The Difference Between Cheap & Expensive Gin, Explained By Gin Experts

Forget about ageing, it's all about rare botanicals.

The Difference Between Cheap & Expensive Gin, Explained By Gin Experts

Take off your jacket, leave your ego at the door. It’s time to disband those single malt allegiances as you’re no longer in whisky town. Today it’s all about gin, one of the most prolific spirits available on the market today.

Whether it’s a classic Martini, a Gin and Tonic or a Negroni, a ripper cocktail demands a better gin to truly standout on the palate. The problem: how does one pick a good gin?

We’ve hit up two of Australia’s hottest names in the gin industry to find out exactly that. Krystal Hart is the national ambassador for the Diageo World Class Bartending Competition (she ranked top 10 herself in 2012 and 2013) whilst Dave Withers is the Master Distiller of the award-winning gin label, Archie Rose Distillery.

Get your swill on.

What Makes A Good Gin

The most important thing to arm yourself with when exploring the vast world of gins is knowledge. Both Krystal Hart and Dave Withers agree that juniper, the berries used as the primary base of all gins, need to stand on their own for a great gin.

Withers says:

  • Great gins are all about the juniper up front – they need to reflect the place they’re from
  • In Australia we try to use unique native ingredients like lemon myrtle to produce a distinctive tasting gin
  • There’s diversity in gin so explore the range and look for things you enjoy
  • There’s many flavour profiles out there from the fruity end to the herbal end to the spice driven end

“A good quality gin is one that shows up in the way you drink it. In a Gin & Tonic, it needs to shine in that drink. The way to determine a bad gin is through the cocktail – a bad gin won’t show up in the final serve.”

Hart says:

  • Picking a good gin from the mundane ones comes down to the final taste profile
  • If you’re a London dry drinker then Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire are your go-tos
  • Don’t be afraid of the new world style gins which can have the appearance and taste of a less refined gin and vice versa

“Generally the decisiveness on what botanicals are being used is often the mark of a great quality gin.”

Does A Complex Blend Equal Better Gin?

Not at all, according to both our experts.

Just as there are award-winning single malt whiskies and award-winning blended whiskies, the same also goes for gins with varying levels of blend complexity.

“The more ingredients you have in a gin the more complex it is to manufacture, but I don’t think that’s a sign of quality,” explains Withers.

Hart provides an even simpler explanation through a nice analogy.

“Gin is like a great perfume at the shops. You walk past a series of perfumes, some are repulsive and some are exactly what you’re looking for.”

“The way gin is made, most distilleries and distillers will approach their process the same way as crafting a perfume. If you were to take a perfume that had everything in there, you’d find that it wouldn’t smell nice.”

Whilst the decisiveness on what botanicals are being used is often the mark of a great quality gin, Hart says that you don’t need to have everything in a gin to make it expensive or carry quality.

“Often it’s an understanding of how to use those botanicals. Part of this is understanding the craft and what gin is.”

As a quick case study, the process for making Archie Rose’s signature gin involves:

  • 14 select botanicals, 100 percent NSW wheat
  • Standard gin makers offering more affordable options will tend to distill all their ingredients and botanicals at once
  • Archie Rose distills each botanical individually (14 distillations) before cross blending them back together
  • This makes it more complicated and time consuming but the goal is quality through respecting native ingredients used
  • Some of these native ingredients can come from “spectacular provenances” which requires an urban forager to source specific botanicals
  • This can play into the final product’s flavour and price

“When we manufacture things, we do it for absolute quality,” says Wiithers.

“Not about efficiency but final flavour. There are good gins at lower prices but we’re fortunate enough to be able to put quality first.”

The process for the Scottish-made Tanqueray is also very similar.

For their standard gin offering which retails around the $25 mark, all of the botanicals are macerated in and distilled just once in the production process.

If you take Tanqueray No. 10 which is the brand’s premium offering at the $60 mark, you’ll find:

  • Full fresh citrus botanicals distilled in separate stills
  • Tanqueray’s “core DNA” is added and then it’s all back blended

“It’s a more laborious and arduous process that can absolutely mark up price,” explains Hart.

The gin making process can then get even more expensive if distillers are sourcing ingredients from overseas or getting creative with their blends.

“Most Australian manufacturers will purchase their junipers from Macedonia and the difference between that produce and Bulgaria’s can affect the aroma and the taste.”

“If they’re doing things like introducing cucumber, you need to create a really clever production process to extract cucumber.”

Hart says that if you get the creativity part wrong, the blend could turn out smelling rancid and give off qualities that don’t attribute to a quality gin.

The take away message of a quality gin: Blend with balanced ingredients, not en mass.

Rarity & Availability

It’s a fact that gin can be produced a lot faster and cheaper than whisky which has been flooding the market.

That’s not to say that there’s no rarity in gin – it’s just not on the same scale as whisky is.

Quick facts from Withers:

  • Gin isn’t aged
  • It is a fresh distillant which requires a small rest period
  • This resting period lasts a couple of weeks after manufacturing
  • Some gins do barrel aged versions but it’s essentially a fresh product

Rarity in gin is instead achieved through the difficult-to-source ingredients used which can affect the gin’s final price.

“From my own experience with rare ingredients you’re bound by small seasons. You may only be able to do certain amounts in certain period,” says Withers.

“But if you’re going to go for rare ingredients, the actual flavour has to pay off for the rarity of those ingredients.”

“There’s no point distilling gold leaf just because it’s rare. It won’t taste like anything. It has to stand up to the price point you’re commanding.”

Hart thinks that gin’s availability is quite profound.

“When we talk about quality it’s more the expression driven gins hitting the market.”

These are gins which:

  • Challenge the alcohol percentage (higher proof gins)
  • Use rarer botanicals
  • Showcase great profiles with few ingredients
  • Target a more discerning palate

Simple Marketing

Finally there’s the aspect of discretionary marketing – or the price at which a gin makers value their product.

The average gin drinker will look for gins that they’ve tried in a bar and those bottles usually sit around the AU$70 to $80 mark.

Hart explains that gins in the AU$30 to $50 range can still be fantastic quality even though they’re cheaper.

“They’ve been producing it for so long that they’re able to do it efficiently and at a lower cost versus more of these new expression-led gins hitting the market.”

And it’s these new wave gins that are using rare botanicals and taking longer to make that allows them to sit at the pricier end.

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