Enjoy; because it’s a martini kind of day…
Gin: a juniper-flavoured tipple used as the basis of almost every classic cocktail, enjoyed on the rocks or neat, and universally recognized as the G in a G&T. A mystery to some but a necessity in every home bar. It’s no surprise that cocktail lovers and gin connoisseurs have discovered a way to make their favourite distilled spirit. The process is easy, if you’re looking for a so-so product that can serve as a basis for cocktails with many different flavour combinations. But for a great homemade gin, I’ve consulted the experts — Brady Caverly, owner of The Flintridge Proper, and Peter Hunt, general manager and master distiller for Victoria Spirits.
The Flintridge Proper is a gin bar based in LA with over 200 gins on their cocktail list, including their own house gin. It was founded as, and continues to be, a classic cocktail bar. Their focus is centred on keeping their cocktails classic. “Thanks partly to the fact that gin (of sorts) was available throughout prohibition while most other spirits were not, many of the truly great classics that survived from the Golden Age of cocktailing in the late 1800s are gin based,” Caverly says. “Gin was a natural spirit to feature in a classic cocktail program.” That focus has served them well.
The Flintridge Proper will soon enter the prestigious ranks of the Guinness Book of World Records as the bar with the largest selection of gins on their menu. “Our total number varies a bit from week to week as we bring new gins in and rotate old ones out but we always have at least over 200,” says Caverly.
Hunt is the master distiller at Victoria Spirits, a distillery in, you guessed it, Victoria, BC. According to Hunt, owners Bryan and Valerie Murray saw the success of their gin go through the roof, prompting them to move away from making anything else. “The original intention was to produce both wine and spirits,” says Hunt. “However, once we released the gin, the spirits side really took off.” Their goal was to provide gin-lovers with a product that ramped up their expectations.
“When we set out to make gin, we wanted to make something that was better than what was currently on the market,” states Hunt. “I think we succeeded. So my go-to is Victoria Gin and not just because we make it.”
Gin is made up of three main ingredients: neutral spirit, juniper berries and a botanical mixture. When you distill it down to its true essence, there is a gin out there for everyone. “A good gin is one that is complex and satisfying with a flavour profile that suits your tastes,” says Caverly.
To make a great gin, you need to select a quality neutral spirit to start. “We use two non-GMO corn neutral spirits and blend them to get the high quality and flavour balance that we are looking for,” says Hunt. “We have tried lots of different neutral spirits and it is a particular blend that works for us.” In the end, as long as the neutral spirit used for the base is of high(ish) quality, the resulting gin will be as well. “Neutral spirits, despite their name, do affect the final product and finding the right one is important,” Hunt mentions. “You want something that is high quality with no harshness, has nice subtle flavours and allows the botanicals to shine.”
The next step is to find the right combination of juniper berries and botanical. There are many botanical you could use. The Flintridge Proper aims for the local touch, using local ingredients and LA flare. “We use both dried and roasted juniper, several types of citrus and a variety of other local fruits and botanicals,” says Caverly. The result is “soft and approachable enough to appeal to first time gin drinkers and at the same time really manifests the pine, sage and other local flavours that define the area.”
Victoria Spirits’ goal was to really amp up the options. “We use ten botanicals,” says Hunt. “Juniper, coriander, lemon, orange, orris, cinnamon, angelica, roses, star anise and a secret ingredient (that we encourage our distillery visitors to guess). The botanicals are macerated overnight in the still with the spirits.”
To really decide what flavours work for you will take some experimentation. Try a few gins that are on the market to see what flavour profile you really appreciate. “Like any food or drink, you are never going to please every palette with a single gin,” says Hunt. “Different gins have different forward flavours. Ours for example has a little less juniper than a London dry but lots of citrus, floral and spice.”
“15 years ago it was rare that you’d find anything other than a London dry-style, which is very juniper and citrus forward,” says Caverly. “But now … there are literally gins for every taste — some feature specific fruits and veggies … or unusual spices like star anise or saffron, some are very floral or use unusual strains of juniper … and some are barrel-aged gins that combine the flavours with those of aged spirits like bourbon and rye. There are new varieties coming out every week.” So sip a few and make tasting notes for your reference, then head to the grocery store to buy your very own ingredients.
Do you have them? Good, because it’s time to get down to business.
There are three main ways to make a gin. Pot distilling, column distilling and compound distilling. The first two are complicated and require the right equipment. Pot distilling — where the base is made from barley or grain and redistilled with botanicals — gives the final product a heavier, malty flavour close to whisky. Column distilling — where the base spirit, made from grain, sugar beets, grapes, potatoes, sugar cane or any other agricultural material, is redistilled with juniper berries and other botanicals in a suspended “gin basket” — creates a botanical infused gin.
