During my seemingly endless sabbatical, I’ve had half-an-eye on the world of gin and noted the many new releases in recent months; one of the things I’ve clocked is that almost every new gin released costs north of £30.
18 months ago, a gin priced at £30 would have been a relatively rare thing and it would have almost been guaranteed to be good. These days, every gin released is “very special” in some way or other and is firmly placed in the upper-premium price-bracket. Are there really that many top-notch gins hitting the market or are there just lots of overpriced, or sub-standard (depending on how you look at it) gins launching in an attempt to cash-in on the new wave of interest in gin?
Ultimately, gin is relatively easy to produce compared to, say, whisky, which needs years of ageing, and anyone with the right skills and an idle still can crank it out. This is a somewhat over-simplified view which besmirches the awesome talents of master distillers but it serves a purpose for the argument. New gins are flooding the market and while a few years ago we saw excellent gins launching at reasonable prices (for example, Brecon, Sipsmith, Whitley Neill), very little in the last year has released without a £30+ price-tag.
On a personal and somewhat trivial level , this irks me; my hobby is getting more and more expensive. On a more serious level, I’m questioning whether there are really that many gins which justify the price-tag.
Two years ago, I nearly coughed-up my own pelvis at the price of No.3 and Oxley. Gin at this prices was uncommon and the gins were of tremendous quality. Now, you only have to go to somewhere like Master of Malt and sort by price to see what I’m talking about – 50% of the gins on sale there are over the £30-mark.
The only way to find out for sure will be to try them all and, even then, taste is a very subjective thing, so I doubt there will ever be a definitive answer to these questions I pose here.
On a less subjective note, the populous spends on a bell-curve; from budget gins at one tail, to mid-range gins in the fat-middle and premium gins at the other tail. If product releases are skewed toward the premium-end of the curve, this is unsustainable at best. With too little spending to go around and too many products on the market, many brands will end-up discontinued. My main concern is how many great brands will we lose because the market is flooded with overpriced guff? You would hope that great brands will stand the test of time and endure, but history is littered with great gins that have since gone the way of that goldfish from the fairground.
To my mind, a £30+ bottle of gin should be really special. Something that you buy a friend as a present. Something you recommend when someone asks, “Bob likes his gin – can you recommend a good one for his leaving present?”. Something you leave on the shelf and drink sparingly to make it last. Something that makes you utter “Wow!” every time you crack-open that bottle.
I can imagine it being hard for the creators of gin too. They spend months or years researching and experimenting, to eventually concoct what they think is the bees-knees; of course they will think that their creation compares with the best. However, there needs to be an extensive, objective assessment of where a product sits within the various price brackets.
The world needs more gins like Brecon; an excellent gin at a very reasonable price. I suppose that there’s an argument that this one went the other way and didn’t price high enough – but everyone loves their top-quality bargain and I think that’s a pricing strategy unto itself. On the flip-side, no one wants a rip-off, which brings me full circle really.
What do you think? Do the recent barrage of premium gin releases justify their price-tag, or are we just seeing egos inflating prices? Have you discovered any bargains recently?
Cash Register image courtesy of Jo Jackman on flickr
The garnish seems to be so deeply ingrained in cocktail-culture that I have mostly taken it for granted. However, over the last few months, I have been increasingly neglecting this staple of the drinks-world; I just let the gin do the talking on a familiar canvas of tonic water. I have found myself becoming frustrated with the lime in my G&T and been finding that the garnish is masking the gin, rather than enhancing it. There are exceptions to this; Sipsmith being the obvious one that absolutely needs that little wedge of lime.
The more I discard the idea of the garnish, the more thought I have given it and this thinking has raised some unanswered questions. I have always maintained that admitting ignorance is a virtue and, to this end, I feel I have to throw these questions out there and ask for help in getting to the bottom of it all. However, I am struggling to compose any sort of structure around my thoughts, so I’m going to just spew some ideas onto the page and see where we get to, so I apologise in advance if this is a little less coherent than usual.
I can see that a garnish can add a layer of flavour to a drink, even texture and aroma. This can come in many guises and, in some drinks, I think it works very well. For now though, I am just going to focus on the humble Gin & Tonic as I think this is where most of my troubles are occurring.
