What is Gin? (The Weird History of This Spirit)

For those who haven’t grown to appreciate gin yet, we made this short and accessible guide on everything you should know about gin.

Gin is not the first spirit you think of ordering at a bar. Unless you do, and then know already much about it. Gin is less popular than whisky or vodka, but it wasn’t always so, and surely it is getting more noticed and appreciated by the younger generations.

What is gin? (the weird history of this spirit) | source | cocktail hammer
Woman pouring gin.

Why? Well, it has a lot of distinct aromatics that play in its favor and has a particular, pungent taste profile that makes it immediately recognizable among all the clear spirits. Plenty of flavored gins exist, enlarging the pool of interested drinkers.

For those who haven’t grown to appreciate gin yet, we made this short and accessible guide on everything you should know about gin.


Let’s start with a brief introduction to the history of gin. The traditional origin of gin is linked to the 17th century dutch physician Franciscus Sylvius, but it is not exactly true. We know for certain that spirits made by distilling alcohol with juniper berries, which are at the core of the taste of all gins, had been existing for at least 4 centuries before, if not even earlier.

Gin and tonic with hendricks gin
Gin and tonic with hendricks gin
Gin cocktail with lemon in wine glass
Gin cocktail with lemon in wine glass

Whoever was that actually invented gin, it surely became hugely popular in the Netherlands in the mid-17th century. From there it was exported to England, where it was supremely successful thanks to being an alternative to the brandy from France, at the time the enemy of England. Englishmen weren’t keen on paying for a spirit produced by the enemy, and gin was a welcomed alternative.

A period named as the “Gin Craze” swept England at the beginning of the 18th century, when gin was reputed to be a healthy beverage for the poorest Englishmen and it is thought that up to 15000 drinking establishments offered gin throughout England. Successful indeed.

Thanks to its popularity in the UK, the colonies at the time imported gin and started to drink it locally, spreading the pungent spirit throughout the continents. It kept being a very much appreciated beverage until the beginning of the 20th century, when whisky took the lead and, later, vodka became the favorite among the youngsters.

The gin shop a satirical sketch on the dangers of drinking alcohol
The gin shop a satirical sketch on the dangers of drinking alcohol

In recent times a lot of distilleries have turned to gin to experiment with different taste profiles, various herbs and fruits to flavor the classic gin, rendering the centuries-old spirit accessible and trendy again. Younger generations have been increasingly favoring the juniper-infused distillate, and nowadays gin can be ordered almost anywhere.

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The Many Styles of Gin

Gin cocktail with lemon
Gin cocktail with lemon

For a spirit that is so old, you can expect that many styles have been developed out of the original recipe. And you’d be right. To know how to drink gin you would need to at least know the fundamental differences between the most famous ones. These are:

  • London Dry Gin. Not necessarily coming from London, but based on the style that was popular there, it is often dominated by citrus flavors and the taste of the juniper berries is very prominent.
  • American Gin. Also known as “New Style” and “New Western Dry”, it is a modern style that includes lots of gins made in the USA. Not a specific taste then, but more of an origin.
  • Plymouth Gin. Originating from the England town, once could be only produced there but not anymore. It has a distinct taste that is full of botanical ingredients and quite mellow, making it an easy-to-drink type of gin.
  • Genever. Also known as “Holland gin” as it comes from there and is the closest to the original taste of gin made in the Netherlands in the 17th century. It is often sweeter than other gins, with a yellow tint. Its flavors are more herbal than fruity.
  • Old Tom. This is a sweeter version of the London Dry. Still full of citrus flavors, but softened thanks to the addition of sugar syrup. Once rare and available only within the UK, nowadays it is commonly found in most well-equipped bars.

These are the tip of the iceberg. Knowing these only makes you already a well-versed gin drinker though, so it’s worth having them in mind next you go shopping for new spirits.

Famous Brands of Gin

Well-furnished supermarkets and alcohol stores will have dozens of different brands of gins. Hard to discern the best ones if you are a new drinker.

