Spirits

Gin's "flavourless" Base Spirit

Welcome to a very deep dive into a very niche subject – the base spirit of Gin.

Overview

For years gin drinkers have been led to believe that a gin’s base spirit is a neutral canvass. It’s flavourless. It’s Vodka. It might as well be invisible as it’s just the vehicle to carry the flavours that they have carefully put together through their botanical recipe.

After all the clue is in its name – it’s called Neutral Spirit!

This notion is in stark contrast with our own experiences though. We’ve come across many gins that have huge underlying tones from the base spirit and met dozens of makers adamant that their choice of base is what gives them an edge. 

Gin base spirit
Gin base spirit

We are nerdy enough to remember when Sipsmith changed theirs with seemingly nobody noticing, and Fisher’s Gin doing the same and it being a revelation for their Coastal profile. 

The base spirit has never been at the centre of mainstream attention other than the odd headline grabbing release from a new Gin brand enjoying 15 minutes of fame when it launches. That said, the base spirit on which a gin is made has been a curiosity for many enthusiasts and so, we decided to dig further to help share some more insight into it. 

From our research it is clear that whether you make it yourself or buy it in, dismissing the base in its entirety misses numerous interesting aspects of the gin category. It’s also one of the faster growing areas of innovation for Dry Gin and a niche that enjoys the support of a passionate group of gin fans.

At best, when a producer ignores it, it plays a huge disservice to the potential a base spirit has to enhance the overall mix, at worst it shows a severe lack of understanding of how flavours are built and the distiller’s ability to detect the more subtle parts of their profile. 

Farming a wheat field
Farming a wheat field

In the following sections we’ve delved into the sub-group of distillers making gin from scratch and looked at different base spirits from industrial suppliers. We’ve also explored why historically it’s been side-lined as a subject and what the future holds for its place in the everyday drinkers’ understanding of gin.

We found that not only does it provide a unique perspective on the category but looking into the particulars of a base spirit brings with it some fascinating glimpse of what may happen next for Gin as a category overall.

 

Some History

Why do so few make their own Base Spirit?

First, let’s look at why is it the accepted norm for British gin makers to buy in a Neutral Grain Spirit in order to make gin, rather than make it themselves.

Historically in the UK, there were legalities that forced brewing and distilling to be done in a separate place to where the rectifying happened. The age-old law was primarily designed and introduced as a way of being able to regulate the amount of new alcohol being produced (and more importantly, being taxed) and the origins of this tiered policing of spirit production can be tracked back all the way to the 17th Century.

Sparing you inches of historical twists and turns during the Gin Craze and the dozens of minor amends, subsequent mergers of business, the integration of customs officers and the general modernisation of the taxation system – suffice it to say this was only changed recently (in the context of hundreds of years of distillation). 

Despite this, the idea of there being a difference between a distiller (someone who makes the spirit) and a rectifier (someone who redistills it with flavourings / botanicals) has remained embedded in UK culture. Even today, there are still different licences for the two.

Unlike American producers, many British gin producers who enter the market don’t even consider the idea of creating their own base alcohol. Thankfully however, the tides are changing and the decision to buy in a base spirit VS make it yourself is fast becoming more of a consideration to debate than a default and defined mindset.

Arbikie Distillery
Arbikie Distillery

History aside, costs weigh heavily for many - 

It costs a small fortune to set up a grain to glass distillery, and unless you build a large-scale operation it’s more expensive to produce your own base alcohol than it is to buy Neutral Spirit thereafter. 

This may sound strange to any American readers, but you need to appreciate that a small distillery in the US would be considered medium to large here. Many established brands have stills with capacities of less than 100L  here (by contrast, that would be considered at best a hobby size kit stateside).

This commercial fact is the key factor as to why most who do consider it seriously then opt not to embark on that journey in the UK. Put simply, it is hard to make the economics work in your favour at a nano scale. When the alternative is a readily available, high quality product that’s reasonably cheap and easy to get hold of - many conclude it’s not worth the effort.

Republic of Fremantle Still
Republic of Fremantle Still

If you’ve got the cash, do you have the space, or want to deal with the size?

Many are put off by the idea of operating at the size required even if they could afford it. Often we’ve spoken to distillers who were put off by the need to operate larger stills and run more complex operations involving fermenters and stipping runs etc. as it killed the idea of the small scale, boutique operation they dreamed so passionately of building.

We’ll pause here to state that yes, there are indeed modern stills that can now make Vodka at a smaller scale. Given they look like a kettle with a stainless-steel rod coming out the top and cables poking out the side as if you’re jump starting a car however, they have the same level of romance as setting up in an industrial estate in Slough… so those unconvinced distillers face the same dilemma. 