There seems to be an increasing trend to add an existing botanical as the garnish of a G&T. Cucumber in Hendrick’s and Apple in Caoruun are a couple of such examples. However, if you add a slab of cucumber to a Hendrick’s G&T, how on earth are you meant to appreciate the cucumber in the actual spirit? Can the apple of Caoruun really be detectable and enjoyed when looked-for around slices of red apple floating around the top of a glass? Surely this just overrides the subtleties of a premium spirit.
In a similar vein, most gins contain some citrus botanicals, yet we often cram our G&T with slices of lemon or wedges of lime. Is there not enough citrus between the gin and the tonic? If not, why are there not more gins that are absolutely dripping with citrus?
It all just seems a little short-sighted and unimaginative to me.
Surely a better approach would be to add something that compliments the flavours that are already there. Maybe mint or fennel with the cucumber of Hendrick’s, maybe elderflower, ginger or clove with the apple of Caoruun, maybe basil or thyme with the fennel of Death’s Door?
Why stop there, though? Taking things a few steps further, there are many herbs and spices in the gin-spectrum that are are often coupled with meat on the plate. Game is a common choice with juniper and meat comes with its own gelatin. Would gellified drops of meat stock make a good compliment to a G&T? I’ve learned not to judge things without trying them so maybe, next time I do a Sunday roast, I should set aside some of the meat juices to see how it works with a herby gin. Duck with citrus? Pork with apple? Lamb with rosemary?
Madness? Probably. My thoughts on meat-based cocktail garnishes were had whilst eating an absolutely lovely pulled-pork after the navy-strength gin tasting I went to recently; I was a little tipsy at the time.
Potential lunacy side, an even better approach might just be to enjoy the product of a master distiller as simply as possible. A lot of time and effort goes into the creation of a new gin, in some cases years, and being able to fully appreciate that effort seems worthwhile to me. Certainly where a gin is more complex, with many subtleties and flavours, then leaving the garnish out allows you to enjoy the roller-coaster of flavours without hiding it under a blanket of [insert garnish of choice].
I think that gins with simpler flavour profiles and more classic gins are better able to withstand the addition of garnish but I need to be confident that I’m not hiding anything by sticking something else in there. I need to know that the drink will actually benefit from the addition. Most gin cocktails seem to rely less on the flavour of the gin and treat it like just another ingredient, rather than a showcase; in these cases, I don’t think the garnish is a bad thing – I am certainly not anti-garnish. The G&T just seems a bit of a different case to me.
Ultimately, everyone has their own preferences and tastes and these are just my ramblings on the subject; part of my ongoing journey of discovery. What are your thoughts?
Lime garnish: Dinner Series on Flickr
Star Anise: Dana Moos on Flickr
Sipsmith bought out their Summer Cup last year but I managed to miss it; life and its limited retail distribution conspired to keep it from my grubby mitts. However, during the same trip to Waitrose that I acquired a bottle of Bulldog gin, I also saw, gleaming on the shelf, the newly repackaged Summer Cup – so, like Gollum clutching his precious, I scurried away with a bottle, hissing and whispering to myself.
The bottle, like all Sipsmith products, it’s really nicely presented with a yellow label containing the characteristic swan-necked still with a spray of summer flowers. The bottle is a tall elegant affair with the heavy bottom that you expect from Sipsmith.
Strangely there is no wax seal that you usually find on the top of Sipsmith’s bottles. Maybe they couldn’t get the correct shade of yellow. It is, however, capped with a branded yellow cork, so not all of the opening pleasures are lost.
The liquid itself is a slightly cloudy, rusty autumnal red, which contrasts beautifully with the yellow branding.
Anyway, enough of the packaging, it’s the drink that really counts.
Summer Cup is created by macerating Sipsmith Gin with a variety of different ingredients. The exact list is difficult to piece together but includes Early Grey tea, Lemon Verbena, Orange, Cardamom and Cucumber.
The aroma has a distinctive cucumber twang that is layered with citrus and black tea.
