“You know this kit doesn’t make real gin,” said the woman at the checkout counter.
She reached over and tapped the top of the Homemade Gin Kit — which I was fully prepared to spend $50 on. Inside were two artisanal (!) bottles, a steel filter, a steel funnel, a tin can of aromatic botanicals, and a tin can of dried juniper berries. In my excited rush, I’d assumed that these were the only items needed to make your own gin. Now, in the liquor store checkout, I finally noticed the fine print on the side of the box reading, “Transform a regular bottle of vodka into an extraordinary bottle of gin.”
“Dammit,” I muttered. “I should have known the liquid had to come from somewhere.”
Like my personal history with women, my experience with gin can be described as nothing short of sordid. The first time I drank the spirit, from a cheap plastic bottle, I thought it tasted like chemical burn and Christmas trees. It wasn’t until later, after I read The Great Gatsby, that I started to appreciate gin as an upscale, sophisticated drink — not as capricious as vodka, but not as brutish as whiskey. It’s delicate and flavorful and adaptable, plus it boasts a transformative property that makes it the perfect base for some of my favorite cocktails.
That’s why I’d been so excited to buy the kit. That and the fact that I wanted to feel like an old-timey bootlegger.
The woman behind the counter offered an exhausted sigh. “Do you still want to buy it?”
Against my better judgment, and the warnings of the disgruntled clerk, I decided to take my chances.
Let’s back up for just a second. What is gin?
To put it simply, gin is a neutral grain spirit that’s been re-distilled with botanicals, the most prominent of which is typically juniper. Beyond that distinction, each gin offered unique flavors and characteristics:
- London Dry Gin is, by far, the most popular version. It’s a grain alcohol with the addition of juniper. If that sounds like “juniper flavored vodka” to you, well, you’re not far off.
- Dutch Genever is a style of gin made from a malted grain mash. If London Dry Gin is “vodka infused with juniper berries,” then Dutch Genever is the same, but with whiskey.
- Old Tom is a grain alcohol redistilled with juniper berries and blended with sugar to give it a sweeter, more palatable flavor. This style is likely the most difficult to come across in today’s market and, if you ask me, it also sounds the grossest.
- Compound Gin was popularized in the 1920s by the working classes, which is a nice way of saying it was produced illegally—usually in bathtubs—and distributed in speakeasies. It’s made by re-distilling neutral grain spirits with juniper and then, after the fact, mixing in another essence for added flavor. Hendricks is a modern type of compound gin, blending cucumber and rose petals…though back in the 1920s, turpentine was a more common additive.
When you read stories of bootleggers or tall tales about bathtub gin, what you’re really reading about is compound gin. It’s the kind of gin I wanted to make, but, sadly, my girlfriend wouldn’t let me fill our bathtub with turpentine and juniper berries for an extended period.
As I bagged up the Homemade Gin Kit, I crossed my fingers that it would be cool. Maybe it really was as simple as infusing a bottle of vodka with juniper berries. Perhaps the result really would be “extraordinary.”