“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.”
The first step to making gin at home is to add juniper berries to a bottle of vodka. The kit suggests the use of something mid-level. I had no real preference on vodka because vodka is gross and boring, so I chose Smirnoff because it was on sale and I’d just spent $50 on a kit I could have assembled myself via Amazon for $8.50.
I inserted the steel funnel at the top of the Smirnoff bottle and poured in the dried juniper berries. After a bit of struggle and a little cleanup, I was able to seal the bottle with the berries inside. As it turns out, juniper berries are buoyant and, as such, remained at the top of the bottle. I’m no expert at infusing alcohol, but I figured that the berries wouldn’t fully flavor the vodka without being well incorporated. So I picked up the bottle and shook it like a shake weight.
“What are you doing?” my girlfriend asked with a frown.
“Making gin!” I yelled proudly, shaking the bottle with increasing ferocity.
She left the room without comment.
The kit suggests storing the vodka in a cool, dark place for exactly 24 hours. I put the bottle under my sink next to the Drano and, for a few seconds, I felt like a bonafide bootlegger.
“Oh shit!” I yelled, 32 hours later.
I rushed to the kitchen and pulled my concoction out from under the sink. I was eight hours late. What did that mean? Had I ruined it? Try to understand my paranoia — past experience has taught me that messing around with recipes usually doesn’t work.
The vodka had turned a light brown color, with the juniper berries still floating at the top. I opened the bottle and was swiftly knocked back by a pungent, unappealing aroma. Was this how gin was supposed to smell? Who smells gin anyway?
In the spirit of spirit-makers, hidden away in the misty hills of Appalachia, I decided to press on.
I added the “secret botanicals” included in the kit—an inscrutable mix of twigs and leaves and spice—then sealed the cap and shook the bottle violently. The berries and miscellaneous botanicals swirled together until they resembled sewage. Always a good sign.
Once again, I placed the bottle under the sink. In 12 hours, I might have gin.
“Son of a bitch!” I yelled, realizing that I had once again forgotten my gin and left it to stew for too long. I rushed to the kitchen, six hours late, and flung open the cabinets under my sink. I pulled out the bottle of vodka—or maybe it was officially gin now?—and held it up to the light. The color was murky and brown with a slight yellow tint.
I filtered out the juniper berries and botanicals, pouring the liquid into the two artisanal bottles that came with the kit. While the directions called for filtering the spirit only once, I decided to filter it twice (Dave’s Twice Filtered Gin), because the first round left a filmy soot at the bottom of the bottle.
I opened one of the bottles and inhaled deeply. It smelled like turpentine and Christmas, burnt rubber and pine, equal parts floral and chemical. I poured a shot and drank it and—whoa boy—did it taste earthy. It was bold, almost affronting, with strong floral flavors, the most prominent of which was juniper. The alcohol burn lingered in the back of my throat as I tried to decide whether or not it was any good. It was nearly impossible to say because no one drinks gin straight.
I decided to make a classic gin and tonic with Fever Tree tonic water and a twist of lime. Even with the mixer, the muddy color of the gin was evident. I closed my eyes, toasted the DIY spirit, and took a sip.
I was confused. Baffled. Bamboozled. Because this was easily the best gin and tonic I’d ever tasted. The bubbles snapped and popped and pushed the aroma of the botanicals and the juniper forward, resulting in a clean, crisp flavor that was refreshing and light and delicate and complex. I took another sip, and another, and another—as many as it would take to confirm that I was basically a booze making wunderkind.
“Hot damn!” I yelled. “I’m a bootlegger!”
My girlfriend rushed into the kitchen. “What are you yelling about?”
Throughout the process, she’d been understandably skeptical. Sure, I felt like a moonshiner every time I pulled my mystery vodka from under the sink, but with her sharp detecting skills, she’d astutely noted that I was essentially just infusing vodka.
Still, she agreed to try a gin gimlet and, after one sip, she paused and whispered, “Holy shit. You made gin.”
I’m not making that up. I thought this gin would be horrible. In fact, I wanted it to be horrible. I wanted to write a funny article about how terrible it tasted, about how it made me wince and cough and gag, about how an attempt to make gin under my sink ended in catastrophe… but in the end, well, the gin was actually really delicious. I’d made a bottle of Smirnoff taste good — perhaps for the first time in recorded history.
The woman at the liquor store was wrong. If this wasn’t “real” gin, I don’t want to know what is.