Neat – (over ice and strawberry slices)
I think drinking this neat might be my favourite way of enjoying Summer Cup. It is strong and flavoursome with a terrific balance of sweetness and bitterness – almost reminiscent of a negroni. The tea is probably the most dominant flavour and there are hints of citrus, cardamom, juniper and herbal leaves coming through (maybe thyme?). Saying that, it is so well balanced that it is very hard to isolate individual botanicals – it’s sweet, dry, herbal, fruity, spicy and awesome.
Eating the strawberries after finishing the drink was rather tasty. I might even try Summer Cup as a dressing for a fruit salad (instead of the usual Kirsch).
I tried mixing with mainstream lemonade to start with (I can’t remember if it was Sprite or 7-up). It was about as cloying as I was expecting, but it did a really good job of lifting the flavours and bringing a lot more of the herbal and spice notes out.
I tried different ratios from 2:1 to 5:1 – the sweet spot for me seems to be about 2.5:1.
Seeking something a little less sweet, I laid my hands on some San Pellegrino limonata, which is deliciously tart and intensely lemony on its own. Mixing the Summer Cup with this was a delight; gone was the cloying sweetness and it was injected with a lemon explosion. The mix of leon, tea, spice and fruit was really very refreshing and uplifting.
With lemon and mint drink
I can’t remember what it is called but, in my quest for a sharper lemonade, I found a little bottle of lemon and mint drink in Tesco and thought it might be a good mixer for the Summer Cup.
I wasn’t far wrong. The combination of lemon and mint made for a really refreshing drink and it was no way near as sweet as mainstream lemonade. You need to mix is fairly strong (say 2:1) otherwise the lemon and mint tends to be a bit overpowering. Worth seeking out though.
With a G&T
Oh boy, this was fantastic. First, the recipe.
- 2 oz Sipsmith Gin
- 0.5 oz Sipsmith Summer Cup
- 200ml Fever-Tree Mediterranean Tonic Water
I have always liked Fever-Tree’s Mediterranean tonic; the geranium adds a great floral depth to certain G&Ts, but mixing it with a little Sipsmith Summer Cup really makes for an uplifting summer drink. It is no way near as sweet as the various lemon drinks I tried and the combination of geranium and Summer Cup brings a cracking whiff of the summer garden to an already light and refreshing drink.
I suppose, in some ways, it is a predictable choice coming from me, but I do urge that you to try it.
David at Summer Fruit Cup suggested that the Summer Cup works well in a negroni, as a substitute for the sweet vermouth. This was a very interesting negroni variant but I don’t quite know where to begin. It seems to make it both more bitter and sweeter at the same time. The Summer Cup adds a lot of more prominent herbal notes to the negroni and makes it more intense than the conventional mix. I am not convinced by it though – on the balance of things, I think I prefer the traditional negroni.
In short, I truly enjoyed my bottle of Sipsmith Summer Cup. It is versatile and fun. I think its only down-side is that there isn’t enough in the bottle.
I recently acquired a new twitter follower with an interesting name; The Jammy Cow (@thejammycow). As with most new followers, I checked-out the profile page and found a company with some remarkable products. You see, The Jammy Cow sells jam, and interesting jam at that.
I love good jam, and marmalade is even better. You can keep your standard strawberry jam or off-the-shelf orange marmalade but Carrot & Cardamom Marmalade? Now that floats my boat. And guess what? The Jammy Cow sell Gin & Tonic Marmalade!
I placed an order that very same evening and I was very excited a few days later when a box of jam arrived at my door.
Gin & Tonic Marmalade
The gin and tonic marmalade was the thing that really drove me to order. The idea of a G&T that I could spread on toast had me squirming in anticipation and it was the first thing I tried on opening the package.
In some ways, this was my least favourite of my purchases; but that isn’t saying that it wasn’t good, because it was. It is a lemon and lime marmalade with a subtle hint of juniper and quinine. It’s very subtle but it’s definitely there. The fruit and the G&T ingredients give it a clear sharpness that prevents it being just another marmalade and there is this underlying recognition, almost Pavilovian, of the G&T.
All-in-all, a top-class marmalade.
