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Alcohol and Mental Health

Drinking Gin: What Are the Risks?

February 15, 2024
20 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
February 15, 2024
20 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
February 15, 2024
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
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Reframe Content Team
February 15, 2024
20 min read

The Myths and Realities of Gin

  • While gin has been touted as a “health drink” due to its fermentation of juniper berries, in reality it’s far from healthy. The risks of gin revolve around its high alcohol content and potential for quick intoxication, especially when combined with mixers that mask its flavor.

  • It’s a good idea for people watching their alcohol intake to be careful around gin, especially since many of its supposed benefits don’t actually hold up when looked at from a scientific perspective.

  • Reframe can help you track your gin intake if you’re trying to cut back (and can give you science-backed information about different types of alcohol, including gin).

Drinking Gin: What Are the Risks?

Gin has a reputation as a tough, gritty drink. In 1984, George Orwell described the fictional “Victory Gin” in colorful terms (it’s fantasy, of course, but still sounds a lot like the real thing): “The Victory Gin was like nitric acid … in swallowing it one had the sensation of being hit on the back of the head with a rubber club. The next moment, however, the burning in his belly died down and the world began to look more cheerful.”

Now, while most gin drinkers probably wouldn’t describe their beverage of choice quite this harshly, real-life gin has a pretty serious dark side. So, what is gin, exactly? Where do the myths about gin’s supposed benefits come from? And what are gin’s disadvantages? Let’s find out more.

What Is Gin?

Gin is a distilled alcoholic drink — a “spirit” along the lines of whiskey, vodka, or rum. Like other spirits, it’s made through a two-step process of fermentation and distillation. Juniper berries used in the second step of gin production give it its unique trademark flavor.

Gin shots with lemons on the table
  1. Fermentation. First, a neutral spirit is created to serve as the base for gin production. This involves fermenting grains such as wheat, barley, or rye. Yeast is added to the grain mash to convert sugars into ethanol (alcohol) and carbon dioxide through the biochemical process of fermentation.

  2. Distillation. After fermentation, the base spirit is heated in a still, usually made of copper. As the mixture heats, alcohol and other compounds vaporize at different temperatures. These vapors ascend through the still and are then cooled, condensing back into liquid form — the process known as distillation.

Infusion With Botanicals During Distillation 

The characteristic gin flavors — the juniper berry and other botanicals, such as coriander, licorice, or angelica root — are added during the distillation process. As American University chemistry professor Matt Hartings explained in Chemistry World, “These all combine to give a piney, woody, peppery, citrusy, woody, spicy and mentholy taste … How flavor molecules interact with your sensory system completely changes based on what they’re present with. Going from one gin to the next, you’re going to get those hints of juniper slightly differently depending on what other botanicals they’re mixed with.“

There are two primary methods of infusion: steeping and vapor infusion. The first is a lot like steeping tea: botanicals are soaked in the spirit for 24 hours to several days. Vapor infusion, on the other hand, happens when the botanicals are placed in a basket over the still, allowing alcohol vapors to pass through and soak in the characteristic flavors along the way.

Guarding the Recipe

Gin manufacturers famously keep their recipes close to the vest, and the exact ratios of botanicals are often a trade secret. A Chemistry World article explores the science of gin distillation and features an interview with Sam Carter, a senior brand ambassador for the Bombay Spirits Company. Carter writes, “Our master botanicalist is the only person that knows the recipe for all of our gins. He gets all the botanicals sent to him in Geneva, he then divides them into the right ratio and sends us the boxes of botanicals ready to load into the infuser basket.”

Varieties of Gin

As a result, different types of gin have distinct flavor profiles. These are some of the big names:

  • London Dry is the “purest” variety, calling for all flavors to be added through distillation (as opposed to after).
  • Plymouth is known for its location in Plymouth, England. In fact, it can’t be produced anywhere else!
  • Old Tom bridges the flavor gap between the juniper-forward London Dry gins and the malty, sweet Genever. Historically, it was sometimes sweetened with sugar or licorice after distillation.
  • Genever is made by distilling malt wine and then infusing it with juniper and other botanicals. It's the original style of gin and remains very popular in the Netherlands and Belgium.
  • New Western is a bit of an outlier. It often de-emphasizes the juniper in favor of other botanicals, leading to a more diverse flavor profile.

