Make your own gin – it’s easier than you think
So, my little brother enjoyed “researching” the Cape Town craft gin distillery tasting guide so much that he decided to have a go at making his own gin. He’s quite proud of the results and wanted to share his experiments. Over to James…
Pssst… Can I let you in on a secret? It’s super easy to make your own gin. Also, what you thought you knew about gin may well be wrong.
We all know gin is made from juniper berries, but this is only partly true. Juniper berries are the defining ingredient, but gin isn’t “made from” juniper berries the way brandy is made from grapes or cane from sugar cane. Think of a raisin muffin – it has raisins, but it’s mostly made of flour, which comes from wheat. If you were a Banting follower, you could make your flour from something else and still call it a raisin muffin. It’s the same with gin.
To be classified as gin, it must be made from a neutral spirit, can only be flavoured with botanicals and the predominant taste must be juniper. There’s also a minimum alcohol percentage, which is 43.5% here in South Africa. And that’s it, really.
But before I make enemies of every gin distiller in the city, let me cover myself!
While it’s definitely super easy to make your own gin, making it well is of course trickier. Also, the gin I’ve made is technically called compound or bathtub gin and is far simpler than making the more sophisticated distilled gin.
That out the way, let’s move on to the fun. All you need is:
- A bottle of a neutral spirit like vodka or cane
- Juniper berries
- A selection of other botanicals (see below for suggestions)
- At least one sealable glass jar
- Straining cloth or a fine sieve
- A jug
- Just a few days’ patience
I did things a little differently and generally complicated my life, but here’s the suggested way to go:
- Pour your spirit into your jars, add in the botanicals and seal. (For stronger-flavoured botanicals like citrus peel, you can keep them back till the second day if you like)
- Leave in a cupboard for two to three days, giving a shake halfway.
- When ready, pour the liquid into the jug, straining out the botanicals.
- You can leave your gin in the jar again for another two days, then strain with a coffee filter but I skipped that step.
Knowing I’d be chatting to experts the next day and hopeful for some tips, I decided to put it all in one big jar and start with a neutral base then spilt it up and add other goodies later. So to start I used 1.5 tablespoons of juniper berries and two cardamom pods.
I’d seen some recipes saying that one should infuse for a full two weeks, but others I saw warned about over brewing much more than two days. I decided to go for a day or so with my initial neutral batch and then split that up into separate bottles, each with their own distinct variations.
For a full 750ml batch, the amounts suggested were 2 peppercorns, half a cinnamon stick and a teaspoon of coriander seeds, in addition to the 1.5 tsp juniper berries and 2 cardamom pods.
I left the jar for about 24 hours before giving it a little test taste. By that stage the juniper taste was definitely already there, along with a hint of the cardamom, but it still tasted a lot like vodka. I sealed it up, gave it a good shake and stuck it in the cupboard for another day.
After two days, there was a much stronger juniper taste. It wasn’t quite there yet, but it was definitely becoming more gin-like. Now I was ready to split the batch up into smaller jars and start really experimenting. I left these each for another day before straining and testing. I had to adjust my quantities to account for the smaller jars and the fact that the botanicals would only infuse for about 24 hours. Here’s how they turned out.
For this one I used 1/2 a cinnamon stick, a small bit of lemon peel, half a teaspoon of coriander, 2 peppercorns and some leftover juniper berries. The dark colour made it feel a little like a whisky than a gin, but the juniper aroma and cinnamon taste were quite noticeable and there was a nice lemon scent too. Adding tonic, the flavour rounded off quite nicely, with a hint of pancake.
This was the best of the batches, with a fair sized bit of grapefruit, 1/2 a cinnamon stick and 1 small peppercorn. This one came out a little smoother than the first, with a nice grapefruit taste. Adding tonic, this became incredibly refreshing.
For this one I went for a fruitier flavour, putting in a bunch of gooseberries, some juniper berries and coriander. I could get a mild berry flavour, but there wasn’t much flavour in this batch. It came out fairly refreshing with tonic, but if I would definitely suggest squishing the gooseberries to let the flavour come out better.
Here I went with a more classic herbal gin flavour, adding in lemon peel, coriander, cardamom, a bit of pepper and a little sprig of chive and thyme. This definitely tasted the most like a conventional gin as we know it. It came out quite smooth and mixed well with the tonic. Not particularly exciting, but definitely a safe combination.
Lessons learnt and gin pro tips
I was very chuffed with how these batches came out and I’m keen to try some more. Next time I’d definitely squish and break up some of the botanicals to bring out the flavour. Having done half of my batches with cinnamon, I think next time I’d just do one, but double down on the quantities so that it really comes out stronger.
Pro tip 1: Simon von Witt of Woodstock Gin Company said to just experiment, but he strongly suggested getting advice from a professional chef or someone who’s a good cook and understands how flavours work together.
Pro tip 2: Lucy Beard of Hope on Hopkins suggested using coriander and cautioned against trying to add in too many flavours. Less is indeed more.
Semi pro tip 3: Easy on the chilli! Neither Lucy nor Simon outright said not to try chilli, but there was something about the way they each smiled that sparked a warning in my brain. I strongly suspect that most distillers have dabbled with chilli at some point and had it all end with regret! You’re welcome to try, but proceed with caution.
I hope some of you decide to make your own gin and let us know how it went. If I was able to do this, you definitely can too.
Happy World Gin Day!