I love making things; there is a little, but insistent, part of my brain that looks at things and whispers “that can’t be too hard to make”. Just yesterday, I made my own shaving cream and today I made gin.
I’ve had a Liebig condenser kicking around the house for some years and I was convinced that I would find a use for it some day. I bought some juniper berries a few weeks ago with the intention of making compound gin, or bathtub gin, but why stop there? I scoured ebay and other sources of cheap laboratory equipment and, parcel by parcel, ingredients and hardware have been arriving at my door. Finally, today, the last piece of the puzzle arrived and I was good to go.
I decided to try a half-bottle of the cheapest vodka I could find because, let’s face it, this probably wasn’t going to produce the best results on the first attempt. Researching gin recipes (mostly here: http://homedistiller.org/flavor/gin) I settled on the following as a starter-for-ten.
- 7g Juniper berries
- 3.5g Coriander seed
- 0.25g Cassia
- 0.3g Liquorice root
- 0.2g Orris root powder
- 0.2g Angelica root
- 0.5g Mixed citrus peel (fresh & grated)
- 0.2g Frankincense
- 0.1g Myrrh
- 0.2g Cardamom
I used mixed citrus (grapefruit, orange and lime) because, by some stroke of coincidence, I had no lemons in the house. The Frankincense and Myrrh are there because I was curious about what taste they would impart and had this strange idea about putting some gold flakes in it and giving it as Christmas presents, with the label “Nativity Gin”. For some reason, upon weighing, I doubled the quantity of Orris and Angelica I had planned on using.
There are some very precise measurements here and I purchased a pocket-set of very accurate digital scales from a head-shop on ebay. I weighed all the ingredients and cracked the whole seed and pounded the roots in my pestle & mortar. I slit each juniper berry with a knife too, to liberate more flavour. I added all this to the vodka and left it overnight to macerate.
The next morning I began the maddening job of putting the distillation rig together. This was harder than I thought due to a few mismatches in tubing sizes. I ended up attaching the Liebig water supply to a garden hose and stepping it down in in size using a smaller hose, a copper pipe adaptor and some epoxy glue. The water was supplied by an outside tap, with the hose coming through the kitchen window. My wife gave me some funny looks.
Initially I thought to submerge the boiling flask in a saucepan of salted hot water, but a test run on 400ml of plain tap water revealed that this was a bit slow, so more direct heat was applied.
The macerated liquor in the flask looked distinctly like the urine of an ill, dehydrated man, mixed with a small handful of rabbit droppings and twigs; not exactly appealing at this stage.
Something I noticed was that the vodka took the heat and started boiling much faster then the pure-water test run. This is hardly surprising, not only does alcohol take less energy to raise its temperature than water, but it also takes less energy to break it from its liquid phase into a gas.
Another thing I noticed was that the filled flask was a lot heavier than an empty flask. This was no surprise, but it did threaten to topple the retort stand I was using to support that half of the apparatus. I was taking enough risks by boiling alcohol over an open flame without having unstable glassware, so I looked for something to weigh it down; what better than a twenty-year-old copy of Introduction to Organic Chemistry? A thick and weighty tome that formed a significant part of my university reading. Nothing would move under that.
The rig stabilised, the coolant-flow established and the flask filled with a rancid-looking fluid, it was time to light the gas and wait for the first drops of my own unique gin to drip from the end of the condenser into my ultra-sophisticated spirit-safe – a squat, square Kilner jar with sufficient capacity to hold the distillate and short enough to allow me to get the boiling flask close-enough to the gas ring so as to not have to have the flame too high.
And over it came.
I couldn’t resist smelling and tasting as the drops came through and its was certainly a journey of flavours. The citrus seemed to flow first, followed by the floral notes, then the more earth and woody notes. After this it seemed to mostly be slightly scented water. It was astounding to see a pure, clear liquid being produced from such insiped puddle water.
As the last 20% of liquid came through the condenser, it began turning cloudy. This is a sign of too much oil – the microscopic droplets not being able to be dissolved in the alcohol. Apparently it is also a sign of too much citrus. I knew I put too much citrus in, shortly after I started macerating. I put the peel in late in the maceration and all the recipes gave weights for dried peel; I guessed the weight of water in peel at about 80% and put five times the amount that recipes called for. The macerating liquor smelled strongly of citrus after adding, as supposed to gin like it did prior to the citrus.