The third method is the easiest and is the way home-distillers do it. Compound distilling — where a neutral spirit is steeped with the botanicals and juniper berries — creates a citrusy gin, with lemon and bitter orange peel, as well as spices like anise, liquorice, cinnamon, almond, saffron and more (depending on the botanicals used). It works much the same way as steeping tea. You add the juniper berries and botanical mixture to the vodka (or whichever neutral spirit you’ve decided to use) and let it sit for 36 hours.
When the waiting is over, you strain the gin of all the floating particles and enjoy (for more concise directions see below).
Of course, there are variations of this process that will deliver different results. For a more juniper berry taste, wait 12 hours before adding the botanical mixture. For a less juniper taste, do the opposite. It’s all about experimenting to find the right balance for your palate … but each test will bring you closer to your goal and give you a better understanding of this essential ingredient to classic cocktails.
“With the resurgence of the ‘cocktail culture,’ gin is important for two reasons,” says Hunt. “First, a spirit-forward cocktail gin brings a lot to the table. It has so much complexity on its own, where a vodka would just get lost. Second, gin was one of the original spirits used in cocktails. That, along with whisky and brandy, was pretty much what most classic cocktails were based on.”
Caverly and Hunt share their favourite cocktails.
“Our Proper Martini is awfully good. Simple but the ingredients and ratios make all the difference,” says Caverly.
2 1/2 oz Plymouth Gin
1/2 oz Dolan Dry Vermouth
2 dashes Angostura Orange Bitters
Stir for about a minute and pour into a cocktail glass.
If you’re looking for something light, frothy and oh so popular, Caverly suggests their Flintridge Cocktail.
1 oz fresh lemon juice
3/4 oz local honey
1 egg white
2 oz London dry gin (like Beefeater or Bombay)
Build in a shaker tin. Dry shake (without ice) for 5 to 10 seconds to emulsify the egg white. Then add ice and shake again — HARD. Then strain into an egg coupe.
“My favourite cocktail is a modified Aviation (a classic),” says Hunt. “It’s a great summer drink and super easy.”
2 oz gin
1/2 oz Luxardo Maraschino
1/2 oz lemon juice
Shake it, pour it over ice, add a twist of lemon.
Another great sipper for the warm-ish October nights as you enjoy the waning summer sun. This recipe was created by Vancouver’s Shangri-La Hotel for Victoria Day in 2009.
2-3 pieces of cucumber
2 oz Victoria Gin
2 oz fresh pressed apple juice
1/2 oz elderflower cordial
A dash of bitters, if you like
Muddle cucumber, add remaining ingredients and shake with ice. Strain and garnish with a slice of cucumber or a flower.
A Note for Newbies
It’s so much more than the cocktails that draw us to this old faithful. It’s the flavours and how they work on their own and in a blend. “No other spirit has the diversity of flavour profiles as gin,” says Caverly. “Particularly with the New World gins, which dial the juniper back and feature all sorts of other wonderful notes and scents instead.”
“People are getting back to cocktails in a more classic style — drinks with depth, complexity and more spirit forward,” says Hunt.
For someone who is still new to gin and not quite sure what to look for, there is hope. “We’ve found that many people who don’t like gin either don’t like juniper — in which case New World gins like Hendricks, Nolet’s and Uncle Val’s will be revelatory — or they’ve only had it in a gin and tonic and what they actually don’t like is the bitter flavour of the quinine.”
If you’re just starting out, Hunt suggests trying a high quality, less juniper-y gin. “It’s often the overwhelming piny-ness from the berry that puts people off. If the gin is well balanced and has more going on than just juniper, it will be far more enjoyable.” So grab your cocktail set and a bottle of gin, and let’s stir things up.
How to Make Your Own Gin
Regardless of where you are in your journey, making a homemade batch for your bar will give you a better understanding of which flavours you prefer in the final product … even if your experiment is a little less than successful.
2 glass bottles (375 ml)
Fine stainless steel strainer
Stainless steel funnel
- Pour the vodka into one of the glass bottles.
- Add juniper berries and the botanical blend of your choice (try out the suggestions by Caverly and Hunt or make your own combination of coriander, rosemary, lavender, rosehip, allspice, fennel seed, cardamom, bay leaf and/or Tellicherry black pepper).
- Let it sit for 36 hours.
- Strain the mixture into an empty bottle.