Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Four Things I Learned Trying to Make My Own Gin

I spent this summer drinking gin.

I always say that rum is my favorite spirit, but I find myself recycling more gin bottles than anything else.  Whether this is because I'm unknowingly a gin fanatic or that gin cocktails are historically more prevalent than those of other spirits, I don't know.

As my palate explored the different styles and brands of gin and their subtle yet complex differences, I found my mind attempting to explore what other flavors could be added to a gin's recipe of botanicals and might still have success.

Wanting to experiment with this, instead of deciding to infuse upon some simple gin brand as a base, I flippantly decided that I would infuse my own gin, which I've seen done on the interwebs.  How hard could it be?  It turned out to be the hardest booze endeavor I've undertaken.  I haven't even dabbled with new flavors yet; I've spent all this time on getting a baseline gin.

Gin, of course, is most basically flavored vodka, in the sense that the base spirit can be of any fermented source, so long as it's distilled enough times to retain little flavor.  Proper gin, however, involves the infusion of herbs and spices either during distillation or before a final post-infusion distillation.

And so, half-assed gin can be made via infusion only.  I'm not one to half-ass things, but I am when it comes to not wanting to distill in my own house.  I realized that whatever gin I would be able to infuse would be not very similar to the real stuff, but I was hoping that I could get it "in the ballpark".  I bought a sensitive digital scale and everything!

After several months, I'm satisfied with my mix, though I still plan to improve it.  Here's what I've learned.

For infusing, there's juniper, and then there's juniper

Of course, juniper is the main flavorant in a gin's recipe across almost all the gin styles.  Dried juniper berries are easy to find.  I have a feeling that fresh berries would better, but I haven't sought to find them, as I imagine it would be difficult.

What surprised me is how different the resulting infusion is depending on whether you crush the berries or leave them whole and intact.  After weeks of confusing results, I realized that I obtained more of the traditional juniper flavor in my gin by leaving the berries whole instead of breaking their skin/shell by crushing.  So does this mean that main ingredient in most gin is actually juniper skin?  I still have no idea!

That traditional juniper hit is hard to achieve

As mentioned above, I didn't initially realize that juniper skin was important for the juniper flavor I was seeking (at least, in my trials).  However, I still haven't managed to achieve a central juniper note reminiscent of commercial gins.  I'm beginning to wonder if distillation is required for it.  Too much crushed juniper yields a bitter flavor that overtakes everything else, and too much whole juniper yields (surprisingly) a sweetness that doesn't jive with the rest of the flavors.  So for now I must settle with an amount of juniper that leaves that distinct flavor underwhelming in magnitude.

Humorously, my solution (for now) is to simulate the coniferous flavor using non-juniper means.  After infusing spruce needles with little success, I found a better alternative: pine needles!  I ordered food-grade pine needles online, and they play a role in my current recipe (alongside the juniper).  It's not quite the same as what I wanted, but it's good.

Angelica root makes a big difference

I'm not saying that angelica is needed in gin, because there are many commercial gins that do not use it.  But for me, angelica adds something that my recipe needed.  Its flavor (when infused) is astringent and bright; it adds a sourness that reminds me of wormwood (minus the bitterness) and a pungent acidity that is not unlike juniper, but perhaps more herbal and grassy.  I expected this root, by its looks, to be heavy and woody.  It turned out to be the opposite.  This makes me want to try to infuse orris root, which is also sometimes used in gin.

Infusion ratio/time is your flexible friend, but also your enemy

Think about all the different ways you could infuse an ingredient into vodka.  Obviously its strength would be dependent on how long the ingredient is soaked.  But, infusing an ingredient for, say, 2 hours is not the same as doubling the amount of ingredient for a 1-hour infusion, or halving it for a 4-hour infusion.  What about heating the vodka and then infusing?  What about infusing the vodka in the freezer?

Different flavor compounds within the same ingredient infuse at different rates and at different temperatures.  Have you heard of the recent craze in cold-brew coffee?  Cold-brew coffee tastes different than iced coffee.  Different flavor compounds brew out of the coffee grounds during a long, cold infusion as opposed to a short, hot one.

We haven't even talked about the difference between infusing ingredients whole, cracked, chopped, or ground.  Surface area matters.  And as with ingredients like the juniper above, since the skin and interior impart different flavors, the difference between infusing it whole and cracked, or cracked and crushed, can vastly change your results.

This freedom and flexibility soon becomes your enemy because of the vast variability that will always have you in trial and error.  Should your infusion take an hour or a week?  The ingredients being whole or ground to a powder/paste?  Which flavors will be compromised by either of these pairs of choices?  How much time and money are you willing to spend on perfecting this balance?

My recipe was designed minimize the amount of time and money it took to experiment.  I infused 8oz of vodka at a time(plus a little more), and I decided to have my infusion last 24 hours.  This allowed me to not go broke, and to make a different infusion every single day, if I so chose.

Here's what I have so far.  But as I said above, this endeavor, to its detriment, is a work in progress.

The DJ's Infused Gin (Homemade Mix)

8oz vodka
4oz vodka

1.5g juniper berries, whole
.75g lemon peel, sliced finely
.75g orange peel, slices finely
.5g pine needles, muddled
.5g canela cinnamon, torn
.4g juniper berries, crushed
.3g angelica root, cracked/crushed

Soak all ingredients in vodka for 24 hours, shaking vessel when able.  Strain, and dilute with 4oz more vodka.

* Cardamom is a tough customer.  It's in many gin recipes, but it's flavor is so strong that it's hard to wield.  I've experimented with whole and ground cardamom, and I still haven't yet found my perfect amount.  Err on the side of too little.


  1. I can say that it is pretty easy to get a good and simple gin if you distill your infusion. Juniper is rather strong so most London Dry Gins only infuse it in the still or for a maximum of 48 hours before distilling which softens the flavor again.

    The problem with infusions is that depending on the botanicals your gin will get some color. And when green from herbs, etc. is involved it can turn brown which looks a bit ugly.

    If you don't distill your infusion I'd suggest using lots of juniper for a short time (max. 24 hours), after that add the botanicals and infuse again. Or just build yourself a still and have a proper gin in less than one hour.

  2. I'm with Pete, time to put together a still!

  3. Has anyone tried using rosemary to get that piney note? I would also like to try mint.