The authoritative source for spirit type definitions is the Beverage Alcohol Manual, often abbreviated as BAM.
This guide should not be construed as legal advice. Please consult the manual for the most recent information if you’re making a gin.
The definition of gin is “[a spirit] with a main characteristic flavor derived from juniper berries produced by distillation or mixing of spirits with juniper berries and other aromatics or extracts derived from these materials and bottled at not less than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof).” (4-5)
Note that the BAM does not cite any specific species of juniper berry. This is different from the European Union and UK regulations. Juniperus communis is the most common used in American distillation; however, it is not required by law.
Secondly, the lowest minimum ABV is higher than in many other places. 37.5 ABV gins from the UK are not legally able to be called gin in the United States. This is the origin of the need for “export strength,” and why some gins have a home market strength lower than their U.S. market strength.
Types of Gin
Distilled Gin is “produced by original distillation from mash with or over juniper berries and other aromatics or their extracts, essences or flavors.” (4-5)
Redistilled Gin is ” produced by redistillation of distilled spirits with or over juniper berries and other aromatics or their extracts, essences or flavors” (4-5)
Compounded Gin is “produced by mixing neutral spirits with juniper berries and other aromatics or their extracts, essences or flavors.” (4-5)
These classes, while specific are not necessary. Often simply “gin” will suffice. For example, “‘compounded’ may appear but is not required as part of the class and type designation. Compounded Gin may not be referred to or described as ‘Distilled'” (4-14)
Sloe Gin is defined as a Liqueur/Cordial which means a minimum 2.5% by weight of sugar, “deriving its main flavor characteristic from sloe berries.” The sloe gin is an interesting one because it doesn’t explicitly define the role of gin or juniper in its definition. (4-8)
Gin Liqueur/Gin Cordial is also defined under the general class of Liqueur/Cordial, “with the
predominant characteristic flavor of gin made with gin as the exclusive distilled spirits base, bottled at not less than 30% alcohol by volume (60 proof).” Wine may also be used, but at below a 2.5% by volume threshold. (4-9)
A dedicated category exists for Flavored Gin. “Gin flavored with natural flavoring materials, with or without the addition of sugar, bottled at not less than 30% alcohol by volume (60 proof).” Further “the name of the predominant flavor shall appear as part of the class and type designation.” The botanical/signature flavor should appear in the name— for example “Lime Flavored Gin.” Wine may also be added, but at certain thresholds it must be disclosed (4-11).
For many years, distillers in the United States found creative ways to innovate around antiquated rules. In 2020, Aged Gin emerged from the darkness and the TTB modernized its rules regarding age statements and gin.
“TTB believes that the contemporary consumer understands the meaning of age statements and that there is consumer interest for innovative products such as aged gin […] as a result, TTB is amending the regulations in current § 5.40(d) to allow age statements on all distilled spirits except for neutral spirits (other than grain spirits)” (85 FR 18704)
The rules for age statements of gin mirror those of other spirits. “Statements regarding age or maturity […] are permitted only when the distilled spirits are stored in an oak barrel and, once dumped from the barrel, subjected to no treatment besides mixing with water, filtering, and bottling. If batches are made from barrels of spirits of different ages, the label may only state the age of the youngest spirits.” (85 FR 18704)
Gin may also be bottled in bond. It must be barreled for at least four years. Unaged gin may bear this designation too, if “[stored] in paraffin-lined […]wooden containers.” This is similar to the new designation which permits vodka to be labeled as “bottled in bond” but it must not come in direct contact with the wood surface during its four year barreling period. (85 FR 18704)
Legal additives and flavorings for gin
For distilled gin products, flavorings must be added prior to distillation. Compounded gin may add essences afterwards. For both the essences are narrowly defined to botanicals (7-8), though there is some leeway for artificial flavors (7-5) provided they fall within some very specific parameters.
The flavorings may exceed 2.5% by volume.
Gin category spirits do not permit added coloring (7-8). Sloe Gins (7-9) and Flavored Gins (7-7) do permit coloring, provided they are fully disclosed on the label.
Finally, all flavorings must be generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA (7-2)
For labeling purposes, certain cocktails are recognized, and therefore regulated. Note that in the United States that the word Martini is regulated as “Gin and vermouth.” Vodka Martini is a separate class and must be labeled as such.
Gimlet, Sloe Gin Fizz and Tom Collins are also legally defined as gin cocktails.