Kiwi, Lime and Ginger Jam
The Jammy Cow website describes this a green fruit pastilles in jam form, and it wasn’t wrong. It doesn’t end there though; swimming among the lumps of jamified (is that a real word?) kiwi, there are chunks of lime peel and ginger. These add a real complexity and variance of flavour to what, at first taste, is already a cracking jam; each mouthful is different. This isn’t a sweet, cloying jam either, it’s pretty tart and the sharp flavours cut through the sugar very well indeed.
Ruby Grapefruit & Cranberry Marmalade with Port
I love grapefruit marmalade. To me it is the king of marmalades. Make it ruby grapefruit I am sold. But then, adding cranberry and port, turns a great marmalade into a work of genius.
You can smell the port as soon as you open the jar. The marmalade is a deep, rich red in colour, qualities that carry through to the flavour too. The port really ties it all together and makes this an utterly indulgent experience. This stuff wouldn’t be out of place in Harrods or Fortnum & Mason.
Carrot & Cardamom Marmalade
Carrot is a brave choice for a preserve, but I couldn’t resist trying it. It ticked two key boxes for me, 1) it’s quirky, and 2) it has cardamom in.
I wasn’t disappointed. The carrot & cardamom marmalade is probably my best purchase of the year so far. The cardamom is clear and powerful and the carrot makes a surprisingly good base for a “marmalade” (as The Jammy Cow points out, this is technically not a marmalade).
Eat this stuff on toast, eat it with a curry, eat it with cheese, eat it by the spoonful, straight from the jar in a joyful feeding frenzy that leaves your heart pumping at 120 beats per minute, pupils like pin-pricks and sugar-shakes so bad that you are incapable of lifting the spoon to your mouth for the next hour.
Please note, heart palpitations are a sure sign of having eaten way too much jam.
The carrot and cardamom marmalade is a clear winner for me. In only a week (one where I was away on business for two days) I have pretty much finished that whole jar, and I am willing to bet that half a jar went on that first day. My only regret is my diet.
There were some other jams and marmalades that sounded lovely, but I thought that filling the house with jam as well as gin wouldn’t win me any favours with the wife. Still, I have to place at least one more order for some elderflower and gooseberry jam, as this was out of stock when I ordered – but elderflower season is almost upon us.
Ice is ice, right? It’s cold, you put it in your drink and it makes your drink cold. Don’t put too much in because it will water your drink down. That’s all there is to it, right?
This is so far from the truth that it has long surpassed Jeffery Archer or Tony Blair and rammed itself firmly into some sort of racial memory of misguided logic. At least everyone knows politicians lie – the “Ice Fallacy” is so insidious and deeply entrenched that nearly everyone believes it.
But, times are changing. An army of people, led by the great drinking minds of our time and equipped with the cold, hard edge of science are charging head-long to vanquish this Usurper of Truth, who hath bought us naught but tepid, watery drinks. We have established a foothold and now it is time to expand and conquer the endless masses of the beguiled.
Okay, I am going to get a grip now, and lay the melodrama aside for the time being.
There are several factors that make “good ice” and I am going to explore some of them here.
But first, what makes “good ice” good? Well, you can use ice in different ways. When used in a cocktail shaker, you are looking for slightly different outcomes than the ice you drop in your glass. As an insatiable G&T aficionado, I am only going to consider the sitting-in-your-glass use; in this format, ice has two jobs; these are…
1) Making your drink cold.
2) Otherwise, not altering the overall experience of your drink.
The so-called “good ice” will do both of these jobs well.
Incidentally, in a cocktail shaker, you are actively looking for dilution (just a controlled amount), and if shaking, you might be looking for a texture or appearance change too.
Okay, this is probably the most obvious. If your water tastes like crap, your ice will taste like crap. Got lots of chlorine in your tap-water? Your ice will have lots of chlorine in. For six years, I lived in a house that had had its own borehole and the water was pure and sweet – unfortunately, this spoiled me something terrible and I could smell the chlorine in ice cubes made with tap-water. Drinking in pubs was a real problem for me.
