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London Dry Gin

Prominence


London Dry Gin is the most widely known, most popularly consumed and most frequently found style of Gin. In fact it is so widely and readily available, it is not uncommon for people to think this is the only style of Gin (at least until newer brands began appearing around the start of this Millennium). It should be no surprise to find nearly all the biggest selling and recognized brands today are London Dry Gins.

London Calling?

This style of Gin was originally produced in and around London in the UK, and gained the moniker London (Dry) Gin accordingly. Despite the name, London Gin is not under any legally defined geographical designation and, it may be produced anywhere in the world regardless of where the distillery is, or the actual origin of the spirit.

To gain some differentiation, London Dry Gins actually made in London sometimes employ the term “London Cut”. This description was first used under The Worshipful Company of Distillers in a royal charter granted by King Charles I of England, Ireland & Scotland in 1638. Although this may not be entirely valid today, it has traditionally been reserved for Gin where the botanicals have been “cut” and distilled within a 21-mile radius of the Palace of Westminster (commonly referred to as the houses of parliament), in London. Several examples of brands using this term today are Ancient Mariner and Knockeen Hills Gin.

History

Old English

The very first London made Gin was Old Tom Gin, and it was aimed to be a cheaper alternative to the more expensive Genever being imported into the UK. Also called Old English Gin, the production quality of Old Tom was low and the taste harsh, requiring the addition of a sweetening agent to make it more palatable. Despite these poor qualities, this Old Tom style of Gin became the Gin of choice during the 1700’s and the first half of the 1800’s, particularly among the working classes (and remained available until the early 1900’s, and is seeing a revival again today).

Continuous Columns

By the early 1830’s continuous column stills were being devised, and provided the ability to produce quality spirits with around double the purity of alcohol previously obtained. This reduced the amount of congeners and other chemicals compounds in the spirit, which had previously been responsible for the unpleasant flavors in the lower quality “white” spirits (normally smoothed out by wood barrel aging in “brown” spirits).

Unsweetened Gin

This almost pure spirit could now be used to create a high quality Gin, without the need to mask it with a sweetening agent, and this original incarnation of London Dry Gin was initially called “Unsweetened Gin”. Although the quality and taste was far superior to Old Tom Gin, it was not as readily adopted as one might think and would take around 75-years to become the preferred Gin style. The reasoning for this is unclear but it could have been the sweetness was preferred over the dry bitterness. However, we suspect price might have been the issue: while this Unsweetened Gin was cheaper than imports, which appealed to the middle classes, the Old Tom was cheaper still and continued to appeal to the more populous masses. During this 75-year period there were many socio-economic changes occurring and eventually London Dry Gin dominated and Old Tom Gin would all but fade away.

Early Producers

In 1830 a 20-year old Charles Tanqueray (of French ancestry) established a distillery in Bloomsbury, London. Obsessed with producing a premium product, and after a degree of research he gained substantial success and recognition for his Tanqueray Gin, generally considered to be the first London Dry style Gin.

Meanwhile, back in 1769 Alexander Gordon (of Scottish ancestry) had established a distillery in Southwark, London. By the early 1800’s it was owned by his son Alexander Gordon Jr., and if not the first, their Gordon’s Gin was another early founder of this London Dry style Gin. Today it is the number two selling gin in the world, with over 100 million bottles produced each year and sold in 150 countries across the globe.

In 1898 these two bastions of London Dry Gin merged to form Tanqueray Gordon & Co., creating the world’s largest Gin Company at that time. Although no longer based in London, today the drinks industry giant Diageo owns them, and both brands are produced at Cameronbridge Distillery in Scotland.

Expansion

The expansion of the British Empire, and the dominance of the seas by its Navy, reached its peak during the 1800’s and early 1900’s. The use of Gin (rather than grog) by British Naval officers and its combinations with citrus (to fight off scurvy) and quinine in tonic water (to combat malaria) resulted in its widespread usage. It is no surprise London Dry became the Gin style of choice with predominance found, even today, in countries influenced by the British and its past Empire.

Taste

If you consider Gin in terms of dry and sweet, like the alter ego’s of Vermouth or Sherry, London Dry is the driest while Genever and Old Tom are the sweetest. Somewhere in the middle of these you might find Plymouth Gin and even New Western/Contemporary Gins, where they may be described as “wetter” Gins (as opposed to “dryer” Gins). Of course this is a generalization but it does highlight how London Gin is viewed as the “driest of the dry.”

When it comes to botanicals the key identifier of a London Dry is the prominence of juniper berries, with all other botanicals clearly secondary. This creates a signature crisp dry (often floral) taste and the secondary flavors are usually denoted by citrus and to a lesser extent, earthy peppery spice. Juniper berries are frequently joined with angelica and coriander and, sometimes referred to as the “Holy Trinity of Gin,” they are the most commonly used botanicals in Gin. This botanical trio are almost singlehandedly responsible for creating this classic or traditional style of Gin, we know as London Dry. Did you know? Although London Dry Gin is a classic style it was only legally defined under European law in 2008!

