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Quick Guide to Gin (and Gin Cocktails)

Gin is one of the most popular spirits and one of the most common liquors used in cocktails. From Prohibition era classics like the Bees Knees to the iconic Martini or the eternally refreshing Gin and Tonic, there’s a gin cocktail for just about everyone.

a cocktail in a tall stemmed coupe glass with a rosemary sprig next to sliced limes.

What is gin?

Gin is a liquor that’s made from neutral grain spirits that are flavored with a variety of botanicals, one of which must be juniper. The bright, piney flavor of juniper berries gives gin its characteristic freshness. Most gins are around 40% alcohol by volume. Navy Strength gins are those that are at least 114 proof (57%).

The term Navy Strength refers to the British Royal Navy and the gin that they carried aboard their ships. In order to verify that the gin they received was high enough quality, and not watered down, they would mix it with gunpowder and light it on fire. If it burned clear, they knew it was strong enough (57% alcohol by volume).

History of the spirit

Gin’s modern roots can be traced back to England in the 17th century. The Dutch and Belgian spirit jenever is its predecessor, a juniper-flavored spirit made with a grain-based mash. Older spirits incorporating juniper can be traced back even further to monks in Italy in the 11th century.

Unlike spirits like tequila or bourbon, there are no legal requirements for spirits producers to follow in order to call their product gin. The only mandatory botanical is juniper, but some modern gins use such a small amount, that it’s virtually undetectable in the finished product. There’s a push in the spirits community to redefine these low-juniper products as botanical spirits, rather than gin.

a tall purple drink garnished with a lemon wheel.

The five types of gin

London Dry

The London Dry style of gin is the classic, juniper-forward gin. These gins get their flavor from the botanicals that they are distilled with and there are no additives after the fact. Examples of London dry gin include Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray, Beefeater, and Ford’s.

Note: Plymouth gin is technically it’s own category of gin, although its taste and process is similar to London dry. Plymouth gin can only be made in Plymouth, England and it is characterized by a slightly earthier flavor.

Distilled

Bottles of gin that are labeled as “Distilled” means that they may have flavorings or other additives introduced after distillation. These additives could be natural or artificial flavors, colors, or sweeteners. Most flavored gins and “pink gins” fall into this category.

New Age, New American, or New Style Gins

The surge in gin popularity in the last couple of decades has brought a ton of new brands to market, including many that produce non-traditional styles of gin. Because the gin category’s definition is quite broad, a wide range of spirits using an even wider range of botanicals exist today. Some of these modern gins retain the prominent juniper flavor, while others skew to a more citrus, herbal, or fruit flavor. Examples of New Age gins include Hendrick’s, Aviation, and Uncle Val’s.

Old Tom Gin

Old Tom gin is characterized by some degree of sweetening and aging, although neither is technically a requirement. It’s often said that Old Tom gin falls between the very dry London dry gin and the very malty genever. Although less common today, Old Tom gin was often called for in classic gin cocktail recipes, including the beloved Tom Collins.

On to the cocktails! Most classic gin cocktails can be categorized into spirit-forward sips (like Martinis and Negronis), sours (like the Gimlet), and highballs (Gin and Tonic). Other notable gin classics include the bubbly gin and champagne cocktail the French 75, and the more modern tiki classic, Saturn (gin with passionfruit, lime, and orgeat syrup).

Spirit-forward gin cocktails

a martini next to lemons and flowers.

Sour-style gin cocktails

Even more sweet and sour gin cocktails:

red cocktail with thick white foam on top and raspberries

Highballs

a goblet filled with a clear, bubbly drink, rosemary and pink peppercorns.

