The SquareMeal Guide to Gin

Here’s our essential guide to everyone’s favourite juniper spirit, including notes on botanicals and styles, recommendations of the best gins to try, plus great gin days out

Updated on 04 June 2019 • Written By Ben McCormack

The SquareMeal Guide to Gin

More About Whitley Neill

The exceptional Whitley Neill Original Handcrafted Dry Gin was created by Johnny Neill, a direct descendant of a long line of distillers.

Inspired by his family’s sense of adventure, Johnny strove to create his own signature blend of gin: a tribute to his English distilling heritage, and a homage to the enigmatic beauty of his wife’s South African homeland. The result is Whitley Neill Original Handcrafted Dry Gin – a balanced, distinctive gin that blends classic gin botanicals with Cape gooseberry and baobab, inspired by South Africa to create a liquid with a flavour as unique as its heritage. The flavour profile has rich notes of juniper and citrus, pot pourri and exotic spices.

Find out more

In the be-gin-ing…

The drink we now know as gin was invented by a Dutch chemist, Sylvius de Bouve, sometime in the second half of the 16th century. His juniper spirit, called ‘genièvre’, was created as a medicinal cure but soon became a popular tipple.

The drink first made waves in England when soldiers sent to the continent to fight returned with tales of drinking ‘genever’ to give them ‘Dutch courage’ in battle. But it became a smash hit when Dutch ruler William of Orange was crowned King of England in 1689 and introduced a Distilling Act allowing anyone to distil spirits.

By the early 1700s cheap genever – now known by its shorter English name gin – was the drink of choice for London’s poor, resulting in increased deaths and lower birth rates, and earning gin the moniker ‘mother’s ruin’. Its disastrous results were immortalised by William Hogarth in his print 'Gin Lane' (pictured below right, with 'Beer Street' on the left). By 1750 its effects were so bad that Parliament passed a series of Gin Acts prohibiting sales and production.

Gin Lane by William Hogarth

This did the trick and by the 19th century gin had become a drink for the upper classes, made by respectable distillers such as Plymouth Gin, Tanqueray and Gordon’s. With the expansion of the British Empire, gin was shipped all over the world, becoming particularly popular in the US – so popular in fact that it was banned during Prohibition, leading to a huge demand for illicit gin and sparking a fashion for mixed drinks (to disguise how bad this ‘bathtub gin’ tasted). And so the cocktail era began...

The basics and botanicals

Gin starts life as a neutral spirit made from grain (usually wheat). This base spirit is then flavoured with botanicals – fruit, seeds, herbs and spices – in one of several different ways.

The range of different production methods, combined with the enormous range of possible botanicals, explain why there is such a huge selection of gins out there to try, with new ones being created all the time.

Gin botanicals

But all gins needs one core botanical, juniper berries, which provide the drink’s characteristic bitterness. Coriander and angelica root are also key, along with citrus peels, orris root and liquorice.

Beyond this core, skilled distillers can let their imagination run wild, using a whole host of botanicals from spicy peppercorns and star anise to almonds, camomile, rosemary, lime, kumquats and cucumber. An individual gin recipe can contain anything from seven to 20-plus botanicals.

 

The styles

London Dry: The invention of the column still in 1831 led to the creation of very pure, crisp and dry gins, which are the dominant style today. Popularised by London distillers, but despite the name, they can be made anywhere in the world.

Old Tom: Popular before the column still arrived, this is a sweetened style of gin, which uses sugar to cover up the unpleasant taste of compounds created in rudimentary stills. Today Hayman’s and Jensen have revived the style.

Genever: The original Dutch juniper spirit is still produced in the Netherlands, Belgium and France, where it’s protected by geographic indication. Look for Bols – the original distiller that’s still going strong.

New Western Dry: A modern style with lower levels of juniper. Instead the focus is on other flavours such as cucumber (Hendrick’s), grape (G’Vine) or raspberry (Pinkster).

Gin martinis

 

Classic gin cocktails

Gin is the key ingredient in a host of iconic mixes. Get gin-spired and try making one of these at home…

GIN & TONIC

A throwback to the days of the British Raj, this refresher can be given a twist with your own choice of tonic and garnish. Try this Original G&T made with Whitley Neill, served in a balloon wine glass for a Spanish-style GinTonica. 

Glass: Balloon

Garnish: Orange wheel

Method: Add the gin to a balloon glass filled with ice. Top with the tonic and garnish with an orange wheel.

50ml Whitley Neill Original Gin

100ml Lamb & Watt Original Tonic Water

MARTINI

A deceptively simple combo of two ingredients sparks endless debate. Wet or dry? Lemon twist or olive? Either way, making a perfect Martini is an art – and forget James Bond, it should always be stirred not shaken.

Glass: Martini

Garnish: Lemon twist or olive

Method: Put your Martini glass in the freezer to chill. Add the ingredients to a cocktail shaker with plenty of large ice cubes and stir well for at least 30 seconds. Strain into your chilled glass and garnish.

50ml gin

10ml vermouth

TOM COLLINS

The Tom Collins recipe first appeared in The Bar-Tenders Guide by Jerry Thomas in 1876. It’s almost identical to a Gin Fizz, which uses the same ingredients but is shaken rather than made in the glass. Give us an easy life… 

Glass: Highball

Garnish: Lemon slice

Method: Fill the glass with ice and pour in the gin, lemon juice and sugar syrup. Top with soda water, stir to mix and garnish. 

50ml gin

25ml lemon juice

15ml sugar syrup

50ml soda water

NEGRONI

Invented by Count Camillo Negroni in Italy in 1919, this bitter classic has enjoyed a hipster revival – you’ll find it on tap in some bars. But it’s easy to make at home; you can even pre-mix it for a party. (Can we come?) 

