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Whenever I’m traveling, I make it a point to check out spirits I can’t get at home. In Rome that meant amari so herbal and bitter they’d contort my face with every sip. In Lima I tried as many piscos infused with local ingredients as I could find (like with huacatay, aka Peruvian black mint). In Mexico City I sought out craft mezcals made from rarer varieties of agave. And no matter where I am, I’m always looking for a bottle of gin I’ve never seen before.
It’s my favorite spirit to sample for a few reasons: One, I’d be ordering a Negroni or a gin martini with a twist anyway. And two, I geek out on guessing the particular botanicals used in any new-to-me bottle, which can range from classic (juniper, coriander, citrus) to spicy (cumin, cinnamon, pink pepper) to totally wildcard (lavender, sugar snap peas, asparagus). So when I went to London for the first time this past fall, I was thrilled to finally explore gin in its birthplace. Turns out there’s never been a better time to do so, and I found more cool bottles than I could ever hope to try in one trip. That’s because the UK is currently experiencing a major gin boom, the likes of which the country hasn’t seen since the spirit’s early (and troubled) heyday in the mid-18th century.
According to Jake Burger, the co-founder of Portobello Road Gin and the Ginstitute—a gin history class that also guides you through developing your own custom gin blend—the spirit’s Renaissance can be traced to about 10 years ago, when regulations on gin distilleries were relaxed. “It used to be the case that you had to make a very large amount of gin a year to be granted a legal license to do so,” Burger told me over the phone. “So it was closed to all but the established companies.”
In 2009, Sipsmith became the first distillery to be granted a new license in almost 200 years; Portobello Road wasn’t far behind in 2011. “At last count, we've got over 1,700 different gins available in the UK,” Burger said. “That's not 1,700 distilleries, of course—a lot of these businesses are making more than one gin. But certainly there's an explosion of new gins that have hit the market.”
The second major factor—which shouldn’t be that surprising for anyone who’s enjoyed a beautifully garnished G&T put together with a chef’s precision—is the backdrop of a reinvigorated British food culture. “In the last 20 to 30 years, we've seen England rediscover the principles of cooking, and fall in love with local produce with heritage and providence,” Burger said. “Gin slots into that world very easily.”
For Negroni and martini fans like me, this is all great news. To stand out in the crowd, large and small producers alike are reexamining the classics, and creating more experimental gins aimed at consumers with experimental palates. It’s the reason you’ll find nifty bottles like Opihr, inspired by ancient spice routes and infused with ingredients like cardamom, ginger, and cumin; and Bloom, a floral gin infused with chamomile, honeysuckle, and pomelo peel, coming out of the oldest continuous gin distillery in the world (G&J Distillers in Yorkshire). Meanwhile, a whole parallel industry around the experience of drinking gin has sprung up, from souped-up distillery tours and make-your-own-gin lessons like Burger’s to gin-themed tasting menus, hotel stays, and even spas.
If you want to experience Great Britain’s gin boom for yourself, there are a number of ways you can get in on the action—and not just in London, but all across Great Britain. Book yourself a gin experience in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, or the British countryside. Check out some of my favorite bottles new bottles, or get crafty with your own gin cocktails (or even infusions) at home. There’s really no wrong way to play it.
From London to Edinburgh, Cornwall to Yorkshire, there's so much to do, see, eat, and experience all across the United Kingdom. In partnership with VisitBritain, we're so excited to share our favorite unexpected discoveries to help inspire your very own British adventure. Follow along on Instagram to see what's going on across the pond at @LoveGreatBritain and what Great Britain is eating at @GreatBritishFood.