Tiki & Tropical Style

yellow frozen cocktail in a poco grande glass

Gin & Champagne

Create you own custom gin cocktail

Still want more? One of the most fun and rewarding things about mixing drinks at home is experimenting and creating your own unique drink recipes. The next time you pick up a new bottle of gin, try making a cocktail using the following specs:

  • 2 ounces gin
  • 3/4 – 1 ounce fresh lemon or lime juice
  • 3/4 – 1 ounce sweet ingredient (such as simple syrup, honey syrup, a flavored syrup, or a liqueur)
  • A few ounces of sparkling water (optional, if you prefer a long drink)

Combine the first three ingredients in a cocktail shaker and fill it 3/4 with ice. Shake until it’s nice and cold, then strain the liquid into a chilled cocktail glass OR a highball glass filled with ice (if topping the drink off with soda water). Garnish with a fresh botanical that echoes flavors or aromas in your custom recipe.

There are so many ways to customize this drink – try it with St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur, easy homemade raspberry simple syrup, or use plain simple syrup but muddle in some fresh seasonal fruit. The possibilities are endless and the best part is that this recipe template works with whatever you already have on hand.

If you prefer your drinks a little more spirit-forward, start with 3/4 ounce each citrus juice and simple syrup. If you like things a little sweeter and slightly more mild, start with 1 ounce each of those ingredients. Mellow things even further with the addition of a few ounces of sparkling water.

For more inspiration, visit my Ultimate Guide to Cocktail Syrups or head over to MoodyPantry.com to find all of my most in-depth syrup recipes.

an antique cocktail glass filled with a bright pink liquid and garnished with small flowers.

Create Your Own Custom Gin Cocktail

Amy Traynor
This simple sour-style cocktail recipe template makes it easy to shake up a delicious gin cocktail at home – with whatever you've alredy got in your fridge or pantry!
3.50 from 2 votes
Prep Time 3 minutes
Total Time 3 minutes
Course Drinks
Cuisine American
Servings 1 cocktail

Ingredients
  

  • 2 oz gin
  • ¾ – 1 oz fresh lemon or lime juice
  • ¾ – 1 oz simple syrup or sweet ingredient of choice See notes below for ideas
  • sparkling water Optional

Instructions
 

  • Combine the first three ingredients in a cocktail shaker and fill it 3/4 with ice. Shake until well chilled, then strain the liquid into a chilled cocktail glass.
  • If making a long drink, strain the chilled liquid into a highball glass filled with ice. Top with a few ounces of sparkling water.
  • Garnish with a fresh botanical that echoes the flavors or aromas present in your drink (lime wheel, lemon slice, a basil leaf, blackberry, edible flower, etc.)

Notes

Sweet Ingredients

Simple syrup or flavored simple syrups are the easiest to work with in cocktail recipes. Make basic simple syrup by combining equal parts water and sugar and stirring until all of the sugar has dissolved. No need to cook the syrup, just use warm/hot water and you’ll have syrup in a minute or two. Store leftovers in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
Flavor your simple syrup by muddling fresh fruit (such as berries) into your simple syrup base, then straining out the solids, or simply muddling some fresh fruit directly into the cocktail shaker as you make your drink. You can also extract flavors into your simple syrup by heating all of the ingredients in a saucepan over medium-low heat for 5-10 minutes. Allow the syrup to cool fully before straining out the solids. A good rule of thumb for making your own flavored syrups is: 1 part water, 1 part sugar, 2 parts fruit.
Other easy syrups: try honey syrup (just mix equal parts honey and water and stir until the honey has dissolved), maple syrup (you may want to add some water to it to make it easier to incorporate OR use a bit less than the recipe above. I would recommend 1/2 ounce instead of 3/4 or more), or coconut water simple syrup for a luxurious mouthfeel and a slightly tropical flavor.
Liqueurs: try the ever-popular elderflower liqueur St. Germain, limoncello, pear liqueur, pomegranate liqueur, amari and aperitifs such as Amaro Montenegro or Aperol, or go far out with potent liqueurs like Chartreuse. Experiment and see what you like best!
Keyword easy cocktails, gin, simple syrup
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