As well as the Distillation Workshop that I attended recently, I also attended a Gin Immersion workshop that was a really good follow on course for me but could be attended as a stand alone course. We learnt all about key aspects of gin making, including understanding the key botanicals that can be used, how to go about creating a blend of the botanicals, and the base alcohol or neutral spirit to use as the starting material.
In NZ to be called a gin it must contain at least 37% alcohol by volume, be produced by distillation of a fermented liquor derived from food sources, and have the taste, aroma, and other characteristics attributable to gin (primarily juniper flavour).
Jill gave us a basic recipe for a classic London Dry Gin and helped us to understand key aspects for structuring a blend and how to swap out different botanicals whilst keeping a good synergy and balance of the ingredients. Generally 20-35 grams of botanicals are used per litre of neutral spirit depending on how strong you want the flavour to be. A good average is 30g/l and as a starting point the dominant botanical juniper makes up around 40% of that – so 12g.
A good rule of thumb for the starting point of your blend is to use the botanicals in the following proportions:
x = juniper
x/2 = coriander
x/10 = angelica, cassia, cinnamon, liquorice, bitter almonds, cubeb berries
x/100 = bitter & sweet orange peel, lemon peel, ginger, orris root, cardamon, nutmeg, chamomile
So a basic classic gin recipe might be:
The team then set up one still to make our Classic Blend with the 30g of botanicals tied up in muslin and placed in the basket at the base of the column of the still. Jill’s guided us in the creation of another blend with some rather different fresh botanicals like kawakawa and a mexican marigold. We passed the material around, smelling and tasting it – and voting on the ones to include. This was also set up to distill whilst we were doing other parts of the workshop. We got samples of these gins to take home at the end of the day (I definitely preferred the Classic Blend this time).
Understanding the Botanicals
Jill then took us through an exercise to help us gain a better understanding of the various botanicals. She had jars of all the different ingredients and gave us each a piece to try. The instructions were to bite it with your front teeth, then put it on your tongue and breathe through your nose. Using this process it was fascinating to discover the fairly rapid change over time: for juniper initially there was nothing, then some initial quite fruity notes, then some more complex woody notes and then turning quite bitter and unpleasant. These are likely to be the progression of flavours that come across when you distill the botanicals – so it is important to understand for example that you might want to stop collecting your distillate before the bitter flavours come across.
Another aspect that this process taught us was to appreciate the intensity of the flavours of the different botanicals and therefore what proportions you might use in a blend: were they equivalent to cinnamon and liquorice or more intense like cardamon? That way you could try new botanicals such as NZ natives that you might want to include in your blend and determine how best to introduce them.
Once Jill had given us a good understanding of the different flavours, it was our chance to experiment with some blends ourselves. Rebecca introduced us to their Quintessences – which were pure distillates of the different botanicals that could then be added drop by drop to a small amount of vodka in a shot glass. They had carefully constructed this so that the drops could be added in the same proportions as the basic recipe above: 12 drops juniper, 6 drops coriander, 2 drops angelica, 1 drop cardamon etc. We had a suggested recipe with 3 extra drops that we could experiment with and some new potential flavours to explore like ginger, lavender, rose, and pink peppercorns. We got to do this a couple of times and to be as adventurous as we liked. Our group all tried very different combinations and we shared them around so that we could sample all of them (using a dropper).
I had done a similar exercise at a Gin & Tonic Experience on Waiheke Island a few weeks previously but back then we really had no idea where to start. Now, with Jill’s great tutoring, I was a lot more confident about what could substitute for what and how the flavour intensities would play out. My tendencies seem to lean towards lemon and ginger flavourings but I was very pleasantly surprised by addition of things like rose and pink peppercorns. Having a quintessence library would be a fabulous way to plan your next blend!
Neutral Spirit Base
The Ben talked to us about the different types of neutral spirits that were available (or that you could make yourself) – they can be made from grain, grape, sugar, potato, corn or whey. Each of these will subtly influence the flavour of your gin. I will certainly just be starting with vodka as that will be the easiest for me, but others are contemplating purchasing 30l Alquitar stills so that they can make their own. Ben shares a cheap and easy recipe for a Tomato Paste Wash that you can use as the ferment ready for distillation.
After these practical breakout groups, we come back to the main group and talk about everyone’s favourite gins. Jill shares a table of the different styles of gin and the main botanicals they use – I found this fascinating. She also shares some of her experiences as a consultant blender for different distilleries and some of the different botanicals that have been used to create distinctly NZ blends.
Lots of this information can be found in Jill’s new book that is now available via their website – we were lucky enough to get the first copies.