EU Legal Definition

Much like Genever, the production methodology of London Dry Gin had been left to the producers (via their representative bodies) to fundamentally decide and determine what constituted London Dry Gin. Under European Union (EU) regulations Genever and other smaller categories of Gin (or Juniper Flavored Spirits) have been granted geographical designation, meaning they may only be produced in specified locations. This regionalization means they can more readily self govern whereas London Dry, with a widely dispersed network of producers across numerous countries with different languages and local laws, would be nigh on impossible to self regulate. This, coupled with a background of ever increasing numbers of small craft producers making Gin, prompted the EU to set regulations applicable to the definition and production methodology of London Dry Gin across Europe.

These EU regulations for London Gin were passed in February 2008, and became law in May 2009:

  • Still - Must use a traditional still although there are no restrictions for size, shape or heating method. 
  • Alcohol - The alcohol must be of high quality and methanol levels must not exceed 5 grams per hecto liter of 100% alcohol. The resultant distillate must contain at least 70% alcohol after distillation (there is no such minimum with Distilled Gin) and additional alcohol may be added post distillation, providing it is of the same quality.
  • Botanical Flavoring - No artificial flavoring is permitted and only approved natural flavorings can be used. This flavoring must be imparted during the distillation process only, with no flavorings added after distillation. This means the flavoring is exclusively introduced in a one-step process during re-distillation. By comparison, Distilled Gin can use both natural & (approved) artificial flavorings, made in different or separate batches and they may be added post distillation too.
  • Sweetening - A small amount of sweetening may be added after distillation, up to a maximum of 0.5 grams per liter. Although not readily discernable to the taste, adding this sweetener is used by some producers for brand protection purposes.
  • Water - Added post distillation, water is used to dilute the distillate down to drinking strength. The minimum strength permitted is 37.5% ABV, any lower than this and it stops being considered a Gin.
  • Color - London Gin may not be colored i.e. it must be clear (or transparent), commonly referred to as “White”.

Drinking London Dry Gin

The dryness of London Dry Gins makes them very suitable, when balanced with sweeter liquids, for a large variety of mixed drinks. This versatility made them the King of cocktails during the first half of the 1900’s, until Vodka challenged and then took the crown around the 1970’s. Despite this, there are thousands of cocktails using Gin as their base spirit (often swopped out with Vodka) and it’s unsurprising the present day Gin and cocktail revivals appear to be going along, hand-in-hand.

Compared with any other style of Gin or juniper flavoured spirit, the classic London Gin has the most versatility in cocktails, and this no doubt accounts for it’s over riding popularity in choice of Gin style. Even more telling is the ability for London Gin to mix with tonic water and Vermouth, making two of the most popular Gin cocktails - Gin & Tonic and the Martini respectively. Certainly no other style of Gin can pair with these two ingredients as successfully as a London Dry Gin.

As a popular base spirit for cocktails, London Dry is rarely thought as being one to sip neat, and this was the case until the end of the last century. While this generally remains true today, some of the newer London Dry Gins are smoother than ever before and they may be enjoyed neat (perhaps joined with ice and a garnish, according to personal choices). Check out these London Dry Gins to sip on their own: Bedrock, Cotswolds Dry, Fifty Pounds, Portobello Road N0.171, Two Birds and Warner Edwards Harrington.

Notable London Dry Gins

There are hundreds of London Dry Gins on the market today, so identifying notable or ones exhibiting a quality profile of a “classic” London Dry, may feel a little like searching for a needle in a haystack. Well, perhaps not that difficult but, the difficulty often lies in the variations in the palate from individual to individual and the small nuances found from producer to producer. Any list is almost certainly going to omit a “clear classic” but we’ll do our best to select a range of good standard London Dry Gins.

The Classic Four

Gordons, Tanqueray, Beefeater and Bombay Sapphire are (excluding Ginebra San Miguel from the Philippines) the biggest selling Gins in the world. It shouldn’t raise many eyebrows to learn these are all made in the UK and are all London Dry Gins. However one of these sticks out, Bombay Sapphire, because unlike the others it is distilled by vapor infusion and accordingly displays a lighter flavor profile. Try the Bombay Original for a much more classic flavor but, if you prefer the lighter taste of “Bom Saph,” also consider trying Beefeater 24.

Other British London Dry Gins

Despite the increasing number of Gins being produced around the world today, the core concentration of classic or traditional London Dry Gins are still made in the UK. Try any of these (many made by Thames Distillers and Langley Distillery) to gain a feeling for this classic London Dry Style:

Boodles, Broker’s, Burleigh’s Distiller’s Cut, Cotswolds Dry, East London Liquor Company London Dry, Finsbury 47 Platinum, Fords, Gilpin’s Westmorland, Gin Lane 1751, Hawthorn’s, Hayman’s, Hunters Cheshire, Jodhpur, Langley’s No.8, Raffles, Sipsmith and SW4.