Another interesting thing was the legging in the condenser. When water condenses, it forms little droplets on the inside of the condenser. For the first half of the run, the condensing fluid formed little concentric ridges that I put down to the same mechanism that causes legs on the inside of your glass – I won’t go into the mechanics here as it isn’t particularly relevant.
It took about an hour for the run to complete and the residue left in the flask was brown and cloudy. I left about 50ml in the flask thinking that the majority of oils and alcohol would have come over by that point. To maintain the volume of finished product, I added about this volume of water to the liquor before the run; this was partly to compensate for the volume I intended to leave in the flask, but also I had read that boiling botanicals in 40%+ ABV hardened the skins and restricted the release of oils.
So, what was it like?
The gin was nothing like any other gin I had tried. The nose is very odd, definitely citrus with odd resinous overtones – possibly the two resins. There is little juniper in evidence on the nose.
The attack is sweet and intensely floral with a strong geranium-like flavour. The juniper comes in the middle palette with more floral flavours and heady resinous tastes. I definitely went overboard with the Orris and Angelica – these overpower the juniper. The after-taste is has a slight burn of spice and citrus and echoes of the florals, but there is something lacking; it trails-off quickly and leaves a long, quiet echo. This is a gin of contradictions; it is intensely flavoursome gin but at the same-time it also tastes a bit watery and weak. The flavour is intense and powerful, but at the same time, there are holes in the taste.
Mixing with tonic was very strange indeed. For a start there was very little fizzing – maybe a symptom of all that suspended oil. The G&T was nice but there was both something missing (predominately juniper) and too much of other botanicals at the fore. There was also a surprising but distinctive taste of potent herbal cannabis. The geranium flavour makes it taste like I have used Fever-Tree Mediterranean Tonic Water.
This isn’t a great gin and I have a lot to learn, but for a first attempt, I am not displeased. It may also get a little better with resting.
Finally, a word on legality.
This is probably against the law. Don’t do this.
There are distiller’s licenses, rectifier’s licenses and compounder’s licenses. There are warehousing and plant licenses, rules about the size of barrels and bottles you are allowed to store alcohol in. You need different licenses depending on if you use duty-paid or duty-pending alcohol. The licensing laws are, quite frankly, Byzantine in their complexity.
I have used duty-paid alcohol and I have no intent to produce for anything other than my own personal consumption. I probably need a license to do what I have done today, but I would like to think that HM Revenue and Customs is more concerned with large-scale VAT and import duty fraud. If they really want to track me down and fine me the duty for the production of 350ml of gin, then I will pay my fine with a smile, chalk it down to experience and move on.
Technically you need a compounder’s license to make sloe gin and no one has kicked-in my door and confiscated my freezer yet.
I will probably keep doing this on very small scales, not to supplant purchased gin, but as a learning experience. There are too many commercial gins out there for me to give up on them.
After a little time to settle, the first batch of homemade gin developed a slightly unpleasant, and more pronounced, after-taste. This was the flavour of the latter half of the distillation. In the meantime, I had done another batch with half the amount of angelica or orris root; this was better, in that it had a more balanced flavour that allowed more of the juniper to come through, but the gacky after-taste was even more pronounced as a result.
After a little reading, and a few comments under this post, I came to realise that only the heart of the distillation is bottled. So, armed with more knowledge and enthusiasm, I tried a third batch and sampled the distillate in roughly 12.5ml batches, discarding those that had unpleasantness about them. Interestingly, the initial part of the distillate had a lot of spice and citrus flavour in it, but it had some nastiness about it too, so I wonder how much of the spice and citrus gets thrown away. I stopped the distillation run before it became watery and riddled with unpleasant nastiness. The resulting gin was powerful and needed blending with more vodka, but it was a lot cleaner and very juniper-heavy – so much so, it reminded me of Oliver Cromwell Gin, especially in a G&T. Unsubtle, but not unpleasant.
For the third run, I macerated the juniper separately from the rest of the ingredients. The spice, root and citrus mix smelled wonderful, but the juniper developed a strong whiff of that nasty after-taste that I was working to eliminate. I do wonder if better juniper is in order – I just need to source some.
My third batch of gin has sat on a shelf for a couple of months now. Initially, it was cloudy after diluting it down with vodka (I guess the dilution knocked some of the oils out of solution) but it has since cleared again. The flavours have integrated better and the juniper has come so far to the fore, that it is almost brutally juniper-heavy (almost a turpentine quality to it). Apart from this savage nature, it seems to have bottle-aged quite well. Life is a little hectic at the moment but I still want to try a fourth batch with better quality ingredients to see if I can apply lessons learned.