What does “London Dry” mean in today’s gin era?
We’ve always considered London as the global capital of gin. It is both the birthplace of and now a mecca for juniper-centric spirits and if gin is your thing – nowhere else can really live up to it. When it comes to gin, London has it all, from modern bars specialising in the spirit, distilleries producing it, a longstanding heritage associated with it embedded into the very fabric of the city and, of course, a term that is emblazoned onto many gin bottles the world over.
Ahead of a day of global gin celebrations, we decided to pause, take stock and ask what does it now mean to be a London Dry Gin? The category has changed so much in recent years and with it people’s understanding of what gin can be. So, is the term “London Dry” still relevant and should we care about it any longer?
It’s quite easy to spot the difference between an authentic Londoner and, well, Dick Van Dyke. The authentic Londoner is an expert at both tutting and short cuts; he or she will reach for the passenger alarm the second someone on public transport locks eyes with them and is completely adept at paying £8+ for a G&T without openly sobbing.
An authentic London Dry Gin however, is a little more difficult to define than the populace of its place of birth, especially when the term itself is muddier than the river that runs through it.
Historically, the term “Dry Gin” came about with the advent of the Coffey still in 1832, long after the Gin Craze had driven London to distraction. Prior to this, gin had been made crudely – rudely, almost – and was of such a poor quality that it needed to be jazzed up with a hearty dose of botanicals with sweetening properties (like liquorice root) and sometimes even sugar or honey added post distillation to make it more palatable. Once the Coffey still came into action and a more consistent (and critically, more neutral) spirit was available, unsweetened gin started gaining popularity and became known as “Dry Gin”. As most dry gin producers were based in London, the products were sometimes referred to as “London Dry Gin.”
The flavour profile of London Dry Gin was more juniper-lead, with a touch of citrus and a rooty finish, and while many of today’s makers stay true to this (Tanqueray, Beefeater, Gordon’s, East London Liquor Company), there is a noticeable shift in taste lately, and there are many distilleries using the London Dry method to create completely untraditional tasting gins.
The first thing to note is that a London Dry Gin doesn’t have to be made in London; it doesn’t even have to be made in England. Instead, London Dry (also known as London Gin) refers to that which is made under a series of mind-bogglingly exciting EU regulations put in place in February 2008.
To read them in full, click here, otherwise, here’s a much abridged crux: Working off a neutral base spirit of agricultural origin, that has already been distilled to over 96% ABV, London Dry Gin must be (re)distilled to at least 70% ABV. It can only be watered down to a minimum strength of 37.5%, it must contain no artificial ingredients, contain only a minute amount of sweetener and cannot have any flavour or colour added after distillation. Of course, as with all gins, the predominant flavour must be that of juniper berries.
Of the skills necessary for this method of gin making, Beefeater’s Master Distiller Desmond Payne said: “[The term London Dry] requires the distiller to achieve the full balance of botanical flavours in the distillation without further enhancing the flavour later on. The flavours of juniper, citrus, angelica and other botanicals come across at different stages of distillation. For us, this means that it is the skill and judgement of the distiller to decide when he or she will make the cut to ensure that only the desirable flavours are collected for the final gin.”
To re-iterate, London Dry Gin can (and does) come from just about everywhere, and it doesn’t even have to taste like a “classic” gin. When laws were passed, the term London Dry was intended to protect production methods and is not about flavour. Perhaps because the reference to dry gins had been around for centuries, long before any form of legislation – the term is frequently used today to represent both the flavour profile and / or production, causing much confusion in the process. The reality is that you can have a huge array of modern gins that taste different and unconventional, which are still made in a traditional way as per the law governing the term.
For example, South African makers Hope on Hopkins have a couple of London Dry’s in their collection, yet most people wouldn’t use the words classic or traditional to describe the flavour. Swedish makers Hernö adopt both the production methods and botanicals often associated with the “London Dry” style, but the addition of vanilla, meadowsweet and Nordic lingon berries mean that while the gin is very much a London Dry by definition, its taste is a new take on gin and one that doesn’t fit the tag if one were using it to describe archetypal “classic” flavour profiles.
So where does this leave us? Is the term London Dry still relevant? Well, yes. It is important as it protects a way of making gin that forces producers to adhere to certain rules. In the long run, it should help consumers understand that if the term is on the label – it will have been made in a certain way, with nothing added after. In this context, the expression offers an enforceable consumer guarantee and is therefore worth protecting.
However, we often hear the notion that London Dry is a sign of a better quality gin, and while we accept that it does mean that the maker has had to produce it in a certain way that is difficult to do well, this part of the equation no longer holds true post gin boom. Some London Dry Gin’s that have been made in the past 5 years taste awful and equally, some distilled gins and compounded gins have been fantastic. It may have been a sign of quality in yesteryear, but the category has moved on (along with fractional production methods, smaller stills, new ideas…) and the notion that London Dry is a cut above just because of its production methods doesn’t hold up to inspection anymore.
In that case, should we care? Absolutely. It still matters. The less the term is being used to describe flavour, the less confusion there will be over what it represents and the more it will represent a standard of production. More people using the term correctly will place those looking to defend it in a much stronger position as no deceitful maker will be able to hide behind the misleading excuse that they were trying to “describe what their gin tasted like”.
If something is measurable and not subjective and the term is solely about how it is made it is much easier to hold distillers to account. Of course, it will also require someone in the various bodies to actually step in and walk the walk they’ve all been talking about to police it, but that’s a story for another day…
We feel this core truth is why all those in the trade should care about protecting “London Dry” and putting it in it’s rightful context. In an era where there is fierce debate about what Gin is, and how it can be made – with some producers pushing flavours too far and others cutting corners in production – having a very quantifiable, legally enforceable sub-section in the category can only be a good thing. It doesn’t stop innovation in other areas nor hold the category back, it just ring fences a certain part of it.
Guarantees about production aside, one of the reasons we should all care about setting a defined standard in production, trade or not, is because producing a truly great London Dry Gin is an art form in its own right.
When one considers the great architects, engineers, cinematographers and designers, their work may not be “art” in a conventional way, but their is artistry in what they do. When it comes to distilling, as Desmond said, making a London Dry requires the distiller to achieve the full balance of botanical flavours in the distillation, with no tinkering thereafter. It’s hard to do and sets a standard for all makers to aspire to. To achieve it and make a consistently identical spirit batch after batch, one that is balanced and sophisticated, is to master ones craft. This can only be a good thing in an era where so many newcomers are entering the category and learning their craft.
It is almost without doubt that one can predict that the definition of London Dry will have to be altered in the years to come. Gin is moving at such a breakneck speed that it is impossible for the entire category to simply grow uncontrolled and ungoverned. Progress means change and this is a good thing for all those involved in making gin and all those who love drinking it. For now however, respecting the term so many fought hard to establish and using it properly would do the spirit a great service and help the category build on solid foundations as opposed to force it to have to restructure entirely.
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