The Geek’s Guide To Distilling Commercial Gin For £2.50 A Litre Bottle

First, for those people in the UK and other countries where it is illegal to distil spirits without a licence, here’s the legal bit:

“It is illegal to manufacture spirits in the UK without a distiller’s licence which is required under the provisions of section 12 of the Alcoholic Liquor Duties Act 1979 and this includes manufacture for “own/domestic use”.

Public Notice 39 – “Spirits production in the UK” dated July 2006 provides further information about HM Revenue & Customs’ requirements.

If you require further assistance, then please contact the National Advice Service on Telephone 0845 010 9000 or HM Revenue & Customs Where you can obtain & view Public Notice 39”

However, in the UK it’s perfectly legal to use a still to make distilled water or aromatherapy oils without risking any duty penalty or fine, equipment confiscation and embarrassment (it’s a civil matter only, no criminal record).

Carrying on from the last article where we distilled 93% ethanol from a 15% alcohol wash and created a colourless product called “vodka”, we are now going to look at making gin.  You will need to refer to the previous article for the details:

The Geek’s Guide To Distilling Commercial Vodka For £2.50 A Litre Bottle

Juniper, typically Juniperus Communis, is used to flavour gin, a liquor developed in the 17th century in the Netherlands. The name gin itself is derived from either the French genièvre or the Dutch jenever, which both mean “juniper”.  Other juniper-flavoured beverages include the Finnish rye-and-juniper beer known as sahti, which is flavoured with both juniper berries and branches.

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Juniper Berries
[Public domain], via Flickr
In London in the early 18th century, much gin was distilled legally in residential houses (there were estimated to be 1,500 residential stills in 1726) and was often flavoured with turpentine to generate resinous woody notes in addition to the juniper.

The invention and development of the column still in the early 19th century made the distillation of neutral spirits practical, thus enabling the creation of the “London dry” style that evolved later in the 19th century.

In tropical British colonies, gin was used to mask the bitter flavour of quinine, which was the only effective anti-malarial compound. Quinine was dissolved in carbonated water to form tonic water; the resulting cocktail is gin and tonic, although modern tonic water contains only a trace of quinine as a flavouring.

As mentioned earlier, gin’s dry taste comes from the juniper berry, a very bitter black fruit that can also be used in food, especially Scandinavian, to impart a sharp, clear flavour to meat dishes, as well as game.  It is also used in seasoning for sauerkraut dishes and other game cuisine.

Other ingredients can be added to a gin botanical recipe to impart a more exotic flavour and these can include coriander, angelica root, cassia, cinnamon, liquorice, bitter almonds, grains of paradise, orange and lemon peel, ginger, orris root, cardamom, nutmeg, cumin, violet root, aniseed and fennel seed.

A gin company’s botanicals recipe is often a closely guarded secret so don’t expect to get flavours matching commercial gins exactly.  Also, different makes of distillation still and the various ways of production can affect the flavouring of gins.  There are plenty of starter recipes on the internet to get you going.

As many of you now reading this have already worked out, in a nutshell, gin is simply flavoured vodka.

There are two ways of flavouring vodka to make gin:

  1. Soaking your juniper berry recipe (botanicals) in a batch of alcohol for several days (it will go cloudy, normally known as “bath gin” because back in the USA Prohibition days, moonshiners used their iron baths to make the gin in there)
  2. Placing your botanicals in a basket just above the condenser column in your still so the alcohol vapours make contact with the botanicals in the basket and impart their flavours.
  3. Various combinations of the above

We are going to look at method 2 which, in my experience, creates the best copycat gin, with an elegant and crisp taste with little or no off-flavours.

We use the same set up as before: –

Ferment a 25 litre sugar/water solution for 5 days to make a 15% alcohol wash and syphon this into the T500 distillation still, followed by ceramic saddles (to stop violent boiling) and some distiller’s conditioner to avoid foaming into the column.

Take a medium sized nylon coarse straining bag and fill it with your botanicals recipe.  For a London Dry gin type flavour, I would start with:

  • 125g juniper berries
  • 30g Coriander seeds
  • 10g cassia
  • 10 dry ginger

until you find a flavour and strength that you like.

Now tie the bag into a tight knot to secure the botanicals and use some string to tie the bag tightly to the base of the column.  Try and avoid submerging the bag in the alcohol wash and keep it tight to the base of the column.  The coarseness of the bag should allow the vapour to pass through the botanicals up the column and to allow the returning liquid to drip back through the bag with ease.

Do not be tempted to use the botanicals basket device which connects to the bottom of the T500 condenser column.  If you use this, as convenient as it is, you will flood your column during the distillation run as the descending liquid cannot drain quickly enough from the column, even if you remove all the saddles from the column.  It is really meant for the alembic head (which I will demonstrate in another future article).

We are ready to carry out a normal vodka distillation run (as per previous article).  Remember to remove the first 100ml or so of liquid that initially comes off and the rest of the 3.7 litres of distilled spirit you should get in around 4 hours run time, should have that characteristic gin smell.

Once you have collected this product (it should be around 90-93% ABV alcohol) you can then dilute to around 40% with filtered water and then carry out the optional carbon filtering as demonstrated in the previous article.  You should have enough to make 8 litres of gin – great Christmas presents for friends and family!

And that is pretty much how you can make a great tasting pure gin without any of the off flavours and cloudiness when you use the “bathtub” soaking method.

As a final note, some commercial gin makers do not make their own alcohol as outlined in the above process.  The Bombay Sapphire Distillery based in Laverstoke Mill in Whitchurch, Hampshire, buy in their alcohol and simply boil it in a still so the vapours rise up the column into a large botanicals basket and the resulting condensed flavoured alcohol is collected.  I believe this means the company only need a Rectifiers licence rather than a full Distiller’s licence with its expensive setup.  They also do a very interesting and informative gin tour with sampling at the end.

With regards to distillation licensing, the international world of gin is exploding at the moment and at some stage is expected to overtake whisky sales in 2020.  As mentioned in the previous article, it is very difficult for a home or craft gin maker to start a business here without significant investment (and risk) due to the arcane and restrictive licensing for home distilling.  Compare that with countries such as New Zealand where in 1996, home distilling became legal, the gin market has absolutely exploded and contrary to government thinking, the actual revenue from gin sales has not dropped.  No, it has risen significantly for all the generated interest in gin because they have lowered the costs of entry into the gin market.  Now if only our blinkered government could think so innovatively…

In the next article I will be introducing the copper alembic head and the Geek’s Guide to making your own commercial grade whisky.

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