The Nutritional Profile of Gin

As for the nutritional components of gin, 1 shot (1.5 fluid ounces) contains about 97 calories. Gin doesn’t contain any sugars, fats, proteins, or other nutrients, and the calories come from the ethanol itself. This is true for most gin varieties, although the situation changes if we’re talking about mixed drinks. In that case, the calorie count can skyrocket. 

Are There Benefits of Gin?

There are many myths around gin, some centering on its supposed benefits. The idea of gin as a health beverage goes way back to the 18th century. That’s when it was first marketed as a health drink and embraced as a cheap alternative to brandy, becoming especially popular in England. 

This marketing quickly exploded, leading to the notorious “gin craze” in England. According to Daniel Defoe, "the Distillers have found out a way to hit the palate of the Poor, by their new fashion'd compound Waters called Geneva, so that the common People seem not to value the French-brandy as usual, and even not to desire it."

According to a Historic UK article, “Mother’s Ruin,” “Much of the gin was drunk by women … children were neglected, daughters were sold into prostitution, and wet nurses gave gin to babies to quieten them … People would do anything to get gin … a cattle drover sold his eleven-year-old daughter to a trader for a gallon of gin, and a coachman pawned his wife for a quart bottle.”

The disarray led to the Gin Acts of 1736 and 1751, with William Hogarth's engraving Gin Lane capturing the spirit of the gin craze. In 1736, Bishop Thomas Wilson argued that gin produced a "drunken ungovernable set of people,” and it took years for the affected communities to regain a sense of normalcy.

Persisting Myths About the “Benefits of Gin”

While the gin craze is deep in the past, many myths about the “benefits of gin” persist to this day, in spite of the fact that they are dubious at best. Let’s explore some of the main ones to answer the question, “Is gin good for health?”

1. “Juniper berries make gin healthy.”

There has been an idea floating around that juniper berries give gin health-boosting benefits. And while juniper berries do indeed have antioxidant properties, those benefits are all but obliterated by the gin production process. So, while the sought-after botanical flavors remain in the mix, the health benefits are pretty much completely lost.

2. “Gin and tonic prevents malaria.”

Another supposed “advantage” of gin is the idea that gin and tonic will prevent malaria. Rest assured this is not the case! The myth comes from the practice of giving gin and tonic to soldiers to make quinine treatment for malaria more palatable.

3. “Gin and tonic is diet-friendly.”

Finally, the idea that gin is a healthier option because it has fewer calories (64 per fluid ounce) might be true to some degree. However, once we add mixers, it becomes a whole different story. Even tonic water — in spite of masquerading as calorie-free seltzer and sounding almost like a health drink — is anything but low-cal. In fact, one can of tonic has about 124 calories, bringing a gin and tonic up to about 140 calories per serving. While that is on the low side, it’s definitely not calorie-free.

Gin Side Effects

Gin Side Effects

With an alcohol content of 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume), gin is one of the stronger drinks out there. The effects of drinking too much gin are similar to those of overdoing any alcoholic beverage.

In the short term, drinking too much alcohol (including gin, which is particularly easy to overdo since its clear appearance and medicinal smell can make it seem like a health tonic) leads to a number of possible problems. Our cognitive abilities take a hit, and we are more likely to say or do something we regret later. We’re more prone to accidents and more likely to wake up with a nasty hangover. And if we really overdo it, we could end up with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and even alcohol poisoning.

In the long term, we’re looking at a number of possible health issues:

  • Liver damage. Excessive alcohol use is a notorious cause of liver damage, and gin is no exception.
  • Heart problems. Alcohol tends to increase heart rate and blood pressure when used excessively, and it can contribute to cardiovascular issues over time.
  • Gastrointestinal issues. Excessive alcohol use messes with our stomach’s beneficial gut bacteria and increases stomach acid production, leading to gastritis and acid reflux.
  • Cognitive decline. Over time, drinking too much can impair our cognitive ability, slow down neurogenesis, and even lead to permanent brain damage.
  • Risk of dependency and withdrawal. As our brains and bodies get used to large amounts of gin, dependency can set in, leading to withdrawal symptoms if we suddenly stop. Dependency can pave the way to possible alcohol use disorder (AUD).

