Tag Archives: spirits

Homemade Gin — an experiment

And no, to answer your first question: a bathtub was not involved.

Having written and spoken as much as I have about gin in recent years, it seems somewhat sacrilegious to suggest that I “made” gin. I’ve been to too many distilleries, sampled too many quality gins, and studied too much the art and science of gin-making to believe what I have in this bottle is truly gin.

But, an oft-repeated characteristic of gin is that–at its core–it is essentially gin1infused vodka. By definition, gin begins with a neutral spirit (which vodka is) into which botanicals are infused. Juniper is the only “must” on that list of flavorings, other elements include citrus, flowers, herbs, seeds, spices, roots. And techniques for melding the aromatics with the spirit vary. It’s why I think of gin as the most culinary of all spirits, the distiller has lots of room to follow creative impulses and come up with a distinctive product with a signature blend of botanicals.

What spurred this recent exercise was a posting  at Gourmet magazine’s online outlet by food editor Ian Knauer. At first I scoffed, quick to discount such a simplified version of gin’s process. But there I was at the liquor store gin2buying a bottle of Smirnoff vodka. Everything else I had on hand at home. I didn’t follow Knauer’s recipe to the letter. I used orange peel in place of lemon or lime, a generous teaspoon of dried lavender blossoms in place of fresh and omitted fresh rosemary, adding star anise instead. I also just threw everything in at once, rather than pre-infusing with juniper.

Oh, that jar of cumin you see in the photo? Mentally omit that. I thought better of adding any to this concoction, afraid it would have an overpowering effect on the balance of things. Maybe if I take up homemade aquavit one of these days; cumin seems more suited to that spice-imbued spirit.

It was interesting to see how much color the vodka took on overnight. After a good 24 hours or so of infusing, I strained the “gin” and poured it back into the bottle. I also picked out most of the juniper berries from the strainer and popped them back in the bottle as well, wishing I’d used more in the first place. All in all, it’s a pretty darn well balanced, flavorful, aromatic spirit to sip. I was surprisingly pleased with the results. It will be a fun idea to play around with more over the months. Interestingly, this bottle came to the rescue when we got snowed in last week. I’d polished off the last of the No. 209  gin I had on the gin3shelf and failed to restock before the snowflakes started falling. So my homemade version tided me over until we made the chilly 2½ mile trek as far as our nearest liquor store a few days later.

So, about that bathtub gin of yore. I do have a recipe that Seattle barman Michael Vezzoni, at the elegant Fairmont Olympic Hotel downtown, shared, which he’d come up with after a good deal of research. A few years back, the hotel celebrated its 80th anniversary, the festivities for which included an “Eight Decades of Cocktails” list created by Vezzoni, with the Harvey Wallbanger in honor of the 1960s, the Singapore Sling for the 1920s and the ubiquitous Cosmopolitan for this decade. Count back 80 years and you find yourself in the early years of prohibition. In honor of the hotel’s day-of anniversary celebration in 2004, Vezzoni went so far as to put together a big batch of bathtub gin—with over a dozen botanicals (including juniper, coriander, orange zest, cassia bark and caraway)—for the night’s martinis. It was a unique taste of history, adding perspective to the distinct story of gin.

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Gin Dandy

One of the best monikers that’s ever been given to me is that of “gin connoisseur.” I wrote a review of a really engaging, informative little book called The Joy of Drinking by Barbara Holland, which appears in the current spring issue of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture. My friend and joy of drinkingcolleague, Darra Goldstein, is the founder and editor of the journal, and that’s the title she added to my byline for the review: Cynthia Nims, gin connoisseur. She and her husband are a couple of the converts I’ve helped turn on to the world of top-quality gins in the past couple of years. They became particularly enamored of Hendricks and are apparently now never without one of the distinctive stubby brown bottles on their liquor shelf.

While I was preparing to moderate a panel on gin for the conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals last year, I made a diligent effort to collect as many gins as I could for sampling, amassing as many as 9 or 10. One evening, a half dozen colleagues joined me around our back patio table for a blind tasting, one of the most fascinating spirits exercises I’ve ever been through. I was honored to have none other than Robert Hess on hand to help orchestrate the proceedings (check out his great cocktail videos here). We first sipped the gins straight, as is, then again with a small drizzle of water added. Scotch drinkers know that a small drizzle of water into the pure spirit really opens up the character and aroma of the drink without diluting its flavor. Even if you just try two different gins side by side in this way, you’ll start to appreciate the nuances that separate one brand from the next.

What I found so inspiring in my research was the aviationnumber of small-batch gin producers there are in this country, from Chicago’s North Shore Gin No. 6 to the wonderful Aviation gin distilled in Portland, my friend Ryan Magarian one of the collaborators on that tasty product. There’s really a wonderful renaissance of gin going on. I think the most salient reason is that people are increasingly seeking out flavor, variety and craftsmanship in their bar selections the way they have been in their food choices for so long.

I consider gin to easily be the most “culinary” of all spirits. The distiller, like a chef, has choices to make about which ingredients to use and what technique to employ in the distillation process. Juniper is a required base ingredient, but countless spices, herbs, flowers, roots, zests and other aromatics can embellish the spirit. For gin lovers, it’s a joy because there are plenty of different styles of gin to choose from, with broadly different flavor profiles, so you can pick a specific gin to suit a particular mood or cocktail. I love Plymouth for a smooth martini, classic Bombay for a gimlet and Hendricks or Martin Millers simply on ice with a dash or two of Fee Brother’s Grapefruit Bitters.

I’ve just gotten a press notice about the launch of a new gin distillery on Vancouver Island, Victoria Gin produced at Winchester Cellars. And there’s a victoria ginnew gin distillery in the works for my own backyard: Woodinville. Claiming a little spot of real estate among all the winery tasting rooms is Pacific Distillery; the copper  still is en route and they may be bottling their first gin later this year.

Heavens, once I get started on gin, I just can’t seem to stop. (Writing about it, I meant, but I guess the same is sometimes true of sipping it.) I’ll surely revisit the subject again soon. Especially after I get a sample of those new Northwest gins coming on the scene. I’m off now to add “gin connoisseur” to my resume. And maybe my business cards.


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