In the US, the renaissance in craft gin distilling has been underway for over a decade and, today, there are over 350 producers throughout America. The UK is starting to catch up (at least relative to its size) since its own renaissance was kickstarted in 2008 by the opening of the Sipsmith and Sacred distilleries. Last year, more gin distilleries opened in a single year than the previous six years combined.
There is, however, one large difference between craft gin producers in the UK and those in the US, and that is the base spirit that they use.
In the UK, over 90% of gins are made using Neutral Grain Spirit (NGS), i.e. they buy their base spirit from a third party. This limits the options for base spirit, as a distiller can only use what is available to buy; in the UK, this means they are restricted to spirits made from grain (wheat), grapes, molasses/cane and whey.
Across the Atlantic, gin distillers are far more likely to produce their own base spirit, often because they also make vodka, whisky, or brandy, which opens up the potential materials that they can use as a base to essentially anything that will ferment and is fit for human consumption.
The advantages to using neutral grain spirit are that it costs less in terms of time and capital expenditure and it also provides a blank canvas for the botanicals’ aromas and flavors; similar to the difference of painting on a white canvas versus a beige one.
The advantage of using a new-make base is that a distiller has greater control over all of the ingredients in their gin. This can add a differential that would be hard for others to copy; you can introduce flavors and textures that are difficult to produce with just the botanicals. It is also a good way to incorporate local produce into the spirit.
When looking at which botanicals to use alongside a characterful base, one approach is to look at the sort of flavors that typically work well with the raw material. For example, State-38 Distilling makes a gin with an agave base and uses citrus and pepper as botanicals, which are flavors often associated with tequila and mezcal drinks. Highbank Orchards, in Ireland, was inspired by the spice notes of apple pie or baked apple when they created their apple-based gin, Highbank Crystal Gin.
Not all base spirits will work well with a chosen botanical mix; there may be a clash of flavors or one may overwhelm the other. In some cases, the desired base spirit may be too expensive to use for the whole gin. In this instance, one option would be to use a blend of bases, as used to great effect by Crystal Peak, Colorado, which uses a mix of grape and grain spirits. The grain spirit was used to allow the flavors of the botanicals to come through, whilst the grape was incorporated to add a luscious mouth feel.
One other point of note is that for a product to be labeled “Distilled Gin” or “London Gin” within the European Union (EU), law requires it to have a neutral base (defined as a base with an initial alcoholic strength of at least 96% ABV). A spirit labeled as “Gin” does not have this requirement.
Characteristics of different base spirits on gin
The most commonly available grain in the UK, wheat provides a clean backdrop to showcase the aromas and flavors of the botanicals, especially if NGS are used. Given its availability across the US, wheat is also a good option for distillers who want to incorporate local grain in their product, such as the Red Winter Wheat that is used by Death’s Door and Dry Fly.
Corn is a popular base in the US, especially for those who want to use NGS, due to its price and availability. Like wheat, it provides a blank canvas for the botanicals, but also has a very slight touch of residual sweetness, which makes it good for gins with bold characters and spicy notes such as Big Gin from Washington.
Unmalted barley gives a gin a silky, smooth texture, as well as a touch of vanilla creaminess and a flash of citrus. It works particularly well with citrus and spices. Adnams Copper House Dry Gin is a good example.
Malted Barley, as used in FEW American Gin, provides the spirit with a bready, genever-like malt element, with a touch of anise or fennel, reminiscent of white whiskey.
Rye adds a little bready sweetness, as well as some leafy, herbal notes. The spirit has a great impact on the texture of the gin, making it oily, viscous, and indulgent. Good examples include St. George’s Dry Rye Gin and Napue Gin from Finland.
A less common choice for a gin base is oats, but is it used by Adnams, along with wheat and barley, to produce their First Rate Gin. It adds a soft creaminess to the gin and complements floral botanicals.
Distilled rice wine and beer are very popular in East Asia, but very rarely used to make gin. Oryza gin from Donner-Peltier Distillers, in Louisiana, is one of the few examples that use a rice base. It results in a complex base spirit that brings with it a juicy, fruity character.
A grape base is often used by distilleries located in or near wine producing regions such as France, New York, or California. Using this base brings a juicy succulence to the spirit and really helps it fill the mouth, also providing a little dry, floral fruitiness. Good examples include G’Vine (France), Bummer & Lazarus (California), and Seneca Drums (New York).
Readily available across the US and Europe, apples are already a well-established base for spirits such as calvados and applejack. Using apple spirit as a base can add a great complexity to a gin, with fresh and slightly tart notes coming through from the fruit.
Jackelope Gin, by Peach Tree Distillers, is a serendipitous product, which was born when a distillery employee mistakenly blended pear eau de vie into a batch of gin. It has a very crisp, slightly floral character with green peel, reminiscent of Poire William.
Another experimental spirit base for gin is Kirsch (cherry). This has some real potential: the rich, juicy and floral flavors of the cherries really come through, making it a spirit base that is best utilized with a small botanical mix.
A relatively neutral base, molasses spirit is readily available and affordable, and provides a good backdrop for the botanicals with a little sweetness and viscosity to the mouth feel.
Potato is a good choice, especially if the distillery already makes potato vodka. However, it can be very difficult to achieve the right balance between the base and botanicals. The base adds perfumed, floral fruit notes.
Made by distilling mead (fermented honey), this is one of the oldest varieties of alcohol. The impact that the base makes depends, as it does with all raw materials, on the %ABV to which the spirit is distilled. Comb 9, by StillTheOne Distillery, is a honey-based gin, but the majority of the honey’s character comes through in the rich texture of the spirit rather than any sweetness or other flavors.
Agave spirit adds a hint of saline and smoke to a gin, along with clean, crisp leafy notes. Pierde Almas in Mexico makes some agave spirit using their Mezcal as a base, and State-38 Distilling, in Colorado, uses 100% Blue Agave to make The Astute Jester.
Another experiment undertaken with Captive Spirits used the Bete Eau de Vie from Sidetrack Distillery in Washington. The result is crisp and fresh gin, with bright vegetal notes that work well with leafy, herbal notes from the botanicals and flavors of beetroot on the finish.