For others, especially those in urban areas with visitor centres, taking up such a footprint for the apparatus required (stills, fermenters, storage tanks etc) is simply not a viable option for them. They either can’t make it work, or would prefer to use the space for their tours, tastings and gift shops.

But isn’t gin all about botanicals anyway?

Another reason so few Gin makers distil their own base spirit has more to do with why they want to make Gin in the first place, how they view the spirit and what they value in its flavour profile. 

If they are not put off by the additional requirements of extra finances, expertise, warehouse space, admin or one of the many other complications that emerge from making booze from scratch– the face a very pertinent question: is it worth all that hassle to create something that they have no intention of making a feature of? 

It’s called Neutral Grain Spirit for a reason, right? So long as it’s smooth, it’s good to go. Why bother crafting something that will be intentionally invisible in their end product? 

While it may be a limited understanding of the potential role of a base spirit can play, it is understandable. It’s also a mindset that’s reenforced by the fact that gin is predominantly sold to drinkers on the merits of the botanicals and their flavours, not the agricultural origin or the production process like it is with Whisky, Rum or Tequila. 

The craft isn’t valued by the drinker, nor a core part of the identity of many makers.

Through years of marketing from both larger companies and the new small gin makers, drinkers have largely been taught to forget about the base ingredient.

Many tours start with the beautiful little stills and the botanicals, but by that point dozens of parts of the process have already been skipped. Through repeated, often unintentional ways of downplaying the base spirit over a decade, it now has very little real value to most British drinkers. 

Only a tiny fraction spare any thought about it when selecting, drinking or even discussing gin – and that often stems from misguided ideas about gluten and allergens.

This also extends to just how the majority of ginsmiths view themselves too. They are “makers” who distil not necessarily out-and-out distillers and certainly not brewers. Their craft (or at least the one they sell to drinkers) is that of layering flavours and botanical wrangling, not of mastering the process of fermenting, brewing, distilling.

There are hundreds of Craft Gin Distilleries, and few Craft Distilleries.

Doghouse Distillery
Doghouse Distillery

Another common factor that has dissuaded so many from distilling from scratch, is the UK Craft distilling scene’s monoculture around making gin. 

In the US, South Africa and Australia, creating other spirits is a big part of most distillers’ business plans. Here, the vast majority are Gin-only makers. For context – out of the 500+ gin makers operating in the UK in 2021, less than 30 make their own base spirit.

Combine this with the general opinion of Vodka in both trade and consumer circles (big brands selling well but still holds little cachet or cool) and it’s not difficult to see why a British maker doesn’t feel the allure of what could be made with a different set up and creating a broad range of white spirits.

Spirits Beacon Watermark
"Despite all of this, none of the above is the prime factor deterring the fool hardy wanting to make their own base either…"

From inherited practices and mind-sets formed by archaic laws in history, to scale and economic hurdles, to artistic visions of what the very idea of crafting a gin means and how it is marketed, or even new brand owners wanting to make other spirits - grain to glass gin has remained a rare sight in the UK. 

Despite all of this, none of the above is the prime factor deterring the fool hardy wanting to make their own base either… That trophy goes to the fact that to be lawfully named a Gin, Distilled Gin or a London Dry Gin, a base alcohol needs to have been distilled to over 96% ABV…

Hydrometer at 95% ABV
Hydrometer at 95% ABV

96% ABV IS MORE THAN JUST A HIGH NUMBER. HERE’S WHY.

Amongst other factors (such as methanol content) EU law requires the base spirit to have been distilled to 96%. Anyone who stops short of reaching this ABV and labels their products as Gin is doing so illegally. There are loopholes, of course, and various interpretations of the laws around equivalence for imported brands, but it is a mandatory fact for British makers.

The more you drive the ABV up in a spirit, the more you strip out flavours and the more neutral, or ‘pure’ the spirit becomes. When it reaches 96% ABV, it is considered organeleptically flavourless. Anyone who has ever distilled or seen distillation performed will be able to understand that getting a spirit to a consistent average of 95% ABV is hard and requires careful precision. With some graft and attention to detail, it is however reasonably achievable. 

The sheer effort to raise it that extra 1%, however, is lunacy.

For context, so long as you distil slowly and perform a “stripping run” beforehand you could clean up a spirit that averages out at 95% ABV using a column (or equivalent) of around 10 – 14 plates. 