But it is not just chlorine; there are loads of chemicals that are added to tap-water and they do impact upon the taste. It is amazing how you get used to drinking crap tap-water too. When I moved away from my house with the borehole and into a place with mains water, I nearly gagged when drinking from the tap – now I barely notice. However, if you are going to the trouble of sourcing good ingredients for your drinks, why drop in nasty ice to cool it down? What’s the point in using Martin Miller’s Gin, blended with the finest Icelandic glacial melt-water, if you are just going to add tap-water to it, in the guise of ice?
How far you actually go in solving the water problem is really up to you. Here are a few tips…
- Buying bottled spring water is probably a good start. It will have all sorts of mineral impurities in, but not all impurities are bad, or affect the taste. Choose one that is good value and tastes good.
- Boiling tap-water will drive off the more volatile impurities (like chlorine) and get rid of a lot of the other dissolved gasses (more on this in a bit).
- Passing tap-water through a jug/cartridge filter will take out a lot of impurities and improve the flavour. This will take out a lot of the dissolved solids which may end up with you having flat-tasting water.
I would steer clear of buying deionised or distilled water for your ice – while it will make “good ice” in a mechanical sense, drinking water treated in this way can strip the body of minerals. Too pure isn’t good. Icelanders refer to deionised water as “Dead Water” because it is flat and lifeless. There is a balance to be had and neither extreme is good.
Mostly, I would recommend boiling the water first. If you have particularly hard water, then you might want to filter as well.
The science of cooling
Okay, this is where it might get a bit intense and nerdy but do persevere, as it’s fascinating stuff.
There are two mechanisms that ice uses to cool your drink. The first is a very basic concept that seems like common sense; the ice is cold, the drink is warm – the ice absorbs heat energy from the drink.
Well, not quite. There is this strange thing that some materials take more or less energy to heat up. One gram of water takes 4.18 Joules of energy to heat by one degree (Celsius or Kelvin) and one gram of ice (at -10oC) only takes 2.11 Joules of energy to heat by one degree. Incidentally, asphalt only takes 0.92 Joules, which is why the road is always really hot in the sun. These numbers are called the Heat Capacity of a material and all materials heat at different rates.
The good news for imbibers is that ethanol has a much lower Heat Capacity; 2.44 Joules per gram per Kelvin. Alcohol takes less energy to cool and heat than water; the stronger your drink, the easier it will cool.
So, were you to take 100g of ice at -20oC and pour over it, 100g of water at 20oC, you will end up with a 200g of water at 10oC (eventually), not ice floating in 0oC water. Well, that would be true if it were not for the second mechanism at play.
Ice, it turns out, doesn’t just start melting when it reaches 0oC. It actually takes quite a lot of energy to break that ice-crystal lattice apart. In fact, it takes 334 Joules of energy per gram to melt water ice – this is called the Heat (or Enthalpy) of Fusion. This is an additional requirement to the energy required to heat the material; so if you take 100g of ice at 0oC, it will take 33400 Joules of energy to melt that ice and end up with 100g of water at 0oC (no temperature change, just a phase change). That’s enough energy to heat 100g of liquid water at 0oC to a whopping 80oC! Is that mind-bending or what?
Also, get this: Water actually gives off heat when freezing as well as absorbing it when melting. This principle is being used to develop passive air-conditioning systems for buildings, using waxes that melt just above room temperature (go read about Phase-Change Materials if you are curious).
So, our 100g of ice at -20oC mixed with 100g of water at 20oC will do something like this. The ice will warm quickly and absorb 4220 Joules of energy, reducing the temperature of the warm water to about 10oC. The ice then begins to melt; just less than 13g of ice melts, absorbing a further 4220 Joules of energy and the water reaches 0oC, without the ice changing temperature at all.
It isn’t quite as simple as this; the room will be imparting heat into the water and there will be temperature gradients in the ice as well as convection currents in the liquid.
There is also another quirk that stretches beyond the limits of my knowledge; it transpires that ice at 0oC can cool a drink to -7oC in a cocktail shaker. What? You don’t believe me? Go read this mind-blowing article, complete with proper science experiments: http://www.cookingissues.com/2009/07/22/cocktails-the-science-of-shaking/
Weird huh? I could speculate about the reasons, but that wouldn’t be cricket science.
Okay, that’s the science bit over, time to look at what we can do with this knowledge.
