If you’ve read our Simple History of Gin and Kick Off Your Gin Love Affair you likely already have a fairly decent grasp of what gin is and a few of our favorite bottles to get you started. But, before we get into the grit of how this fabulous botanical-infused staple is produced, it is best to remind you exactly what gin is before we begin talking about how gin is made.
There are some that would say that gin is simply a piney tasting vodka, but the idea that all gin tastes like Christmas trees is a myth we’re working hard to bust. They might also believe vodka to be a tasteless spirit, in which case you can enlighten them here. A gins base is a neutral pure ethanol, but to be called a gin it must go through a re-distillation process to infuse it with its botanical flavors, most notably juniper berry. So yes, typically vodka, but re-distilled vodka with at least a 40% ABV and a predominant juniper flavor.
The idea that all gin tastes like Christmas trees is a myth we’re working hard to bust.
Before we get into re-distillation and adding botanicals now is a great time to refresh your distillation knowledge. If you are feeling a bit foggy about the process have a quick read through our Distillation 101 article. Otherwise let's jump into exploring how gin is made.
How Gin Is Made
To get its flavors gin undergoes a re-distillation process during which the botanical extracts are infused into the ethanol. There are however a few ways of doing this when we're talking about how gin is made…the making of gin is an art!
The 3 Re-Distillation Methods of How Gin Is Made
Direct Maceration or Steeping
The first method is steeping, which is essentially a bunch of natural ingredients floating around in the gin to be, like making tea just so much better. The ethanol in the spirit extracts the oils from the botanicals. The juniper berries and other carefully selected ingredients are left in for up to 48 hours before the product is re-distilled. Re-distillation produces a clear, smooth product with the now added flavors of the botanicals. The final product then has water added to reach the correct alcohol percentage for bottling.
The second method of how gin is made is a process of vapor infusion or steaming in a Carterhead still. The botanicals are placed in a basket in the still above the currently neutral spirit. The botanicals and liquid never come into contact with one another. Rather as the liquid is re-distilled the ethanol steam passes through them. This allows the botanicals to release their essential oils into the steam. Then as the steam is condensed back into liquid the essence of those botanicals is now present. Again, the gin is then diluted to the correct bottling strength using water.
Vapor infusion typically gives the final product a subtler flavor whereas the steeping methods produce a more on your palate explosion.
The final method of how gin is made is a combination of both vapor infusion and steeping. With this method, some distillers layer the approaches whereas others produce the vapor infused spirit and the steeped spirit separately, then blend them together. This gives the distiller more control over the flavors in the bottle. They want the gin to have its canvas, the steeped spirit, and nuanced highlights from the vapor infused spirit.
What we just described for compound gins is the craft approach to making compound gins. But as a quick warning, please know that a lot of compound gins on the market are actually shortcuts for producers (who we wouldn't consider craft) to make a quick buck. How? Well they essentially buy flavorings (natural or not) and then mix those in with a gin base and then filter them back out after a while and bottle the resulting spirit. No re-distillation needed. This is also what is commonly referred to as "bathtub gin" since it's primarily how gin was made during prohibition and how you yourself could try your hand at making gin at home.
When we think of the art of how gin is made, this approach doesn't quite cut it for us to truly call craft…particularly if they aren't even distilling their own base spirit. Because of this, gin enthusiasts also typically consider compound gins to be of lower quality, but to be fair to the initial intention behind making gin this way (our first paragraph on this topic above) there are some great, truly craft compound gins out there even if they are a bit hard to find.
Now just like wine, no two batches of gin are the same. Even if the exact same recipe is followed each time no two natural ingredients are the same, which causes variations. So how do producers make our much-loved gins taste consistently delicious? This is where the expertise of the distiller and how gin is made really comes in to play, of course.
The distiller will spend countless hours tasting, mixing, and blending to ensure that what’s in the bottle is exactly what you expect…botanical-infused deliciousness.
Although all gin uses juniper berry as the main flavor, distilleries have literally hundreds of botanicals they can add. So, like any great pairing, the right ingredients in the right ratios can turn yuck into yum!
Although all gins use juniper berries as the main flavor, distilleries have literally hundreds of botanicals they can add.
Juniper & The Many Other Botanicals of Gin
As with any good recipe the main ingredient, in this case, juniper berry is not always overpowering as people often think. The use of complimentary botanicals enhance different elements in the final product. So, the addition of botanicals such as citrus or coriander will highlight a specific characteristic of the juniper berry…some of which you may love, some of which you may hate!
Many people think drinking gin is like chewing on a pine forest floor, back to that ‘Christmas tree’ association, but in truth, juniper berries have multiple undertones such as lavender and pepper. Coriander, which is another popular choice, adds citrus and spice which compliments the pepperiness of the juniper. So, you can see why gin can have a predominant juniper flavor without the piney taste disliked by so many. And you can see why you’ll just need to get out there and start sippng and trying to find the gins you love…which we promise do exist!
To help newbies along and help turn skeptics into enthusiasts many producers have created gin tasting wheels.
Divided into spicy, herbal, floral, fruity, citrus, nutty and at the heart of it all juniper, every category has numerous olfactory and taste sensations. Citrus could include lemon, strawberry and cucumber would fall under fruity, rosemary and mint under herbal and of course ‘Christmas tree’ juniper.
With so many flavors to choose from a visit to a gin distillery or a well-stocked cocktail bar is well worth it. Once you have found your favorite, the combinations you can add at home open even more flavor profiles.
All We Are Saying…Is Give Gin A Chance
Gin has really been pigeonholed and given an undeserved bad reputation…partially because of it’s rocky history. Everyday craft gin producers are experimenting with new botanicals to bring gin enthusiasts and skeptics the products that appeal to all palates. Mixologists are creating masterpieces with this versatile spirit and each gin is as unique as it’s drinker.
So if you’re a gin drinking virgin head on over here for some of our favorite bottles to get started if you haven’t already. For those of you who have been avoiding gin based on a sip you had years ago, think again. The gin revolution is in full swing and there is so much more to this re-distilled, botanically infused sip to explore and appreciate.
So don’t be shy, it’s always gin-o-clock somewhere! While you’re out exploring we’d love to hear what you’re finding and learning. Share your favorites here so we can try them too!