To reach the 96% ABV, it is not an incremental amount more plates that are required…. It demands at least 30, more typically closer to 40 overall, and that would be assuming everything ran at maximum efficiency all of the time. That’s a difference of about €30,000 – €40,000 in copper plates alone, and further expenses in set up costs, lighting, rigging infrastructure, testing, transport… Then there’s also the additional costs in the time it takes to perform each run, as well as the build of the distillery to accommodate the size of the apparatus.  

These are all separate considerations to the fact that a distiller will require a larger base pot (thus more money) to make it run cost efficiently due to the wastage involved that we mentioned at the start of the article.

Financially, there is a huge difference between being able to reach 95% and letting it tail off, and reaching an average cut of 96%. Like we said, it’s lunacy, but it makes a huge difference to the flavour, not just to the legalities of what you can write on the label.

It is palpably obvious when something has not reached the required standard. The underlying agricultural product no way near as discernible to taste in the higher ABV spirit. We’re not saying that one is better than the other, but that they are, unequivocally, not the same and the role that added flavour (or lack thereof) plays in the profile of a Gin is radically different. 

The desire to attain the subtle flavour profile afforded by hitting 96%, the legalities that could shut you down if you don’t (if ever they were actually enforced) and fiscal factors involved in building the infrastructure to enable you to do are big concerns to resolve. Collectively, they make the 96% rule the single biggest deterrent for many to make their own base spirit and why so few do it.

The Scene Today

What exists in the market today?

Today, the Gin category is ever evolving alongside the growing consumer demand of wanting to know the exact provenance of what they consume. Discerning drinkers are not just interested in finding out more but are also prepared to pay a little extra when given the chance to support a maker who can show them the value of their process. So how far does that extend when it comes to base spirit and how are distillers tapping into that? 

When it comes to British makers, we tend to separate those who make their make a base spirit into three groups.

The first is those who go all in, and after brewing and an initial distillation, drive the base spirit to 96% ABV pure alcohol. 

These tend to be distillers on the larger scale of operations, and while their spirits are not devoid of flavour, they are very clean and close to neutral in flavour. The big differentiating factor between what they make and bought in Neutral Spirit is easiest to observe when you compare the texture and underlying mouthfeel of the spirit. 

Brewdog Distillery
Brewdog Distillery

Lone Wolf, William Chase, Renegade and Adnam’s are good examples of this and whose respective vodkas showcase the underlying agricultural source (e.g. barley, wheat, apple or potato) and the quality of their distillation process. The likes of Hills and Harbour Gin and Ramsbury Gin also make theirs from scratch and while theirs are intentionally more neutral in tone, also showcase that luscious mouthfeel batch-made base spirit can deliver when used as the starting point of a gin.

The second is those who don’t quite drive their spirit to 96% and whose base has clear and obvious flavours of their agricultural origin. 

There are many such producers in the US and Australia, and the numbers are growing in the UK. As this would be illegal to use for the entire base (it doesn’t meet the 96% rule), these makers often only part use their own base spirit and combine it with more bought in Neutral Spirit. 

In doing so, their intention is to add a little more texture to the base without really creating a lot of underlying flavour which they would then need to contend with when building their botanical recipe. 

Cuckoo Gin and Boatyard Gin are both examples of two fantastic gins that fall into this area, so too are Henstone Gin. All three use predominantly Neutral Spirit to form the base, but add up to 50% of their own to it. While all are open about their practice, one of the big differentiators between this group and the grain to glass operations is how little prominence is placed on what they are doing to accentuate the quality of their base spirit when they pitch their gins to drinkers. 

The last area is those who look at spirit as a botanical addition.

Typically, they add another spirit (such as sake, brandy, or young whisky) either before or after distillation and deliberately focus their marketing around it. They are hybrid spirits of sorts and are quickly growing in numbers. 

Examples of this include Jinzu who famously add Sake along with water to cut it to bottling strength, or Hyke Gin who use a grape mark as a “liquid botanical” on what is otherwise a classic gin made on a grain based neutral spirit. The most unusual liquid addition though goes to Salcombe’s Limited edition, Restless Gin, which used Kombucha as part of its recipe.

Rather surprisingly, while one might assume that when it comes to how prominent the flavour is in the end spirit, it would be non-existent for the first group, present in the second and dominant in the third, that’s not necessarily true.

The underlying spirit is often still discernible the gins belonging to the first group. If one takes them at their word, the likes of Sibling or The Oxford Artisan Distillery each state they to push their spirit upto 96%, but in all of their gins that base is evident, be it Sibling’s sugary qualities or TOAD’s caramelised, chocolate-y wheat. 