This one is pretty obvious.
The colder the ice, the more it will chill your drink before starting to melt, which is good. This isn’t the most efficient means of cooling, but it’s a start. My domestic freezer is set to -20oC and this will suck out 10oC from an equal weight of liquid water – more from an alcohol-water mix. The more you cool your drink before the ice begins to melt, the less you dilute your drink by melting said ice.
Novelty ice-cubes in fun shapes and those odd cubes with massive dimples that come out of ice-cube machines all have a much greater surface area than the humble cube.
Ice melts at the surface of the mass and the greater the surface area, the more ice you will have melting at any given moment. While this will facilitate cooling, little lumps and nodules of ice (say, the neck of the novelty guitar ice cube, or the funnels of your ice Titanic) will heat to 0oC quickly and start melting before the temperature in the main body of ice has finished reached 0oC. So you will cool by melting before you finish cooling by ice-warming.
Air bubbles trapped in your ice, when breached as the ice melts, will result in a huge increase in surface area and the lumps between voids will melt very quickly. Boiling your water before freezing will drive off most of that dissolved gas and make a clearer, solid cube, with a crystal lattice with fewer faults.
A sphere of ice is the ideal shape, but they are buggers to make. You can buy moulds for ice-balls but they tend to be fiddly and inefficient on space. The humble cube is a good compromise unless you are seriously going to town on your ice.
You can buy equipment to shape ice-sphere if you are flush with cash and have nothing better to spend it on (Here is one of the cheapest I have seen).
There is some erroneous common-knowledge that putting too much ice in a drink will water it down too much when the ice eventually melts. This is pretty-much the opposite of the truth.
Ice melts when it warms to a certain temperature. There is only so much heat in your glass. The less heat each cube absorbs, the slower it will reach 0oC and start to melt. Therefore, sticking loads of ice in your glass will see each cube absorb less heat and staying solid for longer, thus keeping you drink cold without making it watery.
If you stick two small cubes in a glass, they will melt pretty quickly and water your drink down more than if you had filled the glass with ice to start with. You will also end up with a tepid drink.
More ice means less melting.
Small ice cubes will suck heat out of your drink quicker than large cubes. This is because several smaller cubes have a greater surface-area for their volume than one bigger cube. There is more cold material in contact with your drink, so it will cool it quickly. Small ice is good for crash-cooling.
Larger ice cubes will cool your drink slower and therefore, more of the surface will melt by the time temperature equilibrium is reached and more of the cooling will have been achieved by melting.
However, once you have reached equilibrium, the larger cube takes-over in the efficiency stakes. Here, higher surface-area is a liability. You see, ice will be constantly melting at its surface; it is in a constant flux of melting and freezing. This is just the way things are when equilibrium is reached and normally the water freezes as fast as the ice melts (hence equilibrium). However, the materials in question are not the same. The ice is pure (ish) water and your drink is an alcohol-water mix and this freezes at a much lower temperature than pure water. In fact, a mixture of 40% ethanol and 6o% water freezes at -23oC (which is why your whisky never freezes when “on the rocks”), so when water is liberated from the ice crystal, into the ethanol solution, it is much less likely to re-freeze back into the ice. There are concentration gradients that complicate this, but this is the basics of how it works.
So, even at equilibrium, the ice in your drink will melt and the greater the surface-area, the more will be melting.
Ideally, you would crash-cool your drink with small ice and then quickly transfer it over to large cubes. This is way too much of a faff for almost everyone who might be considered sane, so large cubes tend to win-out.
In short, big ice cubes in very simple shapes work best. Make them as cold as possible, use good quality water and boil the gas out. Use lots of it and they will cool your drink and keep it cold for a long time with minimal dilution.
I personally use Tovolo Perfect Ice Cube Trays, which are silicone moulds that churn-out chunky 1½ inch (38mm) cubes. They last well through a long-nursed drink and there is always plenty of ice left when the glass runs dry. They can be hard to find in this county and are usually quite expensive when you do find them – on ebay, it often seems cheaper to buy them from the US and get them shipped to the UK.
Tovolo also do a “King” model as well that makes massive 2 inch (50mm) cubes.
