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London Dry Gin: What’s In A Name

Published 2 March 2010

London Dry Gin is renowned the world over, but when most of it isn’t actually produced in London at all, what does the term actually mean?

Gin is defined simply as a spirit whose predominant flavour is juniper.  Beyond that, though, it gets a lot more complicated. For almost as long as gin production has been ongoing in its native Netherlands, from where it takes its name from the Dutch jenever meaning juniper, gin has been associated with London.

The spirit has a dubious history. The height of London’s fascination with gin came in the 1700s when it was cheaper than beer and safer than water, causing it to become popular amongst London’s poor as a way to get drunk. This time of ‘gin-mania’ is depicted in William Hogarth’s 1751 illustration Gin Lane showing a scene of death and destruction including a drunken mother letting her child fall from her arms. The painting is set in the area of St. Giles, pretty much exactly where Centrepoint now sits. The same year saw Parliament respond by putting in action legislation and excise duties which raised production costs and discouraged black-market gin.  Industries were set up and London’s gin distillers started to compete over quality rather than quantity.

Come 1790, London produced over 90% of English gin and was to home to over 40 distilleries, primarily in the City, Westminster and Southwark.  London soon became synonymous with quality and the characteristic style of gin made in London as opposed to sweeter foreign versions, leading to the term “London Dry Gin” being coined.  With the help of this title, gin has become one of Britain’s most successful exports and a duty-free favourite for tourists, as well as an international symbol of London.

So what is the definition of London Dry Gin?
Those who wish to leave the city with a bottle of London-produced memorabilia need to be a bit careful, though. The London Dry Gin label is something of a misnomer given that the gin could actually have been made anywhere in the UK.  The term refers to a style of gin-making rather than a location. Traditionally, a gin bearing the label would have been distilled with more aromatics, particularly citrus, than foreign gins that put more emphasis on the juniper. However, this isn’t necessarily the case anymore. The only legal requirement of London Dry Gin as opposed to other styles is that the botanicals are added during the distilling process rather than being added later as flavourings. Likewise, adding sugar or colourings is not permitted.

At one time, the vast majority of gin sold throughout the world was produced in London. Though London Dry Gin is still the world’s favourite, many of the companies dominating the market have long since left London in search of cheaper locations. The world’s best-selling and potentially best-known gin, one of the very first to be made in London is Gordon’s ; however, they have recently re-located completely to Scotland.

Dry gins still produced in London
The only internationally known gin brand to still be produced in London today is Beefeater, which is based in Kennington. With their name and bottle a reference to the Yeoman Warders at the Tower of London, they are as much about London as they are about gin and a lasting representation of London Dry Gin as the term was meant to be.  Its nine botanicals are all added pre-distillation, there’s no added sweetener, there’s a good hit of citrus from the inclusion of orange and lemon peels, and it’s made right in the heart of London.

Beefeater’s Master Distiller, Desmond Payne, is calling for a protected designation of origin (PDO) for London Gin, in the same way that Parma ham can only come from Parma, sherry can only come from Jerez, or indeed that Plymouth gin can only come from Plymouth. He’s not alone, either. With the return to popularity of the Martini and an ever-growing emphasis on provenance, the last couple of years have seen a mini gin revolution come to London. New guys on the block Sipsmith have started to distil gin (& some vodka too) in Hammersmith, whilst Juniper Green’s organic offering from Clapham has received some much deserved press.  Perhaps it’s time people knew where their gin really comes from…

Article written by Ben Norum.

  • Martin Miller

    Yes, indeed it is curious. But I’m glad to say that since I first distilled my own gin back in 1998 the category has become a broad church indeed. This has brought a vibrancy to gin that it so sadly lacked in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and even into the 90’s, when the big distillers consigning gin to the dustbin of history, sacrificed it on the altar of the new bland religion – vodka. Glad to say thats all changing now, with a new group of young, informed consumers returning to the gin fold, enjoying the variety of taste sensations it offers and discovering gin’s part in the rich history of the classic cocktails.