Portobello Road’s “Ginstitute” is hands-on fun.
Nuanced, herbal, and complex, gin has been my favorite spirit ever since I learned how to make a proper martini (I don’t care what James Bond says, but there’s no way I’m shaking it). Over the years I’ve gone out of my way to sample all sorts of craft gin bottles—both for work as a reporter, and for fun as a cocktail enthusiast.
While I probably know more than your average Joe, I’d never call myself a gin expert. But that’s exactly what I’d call Jake Burger, co-founder and director of the Ginstitute, a hands-on gin museum on London’s Portobello Road that’s grown into a four-story distillery complex-slash-boutique hotel known as the Distillery. Here, you can sip craft cocktails made with the Ginstitute’s in-house brand—Portobello Road—in the Resting Room bar, sample 100 gins from around the world in the GinTonica, or get a history lesson in the spirit while making your own personal gin blend with one of the Distillery’s experiences. (You can also stay overnight in one of three well-appointed lodging rooms upstairs.)
I caught up with Burger for a mini lesson on the history of the spirit—including what it is that makes gin, well, gin—and boy did I learn a lot. Below, you can find a handful of fun facts you might not already know about gin. If you’re curious to know (and taste!) more, you can catch the full history lesson by booking the Ginstitute experience at the Distillery. (Prices start at £60 for a Masterclass.)
1. The dominant flavors of classic London dry gin are juniper berries, coriander seed, and angelica root. To that you might add some combination of lemon peel (no surprise here), orange root, orange peel, and licorice (who knew?).
2. Apparently, you wouldn’t recognize the flavor of gin without angelica root, even though you’ve (probably) never heard of it. According to Burger, it’s got a wet dog, smelly socks aroma, but somehow acts as the perfect background note to juniper. He likened it to a distiller’s salt and pepper.
3. You can put any other botanicals you want in gin. Weirder ones Burger has experimented with include Lapsang tea, acacia bark, and even asparagus. Other brands have added things like honeysuckle, cinnamon, cucumber, or various types of pepper.
4. Gin wasn’t actually invented by the British, it was developed by the Dutch—well, sort of. The first juniper-flavored spirit sipped for social (read: intoxicating) reasons was produced in Holland and was known as jenever (sometimes spelled genever).
5. Jenever may have been the precursor to gin, but Europeans had actually been using the juniper berry to flavor medicinal alcohol for a whole lot longer. The earliest definitive recipe for distilled alcohol flavored with juniper was from 1269, in what's now Belgium (or what would have been known as the Low Countries of the Seventeen Provinces back then).
6. So how did gin wind up in England? British soldiers stationed in Holland during the Eighty Years' War (which started in 1568) brought back an appreciation for Dutch jenever, and the imported juniper spirit became a hot commodity for British aristocracy. When distilling regulations relaxed soon after, it became the most popular spirit to distill in England, too.
7. Over the next 200 years, English jenever became the drink of the peasant class. In Burger’s words, this early “gin” would have been awful, awful, sometimes poisonous stuff. Distillers would sometimes put sulphur in it for an extra kick, use sugar to mask the taste, and add sedatives to hide the fact that there wasn’t much alcohol in what they were bottling...nothing you’d want to sip on today.
8. The effect this low-quality gin had on society was comparable to a modern-day drug epidemic. Known as “the gin craze” (and captured in a 1751 satirical etching by William Hogarth titled “Gin Lane”), you’d see people neglecting their children, drinking instead of working, and not paying their rent. It was really a gloomy time, and gin was an inexpensive means of escape.
9. British gin went through another transformation in the mid-1880s with the arrival of column stills, which allowed for a much purer base spirit for gin. The sugar disappeared from recipes, and botanicals were added to create rather than mask the flavor of the spirit. This is when London Dry Gin—basically gin as we know it—was developed.
10. Today, there are over 1,700 different gins made and bottled for sale in the UK. One of them is Portobello Road, and was developed by the Ginstitute.
What's your favorite gin cocktail? Tell us in the comments below!