Moreover, take the likes of Arbike’s Nadar Gin made from a pea base. When you taste it, you are left with the impression that the pea base provides the lion’s share of the end flavour. It doesn’t. It’s a clever use of coriander seed, citrus and lemongrass that enhances the underlying spirit. 

It shows that how neutral something tastes vs how much it permeates into the final gin is both about the distillation and choice of the base spirit, as well as a distiller’s subsequent gin recipe that can accentuate its flavours.

Does the base matter to those who buy it in? Neutral Spirit is not Neutral…

So, if you can taste the base spirit made by those who distil it themselves on a “craft” scale, is there a difference between the spirits made by those who are supposedly on a more industrial scale?

We’ve all been told that you cannot taste the difference between a wheat, barley or potato base when it’s made on an industrial scale. So many distillers state that Neutral Spirit is a blank canvas - but that’s simply not the case at all.

Manildra Distillery
Manildra Distillery

We assembled four samples from Netherlands based Sasma BV, who work with a worldwide network of Premium Alcohol producers to supply their clients. In order to make it a fair test and to assess whether there is a variance between spirits, we did not pick the extremes of what they offered. Discerning the differences between a rice alcohol and a malted barley spirit would be too obvious, and it wouldn’t be relevant in the context of Gin making. The same goes for comparing their varying grades of spirit. 

Cutting all spirits from 96% to 40% ABV for the tastings, we compared Sugar Cane, Wheat, Barley and Potato Alcohol blind. All four are used in gin production with Sugar Cane and Wheat particularly prevalent in the industry. There is a clear textural difference between each sample, and there is also marked differences in how the spirit presents itself on the nose, with some that are supple and approachable to start, while others have a marked attack.

Sugar Cane spirit provides an obvious sweetness but there are similarities between it and the Wheat alcohol sample, with the latter providing a more subtle cereal sweetness. 

Wheat has a subtle sweet texture and soft mouthfeel, not as distinct as Sugar Cane’s overtly sugared nature. The nuance between the of underlying flavour of each highlights the choice afforded to a distiller. It allows them to ask themselves; What are they looking for in their base and how evident do they want that characteristic to be?

The difference between samples and how that could be used to influence the profile of a gin’s flavour is once again evident when comparing the Potato and Barley side by side. 

The Potato is soft and smooth, with almost creamy tones and is a base opens up on the mouth providing a naturally round and extended finish, while the Barley has more detectable aroma and a clear cereal note the fore. It doesn’t open up but has an enveloping sensation that isn’t present in Wheat or Sugar cane. Both have a textural quality that simply put, could overpower a lighter botanical bill. On the other hand, both would add an entirely new dimension to something intended to be more like an Old Tom, a Barrel Aged Gin or a recipe that has a bolder pine core.

Having tasted these and dozens more since from other suppliers, our opinion is that if a distiller cannot perceive the difference between Neutral Spirits, they are nowhere near sensitive enough a nose or palate to be able to make a nuanced and complex gin.

The Future

Where is this all heading and will ‘base” be a thing?

There are several factors playing out with the conversation around the base spirit of gin and grain to glass gin producers in the UK. 

The Oxford Artisan Distillery
The Oxford Artisan Distillery

More ‘grain to glass’ operations are likely - 

The factors we identified as having prevented there being more grain to glass operations in part 2 are now losing their potency. 

Most pertinently, the monoculture around gin-only distilleries is likely to dissipate, leading to new distilleries wanting to create a broader spirit range. This favours more varied distilling set ups, which then leads to more distillers fermenting and distilling from scratch. 

The second biggest accelerator is how rapidly still technology is changing. We may feel the modern column packed machines look sinfully ugly at the moment, but they are improving and irrespective of aesthetics – they greatly reduce the barrier to entry. With lower price points and more user-friendly distilling devices, more are considering distilling from scratch.

Just not yet - 

The noticeable growth in grain to glass operations is not that recent at all as they are a long time in the making. While it can take a small-scale rectifier a matter of months to go from inception to being on shelf, those looking to brew, distil and then redistill have a much longer process to get through.

It’s not just the licences, either; as we’ve explored already the amount of investment is higher, the distillery footprint required is bigger, the skill level and expertise required is higher and so are the risks that you need to mitigate against. All of this means added time.

In short, going grain to glass, properly and with EU regulations in mind, is not an incremental step up for a rectifier to make, it’s another league. On average it takes an 18-24month process to go from initial conversations to producing the first drinkable spirit. 

