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What Is London Dry Gin?

No, this gin doesn't need to be made in London; Yes, you should use it in your Martini.

Maxim Fesenko / Getty Images
Maxim Fesenko / Getty Images

These days, the gin category is broader than ever. There are olive leaf gins and coconut-flavored bottlings,  gins flavored with sloe berries and gins made from milled dried peas. Gin can even be an experimental way to explore California terroir or Canadian landscapes, as well as channel unconventional flavors like cornichon.

And then there’s London Dry gin, which Nick Kennedy, founder of the award-winning Civil Liberties bar in Toronto, calls the backbone of the category. “Structured around high notes of juniper and citrus, it is the essential spirit for many stirred drinks and shaken crowd pleasers. From the classic martini to the more modern London Calling cocktail, London Dry gin can balance and elevate the partners it finds in the drink.”


Curious to learn about this lauded category? Here’s what you need to know.

Related: 13 Gin Cocktails You Can Make In Under 10 Minutes

What is London Dry gin?

Despite what the name suggests, this style of gin doesn’t need to be made in London. It’s a dry, refined gin that can be made anywhere in the world, as long as juniper is included. The coniferous shrub and its spruce-forward profile are the defining characteristics of London dry gin.

While the spirit’s geographical limitations are broad, European Union law dictates that London dry gin must follow certain rules.

The spirit starts with a neutral base spirit distilled to a minimum of 96% ABV. Next, distillers add their preferred mix of botanicals into a still and macerate herbs and spices into the neutral spirit. EU laws also require London dry producers to forgo synthetic botanicals and add all botanicals during the distillation process, meaning no additional fancy flavors can be added after distillation — just water.

"What is most interesting about London dry Gins is the fact that everything has to be natural, and all botanicals — including the juniper and citrus — are added during the distillation process,” says Juliana Fisher, manager of BAR167 in Charleston. What does this mean when stacking London dry against other gins? “The main difference is that while some gins are sweetened after distillation, London dry gins are bone dry,” says Fisher.

After the botanicals are macerated, the gin is redistilled to produce a high-strength spirit and then diluted with water to reach the final proof. Traditional London dry gins sit around 47% ABV, but modern producers have tweaked their recipes to suit their target drinker — some are as low as 37.5% (the minimum alcohol level of a London dry gin) while others can reach 55% ABV. 

London Dry gin fast facts

  • Can be made anywhere in the world, not just London

  • Primary aromas and flavors of juniper, pine, and spruce

  • Secondary notes often include coriander seed, angelica root, citrus peel, orris root, and pepper

  • Distilled to 96% ABV then diluted to 37.5–55% ABV before bottling

  • No flavors or additives can be included after distillation

The history of London Dry gin

Gin was largely born in Schiedam, a port city in the Netherlands. Seafaring merchants would travel the world and then dock, unloading their fruits, spices, grains, and raw goods into the port. A few savvy producers started distilling grains with raw botanicals to create a whiskey-like, malt-based alcohol known as jenever.

In the late 1500s, British soldiers started bringing gin back to England. It swept the country and crude distilleries began to pop up across the nation.

Between 1720 and 1751, a ‘gin craze’ overtook the country, ushering in a period of vice and debauchery largely fueled by alcohol consumption. Public drunkenness was widespread and, as fertility rates declined, the spirit earned the nickname ‘Mothers Ruin.’ To cut costs, moonshine makers would replicate the taste of gin by adding drops of juniper oil to (semi-poisonous) glycerine or (lethal) turpentine.

After much moral outrage, the British government stepped in to regulate gin distillation through a series of Gin Acts. As a result, making London Dry gin grew into a stricter, more craft-oriented process.

What does London Dry Gin taste like?

London dry gin is characterized by strong pine and juniper flavors. Depending on the producer, these notes will be bolstered by other botanicals, like coriander seed, angelica root, citrus peel, and orris root.

“Since sugars and sweeteners are not permitted in the process — that’s why the spirit is known as ‘dry’ — producers add additional botanicals, like coriander seed, angelica root, and citrus peel, to build out flavors,” says Fisher.

Coriander seeds add spicy nuttiness and aromas of ginger and sage. Angelica root is musky and nutty, while lemon and orange peel add fresh, citrusy notes and bright aromas. Orris root, typically sourced from Tuscany, is bitter and earthy and lends perfumed notes to gin. Juniper, London dry Gin’s signature, comes from the cypress family and brings spicy and fragrant notes of pepper and pine.

Why juniper? The berry was thought to offer health benefits — at the time of the black plague, British doctors would fill masks with juniper berries to protect them from the plague and citizens would sip juniper cordials to ward off the disease. Historically, juniper berries would help treat kidney infections (though a Martini certainly won’t help that now) and juniper teas were used as disinfectants for surgeon’s tools.

Essential London Dry gin brands

In the classic camp of London dry gins, Tanqueray — made with juniper, angelica, coriander, and licorice — offers assertive spice and pineyness, combined with complexity and unctuousness. Sipsmith’s Gin is floral and easy to drink with notes of juniper, orange peel, lemon peel, coriander, licorice, angelica root, cinnamon, cassia bark, and almond.

“My favorites include Beefeater gin, which is great for cocktails, and a very classic London dry gin,” says Fisher. Beefeater tends to have light hits of juniper and spruce that lead to earthy sweetness. “Bombay Sapphire is another classic that I love to enjoy Martini-style with a twist of lemon to enhance the citrus botanicals.”

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