batch, this can be disconcerting to your customers. Some distillers have gone the batch labelling route, where each batch gets a unique number and this lets the consumer know there will be differences. For consistency, some distillers use essential oils instead of raw dried herbs and spices. Others add a touch of sugar. Gin is pretty loose on the rules, so make a product that represents your tastes.
Originally juniper berries were added to the grain bill and milled with rye and malt and then mashed and fermented. This is then distilled and that produced the original gin. This “ab origine” (from the beginning) gin was said to be superior due to the extended mingling time of the juniper oils. As far as I can tell, no-one is making a gin in this fashion so I will be severely disappointed if one is not made in the next 5 years.
The next method of production was to add the junipers to the “singlings” which was distillate that had only been distilled once, so basically the product from a stripping run. To this was added the juniper, allowed to macerate and then the second distillation took place and that was the gin.
75% Rye (kiln dried)
25% Malted Barley
To make 420 litres (110 gallons) of singlings to which
11 kg (25 lbs) juniper was added and redistilled
Corn was found to add a rawness to American gin that wasn’t present in Holland gin.
London Dry gins in the 1800s were typically made by the addition of turpentine to the distillate, and occasionally other aromatics. The use of turpentine produces a result that close-enough to juniper that people didn’t always make the differentiation, and a plus for the distillers was turpentine was ridiculously cheap compared to juniper berries or oil.
Modern gins use slightly less juniper, however, this is made up by the addition of other herbs and spices like coriander, angelica, cassia, licorice, cubeb, orange and lemon peel, ginger, orris root, cardamom, nutmeg, etc. A good starting point is 25 kg of aromatics to 1000L of distillate or 2.5% to 5.0% by weight of your still low wines charge. For example, if the still holds 600L you will use 15 to 30 kg of aromatics.
Chemistry World: The science of distilling gin
Method of Making Gin (Alfred. J, Liebmann, New York, NY – March 1939)
Method for the preparation of hard alcoholic drink gin type (Vasil A Popov, Emil P Tikholov – Bulgaria 1993)
Gin (Russia, 1992)
Caraway is another compound that is useful to cover up the taste of poorly distilled spirits and serves the same purpose as juniper. Though it may sound controversial to compare gin to aquavit, they are effectively both flavoured neutral grain spirits that are typically not sweetened, though exceptions do exist.
Alcoholic beverages having fresh and natural aroma of dill, and method of producing the same
From Hall’s Distiller Pg 129 and A Treatise on the Manufacture and Distillation of Alcoholic Liquors by Pierre Duplais (1871)