There are all sorts of moulds and trays out there though. There are some that create spheres (without the massive expense) – in fact, it is rumoured that the queen uses spheres of ice in her drinks as they clink less in the glass.
One last thing; now that you are armed with this knowledge, don’t be an ice-bore. You won’t win friends by complaining about the ice at their parties, or in bars, and people will think you insane if you bring your own – there are times when you just need to be grateful that there is ice in your drink at all.
Creative commons image attribution
- Ice and lime – by ktylerconk
- Water – by likablerodent
- Melting ice – by stevendepolo
- Cold thermometer – by wstryder
- Ice with dimples – by Andrew Mason
- Lots of ice – by Muffet
- Big ol’ ice cube – by seanmfreese
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.
I don’t really own many books on boozing. I do have a copy of Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, and a few books by the god of home-brew, C J J Berry himself, but on the whole, my bookshelves are mostly dominated by sci-fi and pop-science.
When I was contacted asking if I would like a copy of How to Drink at Christmas by Victoria Moore, I was a little hesitant, simply because I had visions of it being one of these niche books that simply gathers dust on the shelf forever more. However, I did a little research on the title and though I would give it a go.
Victoria Moore is currently the Telegraph’s wine writer and has written for the BBC, Daily Mail and Guardian.
The book is presented in traditional festive colours (red white and gold) and is a small-format hardback that will fit in a large pocket. It may be a cliché, but let’s not judge a book by its cover.
With section headings like “Ice Freakery”, “Drinks for Drivers” and “A Sip of Something by the Fire”, there are some intriguing entries.
The various sections relevant to making a G&T (not only a part on making the G&T, but choice of tonic, choice of gin and getting the best from your ice and fruit) are succinct and well constructed. There is no preaching about your gin:tonic ratios or other dogmatic tripe that you sometimes find thrown around; there seems to be an underlying recognition that everyone’s tastes vary and this is a pattern that is reflected throughout the whole book.
There is also a refreshing pragmatism threading the book that opines things like supermarket own-label bottles where the quality of a spirit isn’t going to be a big factor, and packets of frozen fruit from the supermarket freezer shelves.
The book is dotted with fascinating facts and I certainly learned a thing or two in the reading; I now know more about champagne and brandy, and have an appreciation of the frightening toll that counterfeit vodka has on the poorer populace of Russia (an estimated 42,000 deaths per year!).
The presented spectrum of winter cocktails is a good mix of the traditionally clichéd (the snowball and eggnog) right through to off-beat pick-me-ups for those moments when you need a break from the feasting (for example, the Rosemary and Lemon Infusion).
Many of the cocktail recipes are broken down into drinks for “small numbers” and “larger parties” in an elegant recognition that the number of guests can often dictate how much effort you can put into serving drinks. There is also a section on “drinks for drivers” which not only focuses on keeping them sober, but also not making them stand out like sore thumbs.
The section on Christmas Day not only presents some great advice about choosing the right beverage for your food, but challenges some of the traditional pairings, like port & stilton, and smoked salmon & champagne.
All-in-all, I am a pleased that I accepted a copy of How to Drink at Christmas and I can definitely see it influencing my choice of beverages in the run-up to Christmas.
Having started experimenting with martinis, I thought I should invest in a proper martini glass.
Now, a martini needs to be cold, and it needs to stay cold, but I am a fairly slow drinker. So, having a look around I found what looked to be the ideal solution; the Libbey Martini Chiller.
With no stem, making it harder to break, and an ice bowl for the glass to sit in, this seemed like the ideal choice. It also goes in the dishwasher, which is an “absolute must” in our house.
At first, I was a little worried that this is more gimmick than useful glassware, but having quaffed a few martinis in this glass now, I am a convert. I have found that putting a combination of ice and water in the bowl keeps the drink cooler. I should imagine crushed ice would work well too, but I haven’t got around to trying this.
After a good long session on various martinis, drinks toward the end of the evening were taking up to an hour to go down, and the last sip was as cool as the first. Very nice. Drinking from the glass is a pleasing blend of drinking from a martini glass and a bowl (I like drinking bowls) and, while it could be my ego filling in the gaps, it felt somewhat sophisticated. Okay, okay, it is just a glass, let’s not go over the top.
