History and curiosities about the world of Italian gin: how to make gin, types of gin and the best gins in the world…
What is Gin made from?
Gin is a distilled alcoholic drink based on cereal must left to ferment. Maize, barley and wheat are usually used. Herbs and spices are also added to the mixture. Among the main components there is juniper, from which the name of the same liqueur also derives. Different citrus fruits, flowers and spices are then added to the juniper berries and leaves depending on the master distiller.
In recent years it is as if we were witnessing a real revival of this product, becoming the drink of the moment, good on its own or used for fabulous cocktails. We are witnessing a continuous creation of new particular and original products. It is boosting the creativity of the distillers, transforming the liqueur into a real alchemical masterpiece. For its basic characteristics, this distilled alcoholic drink lends itself perfectly to experiments and mixtures with unusual spices and aromas.
For centuries it has been little taken into consideration, despite having a history dating back to some time ago. Today, finally, it is having its revenge, turning into a drink sipped more and more often. Italian Gin is one of the best gins on the market and represents a concentrate of refinement and elegance, so tasty and intense to be good even on its own, without necessarily being mixed with other liqueurs or ingredients.
History and origin of Gin
When you refer to the history of Gin, you need to start from its basic ingredient: juniper. It is a plant belonging to conifers which prefers temperate and cold climates, even better the mountains. Juniper is widespread all over the world and, to date, there are about 65 different types. It is particularly appreciated in the kitchen and is very famous among medicinal herbs.
Already the first men used juniper berries as a source of nourishment, while the Egyptians used juniper in the embalming process. In the Middle Ages, however, these plants were used as specific healing herbs for stomach problems, while in Italy a drink made from juniper and brandy has been produced in the schools of Monastic Medicine since the 11th century.
The first prototype, therefore, has its own Italian origins, at least the first one mentioned in literary texts. Juniper plants grew thriving especially in the hilly area around the city of Salerno and the plant was widely used for medical preparations. The “Compendium Salernita” is a collection dating back to 1055, which represents one of the first testimonies of the existence of the proto-gin, a drink made from distilled wine with infused juniper berries. Afterwards, it is described another sort of ancestor of the famous drink, called “eye water“, because it was intended for ophthalmic treatment. Also this distillate was made with wine, juniper and other herbs.
Around 1200 AD, the monasteries were the first to start the production of cordials based on herbs and spices, creating blends and recipes that are still used today. The first real spirits will begin to be created and spread in these years, to be precise between 1200 and 1300 AD. The first to use the name “Aqua Vitae” (in Latin “Water of Life“) was a Catalan doctor, Arnaldo da Villanova. He also advised the use of the product even outside the healing and medical field, transforming it into a drink to sip. Ramon Llull, his pupil, deepened the topic by talking about the first concepts for multiple distillation, fundamental to make the liqueur purer and smoother.
Juniper brandy became a sort of energising tonic, increasingly popular as a cordial to drink as a medicine and it was very common to combat the Black Plague that struck the world around the mid-fourteenth century.
Belgium and Holland are the countries where juniper berries are mainly used for healing purposes. The first evidence appears as early as 1269 in the “Der Naturen Bloeme Volkeren“, an encyclopedic volume written by Jacob Van Maerlant, a doctor who among other information also tells how the decoction with wine and juniper is able to cure abdominal pain and cramps and stomach.
The first mention of “Gin”, however, comes from Philippus Hermanni, a doctor from Antwerp who in his text “A Constelijck Distileerboec” (1552) mentions a drink called Aqua Juniperi. This happened about 100 years before the name “Genoa“, given by the Dutch doctor Franciscus Sylvius, considered the real inventor of this distilled alcoholic drink.
The turning point came in 1585: in that year Antwerp fell and half of its population fled the city carrying the drink. Meanwhile, England had sent an expedition trying to save the city without success. The military operation allowed the British to come into contact with this distilled alcoholic drink, learning to know it as the “drop” that managed to give courage to the Dutch for the battles. The drink was imported into England creating the English-style liqueur that we all know today, as well as finally receiving the name of “Gin” that we know and still use today.
How to make gin
It is produced with the same methods and processes that have remained almost unchanged over time. Obviously, the use of machinery has changed, becoming increasingly innovative and specific for distillation, made up of column stills.
For the distillation, we start from barley and wheat which are left to ferment with a preliminary distillation necessary to obtain a certain type of basic ethyl alcohol. After that, the mixture of herbs and spices is added. There is no specific rule regarding the latter, because each Master Distiller uses his own gin distillation recipe. Obviously, any blend of botanicals (the ingredients used) never fails with juniper berries, essential for its preparation.
The fermentation phase, which takes place with the mixture of aromatic and spicy ingredients, is important because it greatly influences the final result. Bottling can take place at a young or mature age. In the second case, the distilled alcoholic drink is placed in wooden barrels to amplify flavours and aromas.
