When it comes to gin, how does alcoholic strength (or ABV) affect the liquid in your glass?
It’s really not fair. The botanicals get all the credit for providing a gin with flavour, while alcohol is appreciated for its effect on ‘wellbeing’. But alcohol also plays a decisive role in the flavour of a gin (although not in its own right, as alcohol has little to offer beyond sweetness). It’s the alcoholic strength that is crucial, as the same gin shows varying characteristics at different strengths.
Adjusting alcoholic strength is easy; all that’s required is sufficient water to dilute the spirit (i.e. freshly distilled gin), which is typically around 80-85% ABV (alcohol by volume). The minimum legal bottling strength is 37.5% ABV, which means approximately 62.5 per cent is water.
Many gins are at 40% ABV, while the traditional ‘export strength’ is 43% ABV, which is preferred in the US and a legal minimum in South Africa. Catering for preferences and regulations means various brands are bottled at a range of strengths, culminating in ‘navy strength’ which is typically 54.5-57% ABV.
“Changing the bottling strength even by 0.5% ABV results in subtle differences which are discernible when tasting samples side by side. Different strengths bring some botanicals into the foreground and relegate others to the background, or even make them seem invisible,” says gin consultant Jamie Baxter.
The reason for this is that different flavour compounds extracted from the botanicals become soluble (i.e. dissolve) and insoluble at varying alcoholic strengths. When a flavour compound is soluble it effectively ‘disappears’ within the alcohol, and when insoluble it ‘appears’ and is discernible on the palate. Consequently, master distillers utilise the ABV to showcase particular characteristics. For example, Shaun Smith, head distiller at White Peak distillery, says the recipe for its Shining Cliff gin has been designed to work at 45% ABV “as this promotes the aromatic floral notes and perks up the citrus”.
Knowing how a gin changes on either side of the optimum alcoholic strength provides a fascinating insight, as The Lakes’ master distiller Dhavall Gandhi explains in relation to the distillery’s Lakes Gin: “[It] is juniper led with distinctive Earl Grey tea notes and bottling at 46% ABV gives the best balance with coriander and citrus. At a higher strength the character becomes sharper and peppery, and loses coriander and juniper nuances. Below 46% ABV, it’s not as vibrant and the citrus is subdued.”
He continues, “What I find interesting is exploring the alcoholic strength of a gin, which is also an integral part of the flavour profile, and the impact this has on the drinker. You feel the change in your body; it’s a holistic experience. A citrus-led gin can create a very different emotional impact compared to a juniper-led gin, with citrus acidity more akin to a high-energy environment.”
Discovering how a gin evolves at different alcoholic strengths only requires some straightforward DIY: pouring equal amounts of a gin into glasses of the same size and shape. The first sample should be assessed neat as the ‘reference’. The second should be tasted after adding a drop of water, the third with two drops of water, and so on.
Gins bottled at more than one strength are ready-made for such a tasting, for example Rock Rose, with its Original Gin at 41.5% ABV and Navy Strength at 57% ABV. Rock Rose master distiller Martin Murray says, “In the Original I pick up more sweetness from blueberries and lemon verbena, with a hint of rose. In the Navy Strength I find a lot more juniper and spices including cinnamon, which gives some sweetness, cassia provides earthy warmth, while grains of paradise give pepperiness. Lemon is lost at a higher strength.”
For Dan Szor, founder of the Cotswolds Distillery, alcoholic strength plays an important part in enhancing the flavours of his Cotswolds Dry Gin. “We have a very high volume of botanicals which results in a high level of essential oils that create intensity, but a slightly higher alcoholic strength of 46% ABV helps to intensify the botanicals even more, particularly on the nose,” he says.
As in many partnerships, a successful relationship between the botanicals and the ABV depends on equality and achieving the right balance requires careful consideration. As Beefeater’s master distiller Desmond Payne puts it, “When considering the combination of flavours in a recipe, two plus two does not always equal four, and you also have to factor in how flavours interact with each other and how alcohol influences this balance.”
Charles Maxwell, master distiller at Thames Distillers, adds, “The botanicals and alcoholic strength need to be in harmony. When the botanicals and alcohol don’t balance each other, alcohol can burn everything in its path as it goes across the palate.”
How a gin performs in the ‘real world’ is, of course, key. When developing its gin recipes, East London Liquor Co. assesses samples from 43% ABV up to 50% ABV, sampling neat, in a Dry Martini and with tonic. The Dry Martini is a great test as this can effectively be neat gin, but whether shaken or stirred the cocktail accounts for a minority of consumption; gin and tonic is the norm, but that raises further questions.
Jamie Baxter says, “In an ideal world you’d produce a gin that works well in every cocktail and the G&T, but that can’t happen. You don’t know which tonic water will be added, some gins are more compatible with certain tonics, and then there’s the amount of tonic in relation to the gin, how much ice, is the garnish lemon, lime, or something else?”
Alcoholic strength plays a crucial role in a gin, but how much does this actually register? White Peak distillery co-founder Max Vaughan believes ABV is not a major factor in buying decisions for most drinkers, although feedback on White Peak’s spirits has revealed a preference among some for ‘a bit more oomph’. “When we highlight the higher ABV people are interested in this as a point of differentiation. It’s part of our broader story and fundamental to the way our gin tastes,” he says.