Other European London Dry Gins

Outside of the UK but within Europe there are London Dry Gins to be found but most are not “Classic” or “traditional” of the style. Instead they will frequently contain some botanicals that start to create a bridge between being a classic London Dry and a Contemporary styled Gin. This may seem very finicky and an example of how close this can become is displayed in France, with two brands Citadelle and Fahrenheit – both are good quality London Dry Gins but their use of Fennel in their botanical make up just knock them over the line from being truly traditional in their character. In Spain many of the London Dry Gins have a lighter flavor profile, botanicals of a more contemporary nature or possess a “rough” spirit feel found in lower quality Gins – although Master’s and Mascaró Gin9 are good exceptions to this. Further North in central Europe and Scandinavia, London Dry Gins have generally gained an even greater contemporary style to them, although Hammer from Norway has a good classic feel to it. Interestingly, it is Holland (in the center of Genever production) where we have found the most Gins displaying a classic London Dry style - Hofland is a good example but the overall winner for us is Berry Bros. & Rudd No. 3 (made for this British company by De Kuyper Royal Distillers of Holland, in an ironic turn of history!).

Non European London Dry Gins

Gins made outside of the EU do not have to follow the regulations laid down for London Dry Gins and many do not even officially recognise the London Dry Gin category in their country. However, given the historical quality and standing of the category some refer to themselves as London Dry Gins, although many declare they are London Dry Style Gins. Some follow the EU production regulations, and are technically London Dry Gins, but many use the term to refer to their quality and/or taste profile, even though they are not made the same way as London Dry Gins and may in fact be Distilled Dry Gins and better described as New Western Style Gins!

Here is our pick of classic London Dry Gins (both technically and in taste) made outside of the EU: Both made in Australia there is the new brand Archie Rose Signature Dry and the much older brand Vickers; In Canada there is a trio of brands we recommend, namely Endeavor, Long Table and Sahara; and finally there is a reasonably long list from the USA, which includes Aria, Bond Street, Cardinal Spirits Standard Dry, Denver Dry, Gale Force, Halcyon Organic, Junipero, Knickerbocker, Peninsula, Russell Henry, Trader Joe’s Rear Admiral Joesph, and Voyager.

London Dry Gin?

Not only is Gin in general different to what it was, in say 2005, but the London Dry category of Gin has changed since this time too. Take a classic London Dry and add one, two or maybe more specific botanicals (or increase their amount) and it can change the taste profile, sometimes quite significantly:

Add rosemary, mint, sage etc. to get a herbal Gin; add chamomile, elderflower, lavender etc. to get a floral Gin; add blackberries, raspberries, elderberries etc. to get a fruity Gin; add lime, mandarin, grapefruit etc. to get a citrus Gin; or add grains of paradise, ginger, pepper etc. to get a spicy Gin. 

These are still London Dry Gins, and today’s distillers have been growing and developing the category with increasing experimentation, and perhaps to “make their mark” by differentiation in the market place. The EU regulations have a lot to say in regards to production quality and methodology but very little in terms of flavor profile, the key phrase being “the taste is predominantly that of juniper”. This has opened up the doors for many to “dial back” the juniper and create a lighter or softer taste profile, add different or non-traditional botanicals and even use unique tasting botanicals (and non-botanicals). While these are technically London Dry Gins, the result is they have started to become more like contemporary or New Western style Gins. So when does a London Dry stop being a London Dry?

Breaking The Mold

Around 2008/9 two London Gins were launched with decidedly fruity overtones. Zephyr Black uses elderberry in its botanical mix and while the juniper is still prominent, the citrus and berry fruits come a close second. Brockmans has less pretention, using black berries and blue berries, the berry fruit is clearly prominent and the juniper is only discernable in the background.

In 2011 Hoxton Gin was launched and has garnered much criticism, including comments from industry media such as Difford’s Guide and Imbibe Magazine. It is a London Gin following the letter of the law but its botanical mix includes coconut and grapefruit, which dominate the flavor and carries a subsequent message on the bottle: “Warning! Grapefruit and Coconut”. The juniper is there but only very faintly, so is it a London Dry or even Gin at all?

Around 2012/3 two London Dry Gins with “Spice” in their names were launched: Darnley’s View Spiced and Opihr Oriental Spiced. These both have spicy botanicals and are flavoured as such, with some juniper to be found in the background. Given the previous examples, it is possible both brands were named to enable consumers to identify the chief flavor characteristics of the Gin, with “no hidden surprises”.

For us, when a London Dry has no or little discernable juniper, and other flavors dominate, then it stops being a London Dry and becomes a Flavored Gin.

A London Dry Future

Traditionalists may well be taking exception to the botanical creations of newer brands on the market and with good cause: As a traditionalist, if you purchase a London Dry Gin, you want it to taste like a London Dry Gin. Conversely it is good to see these newer versions create interest, intrigue and new life, especially to a spirit that in the latter part of the 1900’s was stagnated and maybe even dying! The real issue seems to be the “lost” juniper, and while we believe the Gins mentioned above contain over 50% juniper, the other botanicals overpower and rob it of its “Ginniness”. We suspect this will continue for the next decade or more and for us, they may be London Dry Gins but in reality they are as they taste, and so if juniper is not king it is not a London Dry. The category will continue to exist for as long as traditionalists want it and we do not see them giving up any time soon!



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