Most estimate there to be 300-400 brands of British gin, with London alone boasting more than 20 distilleries. In 2018, sales of flavoured and coloured gins rose a staggering seven-and-a-half fold in the UK, with total sales of the spirit reaching nearly $4 billion, while the Scotland Food and Drink industry group even predicts gin will soon outstrip sales of scotch. Over the past five years, sales of gin have ballooned by 151 percent in South Africa, and 142 percent across the ditch. No other tipple has seen such a spike in popularity in recent years.
Gin Takes Root
“Gin is very versatile from a consumer and trade perspective,” says Paul Jackson, founder and editor of The Gin Guide and head judge of The Gin Guide Awards—the largest of its kind in the world. “As well as the popularity of the gin and tonic, there has been a surge in popularity for cocktails, and gin is a spirit that features in a wide range of classic and contemporary ones.”
Paul also points to the importance of practicality—unlike many other spirits that must be aged, gin can be produced at pace. “Its versatility means that you can put your own stamp on it,” continues Paul, “give it a sense of place. As we have seen with many whisky producers, many distillers of other spirits already have equipment they need to begin producing gin too, so they can move into the sector swiftly and cost-effectively.”
The word ‘gin’ comes from genever, the Dutch word for the juniper berry, as it was the Netherlands—not England!—in the Middle Ages where the berry (actually a seed kernel) was first distilled to make an alcoholic drink. Nowadays, it can be made from all manner of ingredients.
“I often get asked about gin’s base alcohol,” says Paul. “Traditionally it is made with a base grain alcohol, often wheat, which is then distilled with juniper and other botanicals. So long as juniper is the prominent flavour after distillation, you can produce gin with a range of base spirits. In Australia and New Zealand, it is common to use a grape base, and there are gins available using potatoes, lychees, sugar beet and even rice. Each has their own subtle character.”
“A perfect martini should be made by filling a glass with gin that waiving it in the general direction of Italy”
The Plague, The Brave and The Empire
The juniper is a conifer prevalent throughout Europe, and its berry is known for its distinctive aroma. Both Pliny the Elder and Aristotle believed juniper a tonic for all manner of ills, while in Arabia it was used to treat toothache. By the Middle Ages, juniper was considered such a super drug it was thought it could fend off the bubonic plague (it couldn’t) and by the 17th century it was believed (when distilled into a spirit) to be imbue bravery. English soldiers were very fond of drinking it before going into battle in the Netherlands in the Thirty Years’ War, hence the expression ‘Dutch courage’.
The soldiers took the spirit with them upon their return home, where it was further distilled into what is considered the archetypal English tipple we now know as ‘gin’—though at the time, it was a far cry from the bottles drunk today, distilled with the likes of turpentine or even sulphuric acid. Under the reign of Queen Mary and William of Orange (who was a Dutchman) gin was further ingrained within English culture, embraced by both the poor and the upper classes in part due to ever heavier taxations on beer and brandy. Over the following century, questionable backstreet distilleries sprung up in cities throughout the land, spawning the ‘Gin Craze’ and leading to the tipple being nicknamed ‘Mother’s Ruin’.
The more sophisticated technology and honed skills of the 19th century resulted in the development of probably the most well-known gin type, London Dry, and it was soon being sent to the far flung corners of the British Empire where it was primarily mixed with tonic to fend off malaria. The tonic water of the time was rich in the anti-malarial quinine, which didn’t taste so great, so the spirit and lemon were added to help it go down more smoothly—Winston Churchill once mused that the famous concoction “saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the empire”. Writing for Slate, UCLA professor and author Kal Raustiala argues that “the gin and tonic was as essential weapon for the British Empire as the Gatling Gun”.
And so, over the following years, gin evolved as a kind of status symbol, its credentials further enhanced when James Bond began ordering it as a cocktail.
New Zealand gins are now making their mark on the international scene. Last month, Hawke’s Bay’s The Damson Plum Collection’s gin liqueur was named best fruit liqueur at the World Liqueur Awards, with judges praising its “aromas of tropical candy” and “vibrant” flavour. Also, from Hawke’s Bay, the National Distillery Company’s Verdigris Dry Gin just took home the gold medal in the Contemporary Gin category of the global Gin Guide Awards 2020. Juno Extra Fine Gin is a multiple-award winner on the world stage, bagging a bronze medal at the 2018 International Wine & Spirit Competition and a silver at the San Francisco World Spirits competition.
There are around 40 different gin producers in Aotearoa, and, just like much of the world, it is among the fastest growing drink industries here too. While some riff on the traditional London Dry, while others like to put their own antipodean spin on things, incorporating indigenous ingredients like mānuka or kawakawa.
Dave and Jo James of BeGin Distilling—makers of Juno Extra Fine—are industry pioneers who also make seasonal gins that incorporate local ingredients that have thrived during that particular time of the year. “It’s a win for everyone,” says Dave, “our vision is that New Zealand becomes a powerhouse for these ingredients at a world level.”
“I always recommend experimenting and finding your favourite servings and styles of gin,” says Paul. “Buy a selection of different styles of tonics and garnishes and see which combinations you like best.”
The drink, he insists, is unpretentious and all about personal preference, rather than the ‘correct’ way to enjoy a glass. “Personally, I enjoy herbaceous gins which often pair well with classic or Mediterranean tonics, and garnish such as pink grapefruit.”
Ben Bonoma of Tākaka-based distillery Dancing Sands echoes Paul’s comments about gin’s versatility, believing that “there is a gin out there for everyone”. “I think that’s what’s great about gin as a category,” he tells Viva. “It has to have juniper berries and it has to be [at least] 37 per cent alcohol. Other than that, there are very few things that govern what makes gin a gin. It allows for a huge amount of creativity and personal expression.”
Paul says that his favourite gin memories involve meeting the various distillers and the sense of community within the industry. “Recent visits to distilleries in France, Ireland and across the UK have been highlights,” he continues. “I’ll always remember sitting beside the pool, under the sun, with Jean-Sebastien Robicquet, founder of G’Vine Gin, at his maison near Cognac, in France, sampling his gins and vermouths before seeing the private gin archive and historical collection he has curated. Visiting distillers and distilleries in New Zealand is next on the list and it is a trip I’d love to make next year.”
And as for the best setting to sink a G-and-T or two?
“There are gins available for all occasions, from bright and summery gins to warming and spiced gins, there are so many great times to enjoy them! Personally, I most enjoy a crisp gin and tonic when I’m outside on a warm and sunny evening with friends. But it’s also hard to beat a Negroni on a wintery day.”
Auckland’s Three Best Gin Joints
New Zealand’s highest rooftop bar also happens to be one of its coolest gin joints. Positioned on the 20th floor of Queen Street’s Four Points by Sheraton, The Churchill allows visitors to choose from nearly 200 gins while enjoying a million-dollar view of the City of Sails.
Formerly known as the Gin Room, John and May’s on Vulcan Lane retains a brooding, uber-cool art deco speakeasy vibe. Here you’ll be served some of Auckland’s best cocktails, with a heavy emphasis on the gin.
Another time machine to the roaring 20s, plush seating, low lighting and a long bar adorn Hotel DeBrett’s Housebar on High Street. Gin makes up a hefty chunk of their premium spirits menu, with not-to-be-missed cocktails including the green spring, mixed using Hendrick’s gin, elderflower liqueur, lychee, cucumber, and apple juice.