Gin in the Spotlight

Recently, a resurgence in gin’s popularity has brought many new, flavored, “user-friendly” varieties on the market — some of them potentially more problematic because they are targeted largely at the younger crowd. 

A 2018 article in The Guardian discussed berry-infused “pink gin” with British bartender Jack Wakelin, who complained about the sudden commercialization of the drink: “It’s gone bonkers … We get people in all the time asking: ‘What gins do you have?’ It’s an obsession.” The new gins — flavored with “everything from marshmallow root to cocoa” — are edging way too close to liqueur territory for the comfort of purists.

However, there are other concerns regarding “pink gin” and its flavored relatives. The image makeover makes them appear innocuous despite their very high alcohol content, which tends to get masked by the flavors. The problem is similar to one many people have pointed out regarding Smirnoff Ice, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and the like: all of them look like sugary sodas, but in reality they’re very far from that (except for the sweeteners part, because these drinks do tend to be loaded with them).

Tips for Staying Safe

If you’re trying to watch your alcohol intake (or maybe even quit entirely), congrats! You’re making a great choice, and you’re on your way to being a healthier, happier version of yourself. In the meantime, here are some tips to make the journey a bit easier:

  • Look closely at your current habits. Start by tracking your current habits and deciding what you’d like to change. Approach this step from the perspective of a mindful observer or a scientist gathering data. There’s no judgment!

  • Make a plan. If you want to cut back, decide ahead of time on a drink limit and stick to it. Keep in mind what situations might be difficult and what types of pressures you might face. Maybe even prepare some answers ahead of time if you know you’ll be asked why you’re not drinking (but remember, you never have to explain yourself when it comes to your health and well-being!).

  • Find support. The alcohol journey can feel daunting at times and having people to rely on can make an enormous difference.

  • Plan meaningful activities. Look at this time in your life as a chance to explore things that you haven’t had a chance to experience when alcohol was in the picture. Sign up for a ballroom dancing class, join a rock climbing group, go kayaking, try new recipes, learn to create vector art. There’s so much out there to explore!

  • Ask for help. There’s never any shame in asking for help if you need it! From therapy geared toward alcohol misuse to cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy, there’s plenty of help available.

Summing Up

In the end, it’s all about being mindful of our intentions and habits around alcohol. Is gin good for health? No, not really. Is it much worse than other types of alcohol? Not unless we go overboard — a caution that applies to most types of alcohol, especially hard liquors. It helps to approach the process of reexamining our relationship with alcohol with curiosity instead of judgment. After all, there’s so much to discover in the world beyond booze, and we’re here to cheer you on as you continue your journey.

Summary FAQs

1. What is gin and how is it made?

Gin is a distilled spirit made from grains like wheat, barley, or rye. It undergoes fermentation, distillation, and infusion with botanicals like juniper berries, which give gin its unique flavor. There are different types of gin, such as London Dry, Plymouth, and Old Tom, each with distinct production methods and taste profiles.

2. What does gin contain nutritionally?

A standard shot of gin (1.5 ounces) contains about 97 calories, primarily from ethanol. It lacks sugars, fats, proteins, or other nutrients. However, calorie content increases significantly in mixed drinks.

3. What are the short-term risks of drinking gin?

Short-term risks include impaired judgment and coordination, increased likelihood of accidents, hangovers, and in extreme cases, symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and alcohol poisoning.

4. Are there long-term health risks associated with gin consumption?

Yes. Long-term risks include liver damage, heart problems, gastrointestinal issues, cognitive decline, and the risk of alcohol dependency and withdrawal.

5. Are there any health benefits to drinking gin?

No significant health benefits are associated with gin. Myths about its benefits, like the idea that juniper berries make gin healthy or that gin and tonic prevents malaria, are unfounded.

Ready To Change Your Relationship With Alcohol in the New Year? Reframe Can Help!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app today!

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