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Gin types explained: do you know your Sloe Gin from your London Dry?

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Amy Swales
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So you like gin, hey? Well, you might like drinking it (us too), but do you know your Sloe Gin from your Old Tom? Ladies, it’s time to become a connoisseur. 

Although we respect your right to sidle up to the bar, in a fabulous, library-themed speakeasy and order a house gin and tonic, wouldn’t it be so much cooler if you knew your stuff? 

There are many types of gin and there has never been a better time than right now to brush up on your knowledge, thanks to this spirit’s worldwide renaissance.

Having risen from the ashes of your nan’s go-to tipple (usually lukewarm with a solitary ice cube), the juniper-led drink has had an artisanal makeover and firmly embedded itself in our hearts with uniquely flavoured versions, micro-distilleries and a whole day dedicated to its celebration. 

We’ve even managed to justify our love of gin by finding out its health benefits (there are some, we promise). Yup, it’s safe to say we’re obsessed.

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Now that even the smallest of bars and pubs are running dedicated gin menus and cocktails lists, you know what you like, sure – but do you know the difference between them?

London Dry, Old Tom, Navy…there are lots of types of gin, so we asked Kit Clancy, gin distiller at London’s Sipsmith, to take us through the different styles of mother’s ruin on the market.

Gin styles explained

Gin styles explained including Sloe gin and London Dry
Gin styles explained: including Sloe gin and London Dry

What is London Dry Gin?

Best for… gin purists

One of the most well-known styles, this gin can be made anywhere (despite its moniker) but has its roots in the capital. Historically, it stems from the introduction of stills that improved the quality of the gin swilling round London no end, resulting in a cleaner ‘drier’ taste because it didn’t need sweeteners adding to cover up the shoddy base. As explained by ginfoundry.com, these days the style isn’t really about a particular flavour (other than juniper of course), but rules state flavour cannot be added post-distillation and there’s a minimum ABV must of 37.5%.

Clancy says: “Full of flavour and character, it’s the most quintessentially British and classic gin out there. For almost 200 years no-one had opened a gin distillery in London, but now (proudly led by Sipsmith) London Dry is back on the map and many are distilled here in the capital. London Dry is best sipped in a classic G&T or my favourite is a very dry Martini.”

What is Old Tom Gin?

Best for… cocktail cravers

“A drier gin than Dutch Genever but sweeter than London Dry Gin, Old Tom Gin is an accessible and widely enjoyed style,” Clancy tells us, and Old Tom is often referred to as the ‘missing link’ between the two. The name is thought to be down to a convoluted method of obtaining bootleg gin in the 18th century involving a cat’s paw sign on certain doors, while others say it’s as simple as a successful distiller being named Tom.

“It’s a less botanical-led gin compared to other styles on the market today and is great for whipping up some classic cocktails with. Traditional serves like the Martinez and Tom Collins are particularly well suited to Old Tom gins.”

What is Old Tom Gin?
What is Old Tom Gin?

What is Navy Gin?

Best for… those who want a kick

“A higher strength gin that sits around 57% ABV, this style has its roots in the 18th century, when sailors were often paid partially in gin rations,” says Sipsmith’s Clancy. “Worried that their beloved gin was being diluted by wholesale merchants, they would test the strength of their gin by adding some to a small amount of the ship’s gunpowder and lighting it.

“If it ignited then it was ‘proofed’ and confirmed that it had not been watered down, hence the term ‘Navy Strength’.” It also ensured that any barrel leaks would not render the ship’s gunpowder reserves useless.”

What is Plymouth Gin?

Best for… earthy tastes

There’s only one place in the UK where distilleries are allowed to name their gin Plymouth Gin and that’s – you guessed it – Plymouth. Only one working distillery remains (the oldest in the UK, in fact), and it’s been going for more than 200 years, ensuring naval ships leaving the city’s port never went without a bottle or two.

The Original Strength Plymouth Gin tends to be stronger than its London counterpart at 41.2% and is not as dry, with a slightly earthier flavour from the rooty botanicals.

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What is Sloe Gin?

Best for… sweet tooths

Sloe gin is very much a Ronseal type of affair – sloe berries soaked in gin, with added sugar. Fruit gins have been a tradition for more than a century as they’re pretty easy to make at home and provide the tried-and-tested sweet/sharp combo. It’s often seen as an autumnal or winter option as berries are in season from October.

“If you like a sweeter style tipple, a port with cheese at the end of a meal or an alternative to mulled wine in the winter months, then look no further than sloe gin,” says Clancy. “Deliciously balanced with citrus in any cocktail, but best sipped neat at the end of a meal with a good wedge of Stilton: you can’t go wrong.”

What is Dutch Genever?

Best for… retro fanciers

Though we sometimes use it as an alternative name for gin, genever (also known as jenever and genièvre) is generally not something you’ll find knocking about your local: it’s the juniper-flavoured drink from which gin evolved, and the national liquor of the Netherlands and Belgium. It was gradually adopted and mangled out of recognition by the British in the 17th century, after soldiers fighting alongside their Dutch colleagues clicked on to the benefits of ‘Dutch courage’ (and apparently couldn’t be bothered with words of three syllables).

There are three styles – jonge (young), oude (old) and korenwijn (corn wine) – and it’s a malty grain spirit more like a whisky than a gin, other than its juniper flavours. Try it in one of the original classics, such as the Martinez. To experiment yourself, the most easily found bottle in the UK is probably Bols.

Images: iStock / Sipsmith

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Amy Swales

Amy Swales is a freelance writer who likes to eat, drink and talk about her dog. She will continue to plunder her own life and the lives of her loved ones for material in the name of comedy, catharsis and getting pictures of her dog on the internet.

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