The Mystery of “Overproof” Gordon’s Gin

Reader Peter May writes:

I’m not so sure about what you say about Gordon’s Gin (in the Vesper cocktail) and — I’m not saying you are wrong, but I’d just like to chew the fat on this if that’s OK .

You mention about Gordon’s being reformulated from 94 to 80 proof. But are you talking about the Gordon’s exported to the USA? And are you talking US proof or British proof?

As you know Fleming was British and would have been used to the Gordons on sale in the UK. As far as I recall in the seventies in the UK (I wasn’t drinking booze in the ’50s) it was 70 proof (British) I believe the reason that 70 proof was used for most spirits, whisky, gin etc, was because under UK tax laws a higher tax rate was levied above that. 70 proof UK equals 40%abv.

Now we could postulate that since the cocktail was made in France (in the book) it was an export version, or because he wrote the book in Jamaica it was an export version, but I’d guess that he was talking about a drink he’d made or tested back home.

Excellent points, Peter. I’m looking at the recipe from a U.S. standpoint, where Gordon’s is currently sold at 80 proof, which is 2x the Percentage Alcohol by Volume, or 40%.

On doing some more research into the matter I found that the UK went to the 2x%ABV labeling method in 1980 but was on the odd British maritime standard before that point. So you are likely right that 94 proof in the UK in the 1950s would have been very close to 80 proof by today’s labeling standards. However, my speculation is that when people refer to 1950s Gordon’s as being “94 proof” they are actually doing the modern conversion and are not referring to what it would have said on the label at the time.

However things get more complicated: Regardless of what the actual alcohol content of the gin was in 1953, Gordon’s did indeed reduce its alcohol content in 1974 (to 86 proof) and again later in the late ’70s to 80 proof. (All per U.S. label standards.) This was part of a huge (and very unpopular) worldwide shift to lower-proof spirits around that time. Literally hundreds of spirits dropped their alcohol content in the ’70s, mainly to save money during a long-running weak economy for distilled spirits and to lower the taxes they had to pay on each bottle. This is probably why you remember so many spirits being 70 proof: This was after the reformulation and before the massive switch to the American labeling system in 1980 (when they would have then become 80 proof).

That trend has reversed in recent years; now you’ll find a number of gin brands on the market that are back to, you guessed it, 94 (or 94.6) proof. This is now a common target for modern gins (even Tanqueray is 94.6 proof), so I’m inclined to believe that, whatever the translation would have been in Britain in the 1970s (about 82 proof by my math), it would have been the traditional proof level for gin.

The bottom line is that the Gordon’s recipe hasn’t actually changed in all these years, just the amount they water it down before it goes into the bottle. I don’t know exactly what the alcohol content of a bottle of Gordon’s gin consumed in Jamaica would have been in 1953, but I think it’s still safe to say that it was almost certainly different than it is today, and was very likely higher.

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6 Responses to The Mystery of “Overproof” Gordon’s Gin

  1. Pingback: Bookmarks about 70s

  2. I have just been given 2 bottles of my favorite tipple, it is 70 proof Gordons found in my friends Mum & Dads house after they passed away, God bless them but I did not know 70 proof existed, Can anybody help regarding the history of it would be nice ?

  3. do you know what the alcohol percentage is in gordons?

  4. Although Fleming was British he spent so much time in Jamaica (an in other foreign climes) that I would have thought that he would be just as familiar with the Export as the Domestic. Also there is some evidence the Vesper (originally rum-based) were created in Jamaica.
    After some research it appears that (from adverts of the time) the strength of Gordon’s Export was 94.4 (47.2%ABV) which is noteworthy as there is still a 47.3% variety made today.
    http://instituteforalcoholicexperimentation.blogspot.com/2010/09/ill-drink-any-gin-but-that.html

    Here are some more thoughts of mine, mostly on Kina Lillet:
    http://summerfruitcup.wordpress.com/category/1-the-vesper/

  5. Pingback: Will Consumers Shun Maker’s Mark at 80 Proof? | Drinkhacker.com

  6. Pingback: Will Consumers Shun Maker’s Mark at 84 Proof? | Drinkhacker.com

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