The only real downside is that the bowl attracts a great deal of condensation and you need an absorbent pad for it to sit on. I ruined a cheap coaster by leaving the bowl on it overnight with ice and water in. The condensation pooled on the coaster (and under it), soaking in to it and causing it to swell.
Still, quirky drawbacks aside, I am pretty pleased with this.
It has been two months since I combined sloes, gin, sugar, almonds and a little ginger into a demijohn in order to kick-off my own bumper batch of sloe gin. If you missed it the first time, go and read about the making of sloe gin in my prior post.
Anyway, with Christmas only a week away, I thought it was high time that I bottled this stuff.
First, I strained the whole mix through a muslin bag to catch the sloes, almonds, ginger and the coarser bits of detritus.
Second, I shoved it in the bottles that the gin came in.
There you have it, not the most exciting process, but a faithful account.
Before you think that this is the shortest washout post on this whole blog, don’t worry, there is a little more to tell.
I tried a few sloes, thinking that they might have lost their bitter edge and be quite sweet and tasty. Bleagh, how wrong was I? They were still as bitter as anything I have ever tasted and were underpinned by a harsh alcoholic taste.
This didn’t really bode well for the finished product. I threw that muck in the compost bin (which might set the microbial ecosystem back a few weeks with the alcohol content) and set about trying the drink instead of the waste-product.
The sloe gin itself was rather tasty; it was sweet with a slightly tart tail and has a warming medicinal quality to it. The flavour was dripping with that almond-like cherry quality with a subtle foundation of juniper. The ginger wasn’t really that evident, but it must contribute in some subtle way.
I have three full litre bottles of sloe gin now and it is supposed to improve significantly with age as well. I will likely lay a couple down under the stairs for next Christmas and guzzle the other over this festive period. I will also, in a subsequent post be comparing it to Sipsmith Sloe Gin and maybe Plymouth (if I can get some in time).
Edit – 19/01/11: A quick note of thanks to my Dad for pointing out one instance of me using the word “slow” instead of “sloe”. Oops.
The more gin I drink, and the more comparisons I try to draw, the more I realise it isn’t quite that simple. Every gin is different and there is a wild degree of variation across the market.
Every gin-drinker will have their own particular taxonomy; mine is somewhat embryonic and still developing, but as it is taking shape, I thought I would start to try to define it.
Okay, this sounds a bit basic, but there are plenty of gins on the market that are just gin. They pretty much hit the spot when one is hankering for gin, but there is nothing that makes them deviate far from the traditional definition of a gin.
There are of course good examples and bad examples of a gin gin; most supermarket brands fall into this category along with Gordon’s, as do some stalwart brands that I adore – Juniper Green and Sipsmith for example are two very good gins, but beyond their quality, there is little else to say other than they are both cracking gins.
Yes, yes, all gins are flavoured, but some have one botanical (or more) that dominates the flavour beyond the traditional gin flavours. Another name might be USP (unique selling point) gins rather than flavoured gins.
It is hard to compare these against gin-gins as they are so different and your enjoyment of them is likely to be defined by your acceptance of the USP flavour. There are some great gins in this category but they cannot really be compared to the likes of Sipsmith without clouding the waters somewhat.
This seems to be a common categorisation amongst gin drinkers. Some question whether these can be called a gin as the juniper is not seen as being dominant enough. Somewhere between a gin and a vodka, these subtle drinks are likely to be a good introduction to the non-gin-drinker. Some gin drinkers deride them, but they do have their place (just not in my glass).
This is a category that is likely to cause a little argument between gin-drinkers. Where is the line between a proper gin and a vodka-gin? I would personally put Bombay Sapphire into the vodka-gin category, but many wouldn’t.
That’s it really. Every gin I have tried falls loosely into one of these categories. There are plenty of other ways to categorise gins; Imbibe did a fantastic tasting of London gins (here) where the gins were placed on axes of citrus/floral and savoury/sweet. Part of me wonders if they missed something with their axes, but by far the greater part thinks that these people know a lot more about gin than I.