At the risk of dissing my most beloved of alcoholic drinks, I’m afraid to say that gin is just diluted ethanol with bits added.
There I’ve said it!
With the recent explosion (is that the right word I wonder?) in interest in gin, it is at risk of developing into something of a cult: The Cult of Gin no less.
The origin of the word cult is that of homage paid to a divinity, so I don’t think I am too far out on my assumption. Gin is in.
But before you switch off your laptop or phone in a huff and go off to pour yourself a soothing G&T let me explain why the cult of gin is simply ethanol + bits + water.
Whisky, rum and vodka all start out in life like gin as ethanol pure and simple. Whisky may be distilled from barley, rum from sugar cane or molasses and vodka from just about anything really that contains sugar or starch. But the result is pretty much the same: ~ ethanol. There can sometimes be a slight after-taste of the original ingredient. But if the distillation is good then this will only be slight. In the case of triple distilled vodka, there shouldn’t be any taste at all.
This ethanol then, which has been distilled to 95%, is diluted with water to between 37.5% to 55%, then treated in various ways to the desired effect. Whisky ethanol is stored in barrels or casks for a minimum of three years before it can call itself whisky. Rum ethanol is either bottled immediately or aged in casks to produce a drink so beloved of pirates. And vodka? ~ well, vodka just is.
In the case of gin the ethanol, or neutral grain spirit as it is known in the distilling industry to indicate it is ethanol made from neutral grains (der!), has bits added. Or botanicals to be more technical about it. These botanicals are steeped in the ethanol for a number of hours then the whole lot is distilled in a pot still to produce gin. Or compounded, which means the bits are steeped in the ethanol then filtered out, (but that’s a whole other blog post).
Bits, or botanicals as they are properly known, can be any edible herb, spice, fruit, flower, seed or nut that you can think of. Which is what makes ginsmithing so interesting. Literally, anything of vegetable origin that won’t make you sick, such as deadly nightshade, can be used as a botanical. You can’t use an old meat bone for instance, as this isn’t a vegetable. Not that you would want to. Perhaps bacon though. Yes, bacon flavoured gin might be ok.
You will sometimes see labels on bottles proudly boasting that their gin is flavoured with 10, 11, 12, 13, 543 (you get the picture) different botanicals. Marvellous. Some of those botanicals will be in such minute ratios to the rest of the botanicals they will be virtually undetectable. Less marvellous. But they all add up to the total sum and the end result is hopefully delicious all the same.
Once distilled the gin will be roughly 95% again and has to be diluted again with water. (Compound gin doesn’t need dilution.) And that brings me to the water, or more prosaically H2O. Water is added to the distilled gin to dilute it to less head blasting strength. Now, tempting as it is to pooh-pooh any claims that water adds to the final flavour of the gin. After all, water is just water, isn’t it? Here I falter. Water does taste differently wherever you are in the world. Maybe, just maybe, there is a grain of truth in some of the claims of ginsmiths that their local water is what adds the cherry on the cake to their gin (sorry, mixed metaphor but you get what I mean). And there ends the process.
And that is ginsmithing in a nutshell. And so, despite its developing cult status, gin is simply ethanol + bits + water. But oh, what a heavenly formula.