Distilling Herb Heaven
Recently I was lucky enough to spend a day in the company of Dan Wheals of Herbaculture CIC and Jon Tyler of Wild for Woods. We were on the hunt for herbs to use as gin botanicals. Dan is a trained medical herbalist, with ten years experience. He also redesigns social spaces for medical herbs e.g. a GP garden, as well as having many other feathers to his cap. I have known Jon for years. He is an experienced forager and his knowledge of wildlife and wild food never ceases to amaze me.
Marlpit Community Garden
So it was with some excitement that we set out one morning for Marlpit Community Garden, a seven-acre volunteer-run sustainable living initiative in Norwich close to the Wensum Valley. Marlpit is a fabulous green oasis in a city that is probably one of the greenest in England. But perhaps I’m biased.
Once you enter through the gate you feel like you are miles away from the bustle of the city. In fact, the site was an uncultivated piece of land until SLI set it up as a community garden. Mature trees border the garden, individual plots nestle in among swathes of herbs and wildflowers. There is a communal vegetable growing area, raised beds for school children, an orchard, forest garden, an apiary and grazing meadow. My kind of heaven.
A Nibbling Tour
As I know very little about herbs, other than the kind you buy in the supermarket, I was enthralled to be taken on a fascinating ‘nibbling’ tour of the long herb bed. I say long as it stretched all the way from the gate to the community shed. A distance of about 100m. I have been on several excursions with Jon before where he has prompted me to eat the (I think) weird and wonderful. Usually more wonderful. Enlightening me to the fact that the modern diet is so restricted to what we buy in the supermarket ~ the ‘safe’ foods.
Not knowing anything about distilling Dan and Jon were unsure what herbs would go into making a good gin. Not knowing much about herbs I was similarly unsure. So we decided to take pot luck and go with our tastebuds and the few herbs that we found interesting.
Lovage, Rue & Sweet Cicely
I particularly liked the leaves of lovage. Lovage is a highly fragrant herb with a pronounced taste that was quite complex. It was unlike anything I have tasted before but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I later read that the leaves taste like a combination of celery and parsley. As a confirmed celery hater, this surprised me. I would definitely try it again though.
All in all, lovage is a very useful plant and the leaves, roots and seeds can all be used for various purposes. Lovage cordial is traditionally mixed with brandy 2:1 as a winter warmer. Whilst I liked lovage I decided I would prefer to distil it individually to determine its compatibility with juniper as it has quite a distinctive taste. But I do feel that there is some natural affinity there.
I also liked the pungency of rue. Apparently, this proves that I’m a witch. In the Middle Ages it was a symbol of witches and used in witchcraft. Probably because it is quite a tricky herb to use safely. It contains furocoumarins responsible for photosensitization, amongst other things. Due to its potential toxicity, we decided not to use it this time.
Sweet cicely was a revelation. The pods were indeed sweet and tasted of aniseed. They took me back to my childhood and the aniseed balls we used to get from the sweet shop with the tiny aniseed in the centre. ‘Medieval sweeties’ Dan calls them. And there was I thinking what a boring diet people must have had pre the late 20th Century.
A Basketful of Herbs
Back at For the Love of Gin HQ, aka my kitchen, we set about choosing our botanicals. As you can see from the main photograph we collected quite a basketful of herbs and flowers so it wasn’t easy.
But in the end, we decided on just five botanicals including juniper. Sweet cicely pods were definitely in. We used a whole (small) angelica plant, root, stem, leaf and all, just to see what would happen. And we chose southernwood, or Artemesia abrotanum – a fragrant sister to Artemesia absinthium (Wormwood), as our third botanical. The feathery leaves had a bitter liquorice taste that we thought would add interest. The fourth was apple mint.
As we didn’t have time to macerate overnight we set about steeping the botanicals at 50°c in 500ml of 40% abv vodka in my little 4L air still called Baby while we went off to lunch. (I will explain in a later post how to turn a basic air still into a precision still where you can control the temperature).
Having macerated for about an hour we got down to the process of distilling. This for me is where the magic happens. We whacked up the watts to full power. Within 10 minutes the alarm (another modification) set at 76°c went off and the first drips appeared. This is always an exciting moment and I can never resist sticking my finger underneath to catch one and have a sneaky taste.
The first few millilitres were not very ‘headsy’ so we decided to keep them in. We settled on a long slow distillation at 82 to 84°c as we didn’t want to boil the delicate herbs. The distillation took about an hour, tasting every few minutes. Someone’s got to do it!
Oddly the aniseed of the sweet cicely didn’t come through until quite late in the distillation. We stopped when the tails or ‘stinky socks’ smell and taste started to appear.
The Herbaceous Gin
In all, we collected around 300ml at a respectable 80% abv. This was diluted with water to 42% abv. The herbaceous gin was clear with no sign of louching. It had a delicately perfumed aroma and slightly perfumed taste with aniseed at the finish. We mixed it with a light premium tonic as we didn’t want to upset the delicate balance of flavours.
It was a great way to end the day and what had been for me a fascinating insight into herbs. It had given me lots of ideas of what herbs to try next with juniper. Dan and Jon were so knowledgeable it was a pleasure to be in their company.