he method for making gin as we know it has pretty much solidified over the past two centuries. First, you start with a neutral spirit which is flavoured primarily with juniper. A few more ‘botanicals’ are added to give it a unique taste. It is as simple as that.
But really, it’s not quite as simple as that. As with every good craft, the subtle choices and differences are what makes a wide range of popular gins. Each have their own unique and intriguing flavour.
To guide us through this, imagine you are now a gin distiller.
The first decision you need to make is how you’re going to flavour your gin. Naturally, you start with juniper. While it isn’t technically a legal requirement, it isn’t a gin unless it primarily tastes like juniper. With that in mind, what else do you want to add? Classically you could go with coriander and angelica. But that isn’t enough. How about some cinnamon? Or saffron? Pepper? Nutmeg? Liquorice? Garlic?!
Herein lies the first big hurdle of making gin. To make something that tastes unique, you have to understand the delicate interactions between multiple different flavour sources. While they let the taste of juniper shine through, some gins use only two or three botanicals. Others will use six or seven. Some have more than fifteen.
Don’t think you’ll be able to cheat and copy whatever your favourite gin does either. While some gin companies happily tell you the full list of botanicals right on the bottle, the true art will come into play when you start figuring out how much of each botanical is needed. Or how long each specific flavour needs to infuse to make the proper product. These recipes and their details are closely guarded secrets and are often the result of decades of refinement and millions of dollars of experiments.
But let’s assume that you fight your way through some blind sniff tests, researched some obscure Scandinavian herbs, and have the beginnings of your recipe. Now you need to decide how you’re going to get that flavour into your base spirit, and we have yet more options for this.
The simplest way, which also happens to be the quickest and cheapest, involves simply adding small amounts of juniper and botanical concentrates to the base spirit (think adding vanilla or orange essence to your baking). There’s a lot of advantages to this method. Primarily, it is very easy to create a very specific flavour through an exact recipe; you don’t need to hope that the batch of botanicals you use isn’t too high or low in essential oils. Extracts are also cheaper to buy and easier to store than raw ingredients. But, like you can imagine, this method produces a flavour that is nowhere near as nuanced or fresh as most gin lovers enjoy and are commonly used in cheaper gins.
The second choice is something known as cold compounding. A method that had fallen out of favour as the more complex process became common, cold compounding has experienced a renaissance at the hands of craft distillers. This method involves soaking the raw botanicals in the base spirit and simply allowing them to seep their essential oils into the mix over time. This method is great for controlling the flavour and is relatively light on labour. By adding or removing each ingredient at different times or for different durations, the distiller can easily control the flavour if they understand the dynamics of each ingredient. It can also be somewhat of a set and forget method, as after the ingredients are added the mix can mostly be left alone until the flavour has developed.
The final method, and the one preferred by most quality gins, is called vapour distilling. This involves infusing the flavour during the distillation of the base spirit by placing the dried botanicals in a chamber through which the ethanol vapour passes before being condensed (again, check out our article on base spirits for some technical know-how on distilling). This method does the best job of extracting a very pure flavour from the botanicals, as the essential oils are extracted without the chance of adding too many contaminants. The flavours produced through vapour distilling are considered to be the most delicate and nuanced, but it doesn’t come without downsides. This method can be expensive, requiring specialised stills, and it takes a lot of experience to control the flavour precisely. It also tends to be more expensive than either of the other methods.
At this point, it definitely seems a lot easier to leave gin making to the professionals. It takes years and years of experience and experimentation to distil gin at a high level. Even creating a simple gin with two or three botanicals involves dozens of trials, mistakes and failures. Hopefully, you’ll spare a moment to think of the poor distiller who has suffered to create the next bottle of gin you buy. But don’t think about it for too long, your ice is melting.
Thank you for Reading.
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