What Is Gin and How To Drink: A Beginner's Guide

Are you a brown spirits lover who recently just got into the world of white spirits? Or perhaps you are an amateur when it comes to alcohol and the only thing you know about gin is that everyone loves a good G&T (or you are now wondering what in the world is a G&T). The G&T, or gin and tonic, is a classic cocktail with a base spirit that is well, gin.

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So, what is Gin?

Like vodka or whisky, gin is a distilled spirit made from grains. It is flavoured with juniper berries (this is a must!) and other botanicals, giving it a distinct ‘pine’ flavour. Originally a medicinal liquor, juniper tonic wines—possibly the earliest form of gin—were made by monks and alchemists as early as in the 11th century! Thought of as a cure-all, the liquor was given for coughs, colds, pains, strains, ruptures and even cramps. 

Juniper berries used to make gin

In the 17th century, numerous small Dutch and Flemish distillers popularised the re-distillation of malted barley spirit or malt wine with juniper, anise, etc. Such forms of gin were sold in pharmacies and used to treat kidney ailments, lumbago, stomach ailments, gallstones, and gout.

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Gin drinking in England then peaked in the 18th century, after the government imposed a heavy duty on all imported spirits but allowed unlicensed gin production. Gin was a cheap thrill for the masses — a couple of pennies in exchange for a brief escape from the drudgery of life. In the period known as the Gin Craze, more than half of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London were gin shops. This, however, also led to gin being blamed for the many social problems and higher death rates in London at that time. 

Despite the once bad rap of gin, the gin we drink today is definitely much more sophisticated and refined than the turpentine/sulfuric acid-flavoured gin of the 1700s. Still using juniper berries as the main botanical, this clear, distilled spirit is produced in a variety of styles, using a range of herbal ingredients. The modern gin is often spice, floral or fruit-flavoured. 

How to drink Gin

The combination of gin and tonic water has been the go-to way to drink gin since invented by British colonials to make quinine—a prescription medicine for malaria—more palatable. Tonic water (essentially carbonated water with quinine and sugar) is paired with gin in a 1:1 or 3:1 ratio, garnished with a slice of lemon or lime. There are a whole lot of other G&T recipes though, with some calling for the use of elderflower liqueur or fresh blackberries muddled with lime.

Gin works great in other cocktails too. Martini, Negroni, The Clover Club — all classic gin cocktails. If you are feeling a little James Bond, go for a Vesper Martini as he does in Casino Royale. 

“Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel.” - James Bond, in Casino Royale (1953), a novel by Ian Fleming

Lastly, don’t be afraid to drink gin neat. Gin has evolved over the years to feature a variety of flavours; some having a citrusy note while others, floral. With a large number of gins available today, it certainly is easier than ever to find one you’ll like!

Tempted to try gin? Read our article on 5 local distilleries and breweries for where to find uniquely Singaporean gin!

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With Culturally x Oriental Elixir, taste the first gin made in Singapore and learn how to mix your own gin cocktails from a variety of gins and cordials — like pandan gin and bak kut teh cordial! Find out more here.

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