Homemade Gin

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.

Macerating botanicals

Macerating botanicals

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.

Macerating botanicals

Macerating botanicals

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.

Introduction to Organic Chemistry

Introduction to Organic Chemistry

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 first few drops

The first few drops

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.

Legging in the condenser

Legging in the condenser

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.

Update 1

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.

Update 2

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.

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13 thoughts on “Homemade Gin

  • March 4, 2012 at 1:25 am
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    Interesting. I’ve had the same results of way too little juniper coming through, with a much simpler recipe consisting of (at first) 20g juniper, 8g crushed coriander, and two pods of cardamom. (as I said on twitter) With an unscientific dumping of *about* 40g more of juniper, I got a bit more juniper in the aroma but little in the way of taste.

    Distilling this compounded concoction only rounded off the edges and made it less offensive. It didn’t change the core flavor profile of the liquid much, if at all.

    Reply
  • March 4, 2012 at 1:27 am
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    The problem might be that we don’t cut the distillation at all. I know Martin Miller’s only uses the ‘heart’ of their distillate, despite gin being a product of neutral grain spirit.

    It would be worth trying. I can’t, being on a very limited student budget! :(

    Reply
    • March 4, 2012 at 12:10 pm
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      I can’t imagine cutting being the problem. Martin Miller’s is the only gin I have come across that claims to do this.

      I suspect it might be the quality or age of juniper berries, or something in the distillation method. Boiling in alcohol hardens the skin an inhibits oil-release, but I slit mine open. A lot of food-grade spices are steam-treated to kill microbes, this results in oil loss (about 8-10% in the case of coriander) maybe juniper berries are more susceptible to this. Age might play a big part too – fresh juniper may hold a lot more aromatics than something that has been sat around in a shop for a year or two.

      Gin brands do bang-on about travelling the world to select their botanicals; maybe there is something in this. Maybe we both had crappy juniper that doesn’t make good gin. I guess the test of this would be to beg a small sample of juniper from a distillery, and use that.

      There is so much to learn, and trial-and-error experimentation is a slow process. Having someone knowledgeable in the field fill in some of those gaps would be a boon.

      Reply
  • March 4, 2012 at 2:27 pm
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    Perhaps. Most gins do use juniper from Macedonia or Italy or something.

    At the same time, gins like Death’s Door and St. George use only local juniper, and get revering accolades to boot!

    I concur about the age of the juniper. I don’t think mine was very fresh. :(

    Reply
  • March 5, 2012 at 2:21 am
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    Interesting indeed.
    It is hard isn’t it?
    I am surprised (or not) at the lack of juniper considering that most gins use only about 3-4 junipers per litre of distillate so I have been told.
    Oh and most gins cut the distillate… not due to true Heads and Tails but more due water and water residue… I think its only Oxley who claim not to.
    But good on you…

    aw

    Reply
    • March 6, 2012 at 9:18 am
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      Hi Angus,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I should have done a little more reading before jumping-in and realised that there was cutting at this stage. Now the gin has had time to settle, there is a slightly unpleasant after-taste that definitely came over with the watery fraction.

      Never mind, you live and learn.

      Most of the sources I found for small-scale recipes were citing between 10 and 20 grams per litre. I like my gin to be juniper-heavy, so went with the top-end of that scale. There are surprisingly few recipes for gin botanicals out there.

      Dug

      Reply
  • May 23, 2012 at 9:34 pm
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    taken from the ADI forum

    (one of the best resources for research on research I have found).

    written by an australian distiller – in response to an american distiller asking talking about juniper berries.

    On types of Juniper…

    Only 1 is suitable for Gin, and that is Juniperus communis subsp. communis var. communis (known as the European cultivar). From what I know, the US grows mainly Juniperus communis subsp. communis var. depressa. Although almost identical, I know that the main UK Gin distilleries will not accept the var. depressa berries, as they state they are too astringent. I import only var. communis from Scotland and Italy. I know a couple of US Distilleries are using var. depressa with excellent results, so the UK experience may be unfounded, they pioneered the stuff (please note I did not say invent).

    Ironically, Junipers for Gin should not be used fresh, the general rule is they need to be ‘aged’ for at least 6 month, preferably in wood. We used old oak wine barrels with the head knocked out and turned into a lid, an airtight seal is not required, in fact opening them up once a month helps to stop them sweating. If picking your own, make sure they have started to shrivel on the tree first, to reduce the water content and helps prevent spoilage mold in storage. Fresh junipers (you know they are too fresh when they macerate up with a green/blue rather than yellow tinge, impart an astringent/green/leaf sap quality to the Gin. Aging appears to allow this compound to break down into less volatile chemicals. Juniper Berries if picked fresh and stored correctly, will age and maintain their Gin quality for up to 2 years. Junipers sold for dairy, cooking & food use, the opposite applies, the fresher the better.

    Reply
    • June 18, 2012 at 9:06 am
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      Great info; thanks.

      Reply
  • May 29, 2012 at 12:01 pm
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    Very interesting experiment!

    I am going to be trying my own concoction in June using similar apparatus. I wonder if there is any influence of copper missing from distillation this way. I see that Sacred Gin is made on a small scale using vacuum distillation.

    Good effort and I am really glad to have found this post!
    MJM

    Reply
    • June 18, 2012 at 9:14 am
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      Sorry for the slow reply. Do let us know how you get on.

      Copper apparently absorbs some sulphites from the spirit and I think it is more important in the creation of the initial spirit – if you use vodka as your base, it will already be fairly clean; however, if you use a beer wash to create your own base-spirit, copper will absorb some of the nasties. There is a short but informative thread on it here: http://homedistiller.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=15&t=25805

      As far as I understand, Sacred is made under glass, rather than copper.

      Reply
  • July 9, 2012 at 8:03 pm
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    Dug you are right the vacuum distillation process is carried out with glassware.

    Made my first gin of sorts over the weekend. It was actually not bad. I am going to experiment with soaking the botanicals, macerating and also vapour infusing as I want to see the difference and I will also do each individually.

    I had exactly the same experience of the first 15 mls being pretty nasty.

    Reply
    • July 12, 2012 at 11:37 pm
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      It is a brilliant sense of achievement when you produce it, isn’t it? Even if it isn’t the best gin in the world, you have make something that is identifiable as gin!

      Do let me know how you get on with subsequent attempts.

      Reply
  • February 23, 2013 at 4:31 pm
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    interested to know if your experiments have continued..?

    your botanical bill looks great.

    juniper and coriander look good at 7g and 3g. i would suggest cutting down your other ingredients considerably.

    something like this (new figures in brackets) might be better. although it could involve a new set of scales.

    0.25g (0.03g)Cassia
    0.3g (0.12g) Liquorice root
    0.2g (0.03) Orris root powder
    0.2g (0.1g)Angelica root
    0.5g (0.07)Mixed citrus peel (fresh & grated)
    0.2g (0.03g) Frankincense
    0.1g (0.03g) Myrrh
    0.2g (0.02g)Cardamom

    Reply

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