How much the pandemic has hampered new entries is hard to say, but it is more than likely to have scuppered many from the start who then downweighed their builds to smaller operations, delayed almost all that were in the build process and has made some considering taking that big upfront investment hesitate and back off all together…

Bulk suppliers are changing their approach

Neutral Spirit providers are rapidly changing their way of selling into small operations. More flexibility, broader offering, more tailored advice are some of the ways they are adapting to the growth in the micro-distilling sector. 

With it has come an understanding that not all want flavourless ethanol, and that more importantly they will pay a premium for a quality spirit which helps kick start their recipes… The need to articulate why their selection of spirits are right for the distiller is helping educate new makers about the variety of options out there. This is a stark change to the bulk commodity approach to sales that was prevalent a decade ago. 

Saturated categories require new ways of differentiating

Gin is the most oversaturated category in spirits with not just hundreds of brands competing, but thousands. With every botanical already highlighted, every flavour and gimmick attempted the search for more authentic differentiators is a key driver behind new product development. Many are looking to their base spirit as a point of difference and finding ways to upsell that to their fans. 

Flavoured Gin prevents almost any nuance

Flavoured gin isn’t the enemy of a more varied approach to base spirits because of its flavour. Sure, it’s hard to tell anything other than the lead botanical in most Pink Gins but it’s the way that Flavoured Gins are being sold that kill off any depth of conversation about the gin itself, let alone the underlying spirit.

The reductive nature of selling a product on such a simple hook (eg. this is a Strawberry Gin) is teaching drinkers to think about the category in a one-dimensional way. We now hear the questions “what flavours have you got” more often than anything else when at events. It used to be what’s in this gin, or how do you make it. 

It may seem like a subtle shift, but the impact is fundamental. Through constantly releasing new flavours and reducing the conversation to something so singular it encourages many to see what’s been made as that one thing alone and to expect to move on immediately. So few delve further than that not because they are not interested, but because they don’t know better. You can’t be curious about something you know nothing about and that no-one is giving you clues and cues that make you want to explore further.

The longer this continues the longer it will take to rehabilitate the conversation back to something more complex and reacquaint drinkers with the notion that gin is about so many flavours, not just one, and the sum of so many decisions, processes and ideas – including the base – not just an infusion or the latest colour to be on trend. 

A move to reclaim craft and justify a higher price point. 

As a catch all term that’s been grotesquely overused “Craft” has now lost its meaning. Some feel that making a spirit from scratch helps place the emphasis back where they think it’s deserved and in doing so their Gin can command a higher price point.

There is enormous skill in brewing and distilling. It’s clearly a craft – but it is not the be-all-and-end-all of making Gin and using it as the metric for what is ‘crafted’ or not shows both disrespect towards the work of rectifiers and a naivety to what flavour makers actually do.

The confrontational nature of the position, especially when it’s done for profit rather than ideals means the verdict is out as to whether this will help or hinder the conversation around base spirit in gin.

Regionality is a core component of the Micro-Distillery industry

So many gins have their regionality imbued into them through their botanicals, and yet so few take the more traditional approach to terroir when it comes to base spirit. 

This very simple contradiction is at the centre of a growing number of Single Estate producers who are looking to showcase absolute regionality in the gins they make. For them, it is less about the act of making the base spirit or being a grain to glass producer than it is about where the origin of all of the materials come from.

Ramsbury Distillery
Ramsbury Distillery

Some want to take this further and place a classification on the spirits they make in the same way as Scotch has defined the difference between a Blend and a Single Malt. Their hope is that not only a protected term would help educate drinkers, it would also help them justify a certain price point which makes taking this hyper local farm-to-glass approach more viable in the first place. 

Despite the collegiate nature of the gin industry, with alliances and collaborating key to gaining momentum around the concept, it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon as each is busy perusing their own agenda for now. The idea, however, receives quite broad support in industry circles.

Our conclusion is that there are many factors at play that mean that base spirit is likely to be a bigger consideration for gin makers in the furure.  That said it is only likely to be embraced by drinkers once the craze for flavoured gin dies down and a more nuanced conversation can occur. 

Until then a gin’s base spirit will feel like the exclusive interest of the super geeks and gin freaks like us!

Spirits Kiosk
Ramsbury Vodka
Ramsbury Vodka
70cl43%GB
£34.44
Adnams East Coast Barley Vodka
Adnams East Coast Barley Vodka
70cl40%GB
£28.94
Baller Vodka
Baller Vodka
70cl40%GB
£29.44

By Olivier Ward