Gin an tonic with hendricks gin
Gin an tonic with hendricks gin

Starting with one of the most famous brands of gin makes sense; from those, you can then build your preferences and know what you prefer to drink next time. A few of the most well-reputed brands of gin are:

  • Plymouth. Not to be confused with the style, it is the name of a single distillery in Devon, UK, that was the inventor of the style.
  • Bols Genever. One of the giants of spirits production, Bols is from the Netherlands and has a large share of the spirits and liqueurs market. Of course they couldn’t also produce a superb gin, in the Genever style.
  • Hendricks. A recent brand of gin, from Scotland. It was only founded in 1999 but quickly became known for its delicate, cucumber and rose flavored, type of gin.
  • Tanqueray. Another one from Scotland but much older, hailing back to the 1830. Tanqueray is a dry gin that is strongly herbal and with sweet liquorice notes.
  • Beefeater. A dry gin as well, from London. It uses nine botanicals to make a complex gin in the style of the London dry tradition.
  • Bombay Sapphire. One of the most commonly suggested gins for new drinkers of the spirit, Bombay Sapphire, and their blue bottle is known anywhere. Ten botanical-based ingredients make a truly classic gin.
  • Gordon’s. Another gin for the lovers of London Dry ones, Gordon’s has been making gins for over 250 years and it is one of the most beloved brands in England.

When in doubt what to try, any of these brands will not disappoint you. Once you know them and have understood what you like and dislike, you can try to explore more exotic gins, with wildly different taste profiles. Looking for more Gin brands? Check out this list of 19 great Gin brands.

Best Cocktails with Gin

Admittedly, straight gin is an acquired taste. Either you fall in love with it immediately or it may take years before you can appreciate it undiluted and unmixed.

Luckily gin lends itself well to be made into cocktails with other liqueurs. If you can’t stomach gin alone, try one of these timeless cocktails first.

  • Martini. The classic Martini, not to be confused with the vodka version, is made with gin and a superb way to make the chosen gin express all its flavors. Countless variants exist, but the simplest one would be your gin of choice and a dry, white, vermouth. 6 parts of gin vs 1 of vermouth. Garnish an olive and/or a lemon peel.
  • Gin and Tonic. Where the botanical and citrus flavors of the gin shine is with a gin and tonic. Pour gin and tonic water, in a ratio that you like, over plenty of ice cubes. Best enjoyed on a hot day.
  • Tom Collins. Perhaps even easier to drink than the gin and tonic, the Tom Collins is made with 3 parts of gin, 2 of lemon juice, 1 of sugar syrup and carbonated water to taste. Fresh and light, a perfect cocktail to introduce new drinkers to gin.
  • Negroni. For some the “perfect” cocktail, the Negroni is also super-easy to prepare: pour equal parts of gin, sweet red vermouth and Campari over ice, and garnish with an orange slice. As an apéritif it is unbeatable, sweet and flavorful.

The great thing about gin is that it is very complex, with lots of variants. There are super dry, acidic gins as well as light, sweet and juicy ones. There are styles of gins for all palates. Flavored gins are a world of their own, with an insane amount of ingredients mixed into the distillation process to make truly unique tastes.

Looking for more on gin? Check out this video.


Whether you know some already or are totally new to gin, a trip to your nearest alcohol store is due to discover what these pretty bottles of gin can offer to your palate.

What are some of your favorite gin cocktails? And what other topics would you like us to write about? Let us know in the comments below. Don’t forget to sign up to our mailing list to get great content just like this, straight to your inbox. As always, stay home, stay safe, get hammered.

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Written by Chris Harris, Staff Writer

Howdy. I’m Chris Harris. One of the writers here at Cocktail Hammer. I have a passion for all things food, wine, and mixology. When I’m not I’m behind the bar or writing for this awesome blog, you can find me riding my bike all across New York City.

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Edited by Nick Eggert, Staff Editor

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