Gin has seen a massive surge in popularity recently, and as a result the range and variety of local artisanal gins have skyrocketed. This complex and interesting spirit owes its distinctive flavour and aroma to the blend of botanicals employed by the maker, and with almost limitless ingredients to choose from, making gin at home can seem a bit daunting. Luckily Ben has spent a few years now playing with different herbs, peels, barks and spices and hanging out on forums to compile a basic guide to making gin that should unwrap some of the mystery, whilst still leaving the door open for creativity and experimentation.
Making gin is a fairly simple process. You take a vodka, or neutral spirit, and you flavour it with a blend of botanicals. There are three main methods for flavouring your spirit. The simplest to do at home involves steeping your botanicals for 2-3 days, then straining as finely as you can manage (e.g. a muslin lined sieve). This is probably the clumsiest of the three methods. The resulting gin will most likely be coloured, and not particularly subtle in flavour. It is, however, a very quick and easy way to experiment with different flavours and craft your own unique gins with little to no investment in equipment.
The second and third methods involve the use of a still. Distilling in Australia is illegal without a license. The second method starts the same way as the first. Steep your botanicals for 2-3 days, then strain out the solids (some folk choose to leave them in. It is up to you. The flavour will be much stronger with them in than out). Running the spirit through a pot still will distil the essential oils and alcohol and produce a clear, more subtle gin. In the third method instead of steeping the botanicals, a botanical basket is suspended in the vapor path of the still so the steam can extract the essential oils as it passes through. This is obviously the most subtle option, and requires the most amount of equipment.
When it comes to choosing botanicals, most gins are built on a strong foundation of juniper and coriander. As a general rule, about half as much coriander seed as juniper by weight will get the right balance. Really you don't need anything more than juniper to make a gin, but there is a reason why such a huge number of classic gins use coriander.
As for the rest of the botanicals, homedistiller.org used to have a great table of ingredient ratios which unfortunately is no longer online, but it outlined the different botanicals and how much of them to use compared to the juniper. When I make a gin, I use these ratios as a guide to categorize whatever spices I'm using and determine a rough starting point for weights.
If coriander is a 1:2 with the juniper, the next grouping is the 1:10. This includes things like liquorice root, cinnamon bark, peppercorns, fresh citrus peel and grains of paradise. I love to use Indonesian cubeb peppercorns which have a really unique funky, earthy note to them.
Lastly the 1:100 group includes fresh ginger, orris root, angelica, cardamom, fennel seeds, nutmeg and dried citrus peel. This group contains particularly dominating and strong flavours which is why less is more.
The total amount of botanicals you want for a distilled gin is around 25-30g/L. (In a steeped gin, 15g/L would suffice) so in 10L of vodka, you want a total of about 250-300g total botanicals. This is where the math gets a little tricky. The best way to start, is to group your botanicals into the categories and figure out what you are working with.
Say you were doing a gin with juniper, coriander, cinnamon, lemon peel, dried orange peel, orris root and liquorice root. This gives us 3 botanicals from the 1:10 group and 2 from the 1:100. We want a total between 250 and 300g. So as a starting point, let's halve that 300g to 150 for our juniper. That would mean 75g of coriander, taking us to a total of 225g. Our 1:10 group had 3 botanicals at 15g each, totaling 45g, and our 2x 1:100 gives us roughly 3g of botanicals. So our total weight is 150+75+45+3=275g, right in the middle of the happy range and perfect for the gin.
These ratios are only a guide. I really like the sweetness that liquorice root imparts so I tend to put a little more of it in, and the same with fresh citrus. Also trying to determine where an ingredient falls within those categories can be hit or miss. Sometimes the only way to know how powerful an ingredient is going to be is to put it in a gin and find out. But as a way to dial in recipes and achieve a balance in your home gin experiments, I find it an invaluable guide.
If you are distilling, some final pointers for technique:
• Use the best quality vodka you can manage. By that I mean no heads or tails. You want to make sure you aren't throwing out any good essential oils just to get rid of rough alcohol
• make sure you collect in small jars through the run as different compounds come through at different temps and some are quite harsh which you'll want to discard.
• Tasting periodically as you go can help to isolate these compounds and change jars to keep them separate as some can come through around the same time as really nice aromas and flavours (citrus comes through around some really rough prickly stuff)
• When you dilute down to bottle strength, keep in mind the gin will change massively at different abv. It is worth trying your gin at a few different strengths to find your sweet spot as different botanicals will shine through at different %
Hopefully this serves as a good entry into making your own craft gin at home!