Ask the Bartender: Meet gin, the original flavored vodka

Categories: Booze

Sean Kenyon Bio Photo.jpg
Sean Kenyon knows how to pour out both drinks and advice. A third-generation bar man with almost 25 years behind the bar, he is a student of cocktail history, a United States Bartenders Guild-certified Spirits Professional and a BAR Ready graduate of the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program. You can find him behind the bar at Squeaky Bean -- and here every week, where he'll answer your questions.

Having been behind the bar for almost 25 years, I can safely say that two spirits scare patrons the most: gin and tequila. Typical conversations about these spirits go like this:

Guest: "Can you suggest a cocktail for me? I generally like a bitter cocktail."

Bartender: "I'd suggest a Negroni. It's made with gin, sweet vermouth and Campari."

Guest: "Oh, no. I can't drink gin (pick one) because a) I had a bad experience in high school; b) It makes me mean; or c) It tastes like pine trees. I'll have a vodka soda, please."


Guest: "Can you suggest a cocktail for me? I'm a fan of herbacious cocktails."

Bartender: "I'd suggest a Yellow Jacket, created by Jason Kosmas of Employees Only in NYC. It's made with tequila, Elderflower liqueur and yellow Charteuse."

Guest: "Oh, no. I can't drink tequila (pick one) because a) I had a bad experience in high school; b) It makes me mean; or c) It tastes like pepper. I'll have a vodka soda, please."

I am a huge fan of both spirits, and I'm bound and determined to break down these barriers. I take it as a challenge to reintroduce the general drinking public to the spirits that frighten them. I want to open up their minds (and livers) to the beauty of distilled spirits. Since I've already written of my love for tequila, I will now fawn over gin.

Attention, vodka lovers: Gin is the original flavored vodka. Gin, like many distilled spirits, was originally created for medicinal purposes. It has a long, controversial and much disputed history. A Spanish alchemist named Arnold of Villanova first wrote about a healthy aqua vitae (water of life) containing juniper in the thirteenth century. A recipe for "geneverbessenwater," or juniper berry water, was found in a Dutch distilling manual in 1562, and Dutch physician Franciscus de la Boe became famous for "creating" gin as a cure for kidney ailments in 1653.

Whatever gin's true origins, Dutch master distillers perfected this fine spirit, distilling malted barley with juniper and other botanicals. Since the Netherlands had busy international ports, the distillers had a wide range of exotic spices and botanicals to work with, including coriander, orange peel, lemon peel, anise, cassia, caraway, angelica root, orris root, and cubeb. By the 1670s, gin, or genever (Dutch for juniper), was very popular in the Netherlands.

But it wasn't until the Engish crowned a Dutch king, William III, in 1672 that gin stepped on to the world stage. William introduced his new kingdom to his country's favorite spirit -- but the English, being the English, had to make a gin of their own. While the Dutch were master distillers, the English were less concerned with quality. The English government, which was warring intermittently with France, was subsidizing distillation from grain in order to reduce the consumption of French brandy -- so gin came along at just the right time. By the 1700s, the English "Gin Craze" (which has been compared to the crack epidemic in this country in the 1980s) was in full swing, and the reach of the British Navy spread gin throughout the world.

This is just the tip of the ice cube when it comes to the grand history of gin, of course. Today there are several styles of gin, including Old Tom, London Dry, Plymouth, Hollands, Genever and New Western Gin.

If you would like to know more about this fine spirit, Steve Olson, Andy Seymour, Leo DeGroff and the AKA Wine Geek team will be conducting an in-depth gin training courtesy of Tanqueray 10 at 1 p.m. on February 3 at TAG. (Contact for more information.)

Sponsor Content

My Voice Nation Help

Great background on the history of Gin. In the 80's the Belgians started to add fresh fruit and cream to Genever. I just started importing these all natural fruit & cream Genevers and at first people are hesitant to try it because they believe it will taste like Gin although it's an entire different spirit category. In 2008 Genever became a protected product of origin and can only be produced in Belgium and the Netherlands. True Genever is distilled in pot stills from a grain mash with only hints of herbs, resulting in a more flavorful spirit. The Belgians have been celebrating this spirit for over 500 years!


I love gin. But my brother the doctor said to stick with vodka because gin is poison. What he meant was "impure" and the body metabolizes vodka more cleanly. The exception? the Queen Mum, whose daily dose of gin helped her make it past 100.

Ah, sweet, sweet gin. The juniper berry of my eye.


"Gin is the original flavored vodka". A statement like that, with nothing else to offer? I'm not necessarly contradicting the statement, but an explanation of why and how would be nice. Other than both being relatively "clear" spirits, I see more in common between gin and whiskey (both made from malted barley) than gin and vodka. Not many vodkas use barley grain, most use lighter grains like wheat or rye. And then nearly all the grain's original characteristics are distilled out, almost to pure alcohol, before water is added to bring down the concentration to an "acceptable" and "legal" proof. The large amount of water is also what leads to the colorless, odorless, tasteless wuality of "pure" vodka. Does gin follow this pattern? I was always under the impression that gin is distilled once, to its desired alcohol level, and then re-distilled with juniper to provide the distinctive flavors.Isn't that more like a whiskey/bourbon distilling process, without the cask-conditioning?

Sean Kenyon
Sean Kenyon

Teach me,I stand by my statement, and meant to follow up on it, but I missed a whole half of a paragraph when I submitted last weeks post. So, I apologize for leaving you hanging. To clarify, modern gin (unlike Genever which has become a completely different sub category) starts by distilling a clear odorless, tasteless spirit (read:vodka) from grains, corn or in some cases grapes. Botanicals are then added to the distillate and re-distilled. Some gin producers distill their botanicals all together. But, because different botanicals release their flavors at different temperatures, some distillers choose to create seperate distillates for each botanical and then blend the resulting spirits to create the final product, this is called fractional blending. A third and cheapest method , called compounding, consists of adding oils or flavorings to the distillate (gross). So, in the simplest of descriptions, gin is made by producing a vodka and redistilling it with natural flavoring (botanicals), therefore, in my opinion it was the first flavored vodka.


Sean Kenyon

Now Trending

From the Vault