Glass: Rocks

Garnish: Orange twist

Method: Fill your glass with ice and add all of the ingredients. Stir to mix and garnish.

25ml gin

25ml Italian vermouth

25ml Campari

Negroni cocktails

 

Eight gins to try

Edinburgh Gin

The blend of 14 botanicals includes native Scottish plants such as heather and pine, which you’ll be able to sniff out on the nose. The palate is really citrusy, with menthol notes and a creamy nuttiness that lingers on the finish. The heather aromas complement the floral violet flavours of an Aviation cocktail, while its punchy citrus keeps the mix in balance.

Edinburgh’s new Rhubarb & Ginger gin, meanwhile, grafts two classic British summertime flavours onto a heady, juniper-forward profile – just add tonic.

Edinburgh Gin, £28, Tesco; Edinburgh Rhubarb & Ginger Gin, £28, Amazon

Edinburgh Gin

Whitley Neill

Proof that you can make a classic London dry gin with some very non-London ingredients, Whitley Neill adds Cape gooseberry (aka physalis) and baobab to a base of classic gin botanicals to produce a gin inspired by South Africa. Smooth and clean-tasting but exotically spicy, it is a terrific match with bitter, citrus flavours: try it in a G&T with an orange wheel garnish or in that bittersweet classic, the Campari-based Negroni.

£26, Sainsbury’s

Whitley Neill gin

Gin Mare

This aromatic Spanish gin expresses its Mediterranean mix of botanicals with a recipe that includes Arbequina olives, basil from Italy and thyme from Greece. The palate finishes with a zesty hit of citrus and spice notes, which makes it great in a Martini as the herbal character makes for distinctively savoury sipping – garnish with an olive, obvs. Or for a G&T with a citrus kick, add a bar spoon of bitter orange marmalade and two dashes or orange bitters.

£32, Waitrose

Gin Mare

No.3 London Dry Gin

Using six botanicals (three fruit and three spice), No.3 – owned by London’s oldest wine and spirit merchant, Berry Bros & Rudd – offers a big hit of juniper on the palate, but is balanced with fresh citrus and spice notes too, making it a versatile choice for cocktails as well as a G&T. With its bone-dry finish, characteristic juniper bitterness and refreshing grapefruit and orange citrus, No.3 makes a great Negroni.

£28, Waitrose

No.3 Dry Gin

Pinkster Gin

Made by steeping raspberries in the gin and infusing it with raspberries after distillation, which gives a delicate pink colour and raspberry notes on both the nose and the finish. White pepper notes stop the palate becoming too fruity. This modern gin with a raspberry twist is an ideal partner for the Clover Club, adding a subtle new dimension to the fruit-forward taste of this traditional raspberry cocktail.

£31, Amazon 

Pinkster Gin

Portobello Road No.171

There’s plenty of juniper on the nose and palate of this proudly London Dry style gin, along with citrus and grassy aromas that are followed by nicely judged spice leading right though the palate to a nutmeg-infused finish. With its classic juniper profile, Portobello Road works in any number of classic gin cocktails, but its spice notes add an extra dimension to the super-citrus Tom Collins cocktail.

Look out, too, for Portobello’s Local Heroes No.3, created in partnership with Notting Hill local Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits fame), which adds lime zest, cucumber peel and olive oil to Portobello’s nine signature botanicals.

Portobello Road No.171, £22, Tesco; Local Heroes No.3, 42.95, masterofmalt.com 

Portobello Road Local Heroes No.3 Gin

Salcombe Gin Start Point

Inspired by the 19th-century Salcombe ‘fruiters’ who brought exotic fruit to Devon from the West Indies and Azores. Grapefruit, lemon and lime add bright citrus notes to the classic juniper palate, which also shows fiery spice. Salcombe adds even more citrus punch to the Champagne-and-lemon French 75, a refreshing sparkling cocktail that makes a perfect aperitif.

£40, salcombegin.com 

Salcombe Gin Start Point

Silent Pool

Made in the Surrey countryside from 24 botanicals, this juniper-driven, intensely flavoured gin has floral notes of lavender and chamomile cut through by the sharper citrus note of kaffir lime, all rounded out with honey and added to water from the Silent Pool itself, a small lake next to the distillery. Try it over ice swirled around with tonic in a Spanish-style coppa glass to release the floral aromas (there’s rose flower and elderflower in there too) and add a twist of orange peel to complement the lime.

£39.50, Waitrose 

Silent Pool Gin

Gin days out

Salcombe Gin School

If you want to visit a distillery or even make your own gin, there are plenty of options. Here’s our top three…

City of London Distillery Gin Lab 

22-24 Bride Lane, London, EC4Y 8DT; 020 7936 3636

For a gin day out in the heart of the capital City of London Distillery offers a range of distillery tours and tastings. The ‘Gin Lab Experience’ is a two-hour session that teaches you how to distil and choose botanicals to create your personal recipe, before distilling your bottle in a mini-still. Price: £125

The Gin School at Salcombe Distilling Co (pictured above)

The Boathouse, 28 Island Street, Salcombe, Devon, TQ8 8DP; 01548 288 180  

For a gin-themed weekend break, head to Devon, the home of Salcombe Gin. Learn about distilling, then take charge of your mini-still to create your bespoke bottle of gin. Try it out with a range of tonics and garnishes at The Boathouse bar with its estuary view. Price: £110

The Ginstitute 

186 Portobello Road, London, W11 1LA; 020 3034 2234

Portobello Road Gin runs this Notting Hill venue which includes a distillery, bar, restaurant and rooms – just in case you aren’t up to the trip home after your visit. ‘The Experience’ offers a session on gin history, a visit to the still and the chance to craft your own gin, with tipples along the way. Price: £120