The botanicals represent the fundamental elements for the final product. The processing is simple and requires no special precautions. The thing that allows you to obtain original flavours are the ingredients that make up the aromatic mixture to be added to the fermented must and which will subsequently characterise the flavour of the final drink.
Juniper is the main ingredient, still used today in every type of gin. The berries are macerated and added to the fermented must. Their use is regulated by the laws concerning the production of this drink.
Coriander is one of the most widely used botanicals. The seeds are added to give the drink a decisive and spicy flavour that changes according to the type of plant chosen.
The angelica roots are used to balance the other ingredients and homogenise the final result, also giving a hint of wood and soil that recalls sensations of nature and forest.
Citrus peel is mainly used for the most precious drinks, giving them a hint of fruit and a unique flavour.
Iris, in particular the Iris Germanica (the so-called Bearded iris), affects perfume more than taste, but it is important because it helps to retain the aromatic components of the most volatile ingredients during fermentation, enhancing the flavours of all botanicals.
Almond, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, mint are other botanicals used for niche spirits. They tend to give the product a more unusual and refined flavour.
Italian gin distilleries
Until a few years ago, the production in Italy was not a widespread and developed reality. Today, however, there are many distilleries on the peninsula.
Some gin distilleries allow you to make guided tours to learn about the distillation methods. Enthusiasts and business operators can carry out interesting guided tours to discover the world of distilleries in Italy and they can often have the opportunity to join guided tastings where Experts teach them how to recognise the differences between the types of Gin, analysing characteristics such as the aromas and flavours linked to the choice of different botanicals.
Types of Gin
According to the European classification, there are four different types of Gin:
- We speak of “Gin” when the aromas are added to a spirit containing at least 96% alcohol.
- The “Distilled Gin“, on the other hand, is obtained by distilling a new spirit (always with at least 96% alcohol) together with juniper berries, other ingredients and flavours. Before bottling, it must be diluted with water or other spirits. One of the most famous and expensive is the “Plymouth Gin”, produced exclusively in a single distillery of that town.
- The “London Dry Gin” has the same characteristics as the Distilled Gin but, in this case, no aromas of any kind should be added. Despite the name, it is produced worldwide. The botanicals must macerate in alcohol no later than 24 hours and then must be re-distilled in one go. A traditional still is used.
- Juniper-flavoured spirit drinks, also called spirits, are made with natural flavours and they are bottled with an alcohol content equal to 30% of the volume.
The “Watenshi Gin” is the most expensive gin in the world: it can reach 3,000 euros per bottle. The cost is linked to its particular production methods, which involve the collection with subsequent distillation of the award-winning Gin vapor created by the “Cambridge Distillery“.
About 50 distillations are needed for a bottle, since just about 15 ml of product are obtained per process. On average, the cost of a bottle of fine Gin is around 80-100 euros. Obviously, limited editions or other types that contain refined and selected aromas and botanicals, which are rare or particularly original, are an exception.
Making gin at home: is it possible?
Homemade Gin is difficult but not impossible, so much so that in the past the drink had been made at home for centuries. Obviously, the distillation process cannot be carried out, but it is possible to produce a spirit that can be defined in all respects as Gin.
The basic rule is that juniper should be present: it must be left to infuse in alcohol with a minimum 37.5% Vol. In addition to juniper, other botanicals can be used such as licorice, star anise, citrus peel, flowers (rose, lavender) or basil leaves; in short, what you prefer, but please bear in mind that each ingredient has a different aromatic release. The dried botanicals give off flavour more slowly (greater infusion), the others are faster, therefore it is necessary to calibrate and calculate the times and quantities of the ingredients infused.
Starting from 750 ml of vodka, juniper berries, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon and dried citrus peels can be added. The botanicals are placed in a sterilised container to which the vodka is then added, leaving everything to infuse in the dark for at least 24 hours. By tasting, you will choose whether to leave everything further in infusion or whether to filter the impurities left by the various ingredients with a sieve or cotton gauze.
Cocktail with gin
This distilled alcoholic drink can be drunk straight to savour its aromas or used for excellent cocktails.
The most famous is undoubtedly the Gin Tonic. To prepare it, you need 4 cl of distilled alcoholic drink and 10 of tonic water. The ice is poured into a highball glass and the liquids are added, adding the juice of half a lemon and ending by garnishing the edge of the glass with a slice of lemon. In some variations, a couple of slices of cucumber or a few drops of Angostura are added.
Another cocktail is called Tom Collins: it is prepared with the “Old Tom Gin” type, sugar syrup, fresh lemon juice and soda water. This cocktail is also prepared directly in the highball glass by pouring 4.5 cl of distilled alcoholic drink, two drops of sugar syrup and the juice of half a lemon, completing everything by filling the glass with soda water. The cocktail is garnished with a maraschino cherry inside and the unmissable slice of lemon.
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