Gin has officially made a comeback, with thousands of types on the market and new releases every day, but what exactly is it? Let’s delve a little deeper!
Gin is over 99% vodka. WHAT? You won’t believe how many people tell us at markets that they drink gin every day, love it, bathe in it, but are allergic to vodka. Vodka reacts with them badly, makes them angry, etc etc. Once they hear that gin is over 99% vodka, it is like an epiphany, brain explosion and embarrassment all scooped into an ice cream cone and quickly eaten, some liking the flavour. The base ingredient of gin is “neutral spirit.” The definition of vodka is a neutral spirit. Neutral spirit simply means alcohol which has been distilled to a very high purity (96%+) which has very little taste, the flavours have been largely removed by distillation. The starting ingredient for vodka or the neutral spirit used as the base of gin can be ANY material containing starch, sugar or even cellulose. To learn more about this read our other article What is vodka made from? Alcohol is made from yeast + sugar. Simple! However it can get more complicated based on the sugar source. Grains contain starch which can be converted to sugar. Cellulose/biomass such as trees and weeds can also be converted into sugar and then alcohol with a much more complicated process.
Neutral spirit (ethanol) is commonly made from wheat, corn, sugar and grapes, though any sugar or starch source will work. Headlands Distilling Co. makes the base ingredient for our gins from locally grown La Trobe barley. This might come as a surprise, but most gin distilleries don’t actually make any alcohol! In order to cut the most corners and cut down on labour, most gin distilleries purchase their neutral spirit from huge industrial ethanol fuel plants and start at step 9/10. Which brings us to the next step in making gin, Step 9:
Step 9: The Flavouring
After the neutral spirit has been acquired, the next step is to extract flavours into the spirit from one or more botanicals. The flavour MUST contain juniper to be gin. Juniper, scientific name juniper communis or common juniper is a family of trees/shrubs in the conifer family. It grows small edible berries, the berries are the part which is infused into the neutral spirit to make gin. Once you have juniper, literally anything else edible can be added to make a unique gin, however there are some common themes in terms of ingredients.
Coriander seed is usually the next major ingredient after juniper berries. Angelica root and Orris root are often also present and act to bind flavours together as well as add their own.
Main gin botanicals
- Coriander seed
- Angelica root
- Orris root
- Citrus peels (lemon, orange, lime, grapefruit)
- Cassia aka Chinese cinnamon.
Methods for extracting the flavour
There are two major methods to make gin. Direct steeping/maceration and then distilling and vapour infusing. In the maceration method, the botanicals are soaked in the neutral spirit inside the still boiler, at 30-50% alcohol. Some ingredients can be steeped for a day before distilling, some are added directly before boiling. If the neutral spirit is at a higher percent, water is added to bring it to 30-50%. The mixture is heated to boiling. The vapour that comes off the still will have extracted some of the essential oils and flavours from the botanicals. The gas is condensed back to a liquid by passing through a cold tube called a condenser. The gin is left to sit for a period of time so the flavours which have just been ripped out of their solid forms can react together and reach the lowest energy state, where every flavour compound is happy, stable and in equilibrium. This resting period could be a few weeks long, definitely much shorter than for whisky maturation!
The second method, vapour infusion, goes like this. The still is filled with neutral spirit at 30-50% alcohol, but no botanicals are added. Instead, the botanicals are packed into a metal tube above the still. The neutral spirit is heated to boiling, and the vapour coming off the still is fed through the metal tube which is packed with botanicals and then into the condenser to the turned back into a liquid.
Gin comes off the still at 70+% alcohol. It is brought back to around 40% alcohol with spring water.
The two methods provide different flavours, one method is not better or worse than the other. Depending on your taste, you may prefer certain botanicals in the vapour and certain botanicals steeped/macerated. For instance, ginger in the vapour and juniper and coriander directly steeping in the still boiler.
Boobialla gin by Headlands Distilling Co. doesn’t actually contain any common juniper. Wait a minute, didn’t I just tell you gin needs to contain juniper? Is this even gin? Good question. Boobialla gin only contains Australian native juniper, known as boobialla. The species is completely different though juniper-like in flavour. We are definitely stretching the definition with this one! The flavour is less pine and more floral.
Gin is a neutral spirit which has been infused with juniper berries and possibly other ingredients, usually coriander, angelica root, cassia etc
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