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I’ve started to make the homemade gin for Christmas. It’s an annual competition, strictly family, with entries judged in a blind tasting on St Stephen’s Day, 26 December, after the leftover turkey stuff.

Gin usually begins life as a neutral spirit (such as vodka) to which you add the flavours of juniper berries and other aromatics – herbs, spices and other plant matter – collectively called botanicals. You could add further flavours from oak barrels and so on, but let’s keep it simple here.

The contest rules

  1. All contestants start with the same spirit (this year it’s the lowest of the low: Tesco Everyday Value vodka).
  2. The minimum quantity to be submitted for the blind tasting is a modest 250 ml.
  3. You can’t use equipment or substances that are illegal in Ireland (such as a poitín still, a marijuana tincture) or any pre-made commercial gin. That’s cheating.
  4. The judges’ decision is hic!

The method

I used to think there were two main methods for making DIY gin:

  • Vapour infusion. This will give you a clear liquid but involves “still boilers” and “condensers” and a special “basket” chamber for the botanicals. A bit of a palaver.
  • Steeping. Generally a simpler process but the resultant liquid can be cloudy and coloured, even after straining. Beginners usually go for a crude steep, without any fancy distillation or redistillation equipment, then straining the liquid as best they can through a couple of sheets of muslin or coffee filter paper.

But – psst – I recently came across a more gradual and gentler process: dry infusion. It’s my secret weapon in this year’s competition.

You see, alcohol is volatile at room temperature. Even if the temperature of that room is chilly enough this week. The dry infusion method involves suspending your botanicals in a little muslin sack over the liquid in a sealed jar and letting the volatility do the work.

As the neutral spirit constantly evaporates and recondenses in the jar (think of it as a self-contained mini weather system) it will gradually pick up those flavours from the botanicals. Give it a week and you might even end up with a decent tipple.

That same dry infusion method can also be used for DIY limoncello (with lemons) or DIY sambuca (with aniseed or star anise, liquorice, elderflower and, er, coffee beans). Another cool twist is that you could even give each guest or judge their own little individually made “gin jar”, a unique serving of gin that’s been ageing away by itself.

Juniper, coriander, citrus

The great thing about DIY gin is that you get to choose your ideal “flavour profile”. Delicate floral notes perhaps (a touch of elderflower here, a pinch of lavender or camomile there), or much bolder flavors such as rosemary.

But whatever the recipe, by definition it must start with juniper berries. If it doesn’t, it’s just flavoured vodka.

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Strictly speaking, juniper isn’t a berry but a seed cone from certain edible species of juniper tree. But whatever they are, these little purply-black nuggets give gin its distinctive underlying “signature” flavour.

I always have a jar of juniper berries in the spice drawer anyway – not just for gin production but for lamb and goat dishes, pork, goose, wild game and wild birds, hams and gammons, pickles, sauerkraut, and even potato gratins and desserts.

Juniper and coriander seeds (what the Americans call cilantro) will usually make up the vast bulk of the botanicals. The coriander turns out to be the key citrus flavour contributor in a gin.

A third and almost inevitable ingredient is citrus itself, usually in the form of zest or peel. This year I was thinking of skipping the usual fruits (unwaxed oranges or lemons) and trying out various combinations of lime and grapefruit zest. For the final batch of gin I’ll use strips of peel that have been hung out to dry in the delicate Dublin air (or in a low oven).

Be careful if using grapefruit: some people can’t take it because it interferes with their medications. An expert in our family assures me that it also ruins a good gin.

The other botanicals

Other typical botanicals include:

  • Aniseed or star anise
  • Cassia bark (Cinnamomum Cassia), also sometimes called “true cinnamon” because several different species are all sold as cinnamon
  • Lemongrass
  • Licorice root to counter the bitterness of the citrus elements. It’s available in good Asian supermarkets as a fine dry powder. Star anise is a possible substitute if you’re really stuck
  • Mints – I’d avoid spearmint though, and am trying bruised applemint this year
  • Peppercorns – the common black ones or perhaps milder red ones or even – gasp! -Sechuan peppercorns

The fun thing is you can experiment with other spicerack staples (cloves, fennel seeds, cardamom pods, vanilla pods, saffron even – though saffron is verrrry expensive).

The test samples

Instead of diving straight into production of the final dry-infusion batch of gin, I’m doing a “dry” run first, with a wet infusion. Or rather with a wide range of sample infusions simply dunked in vodka.

For this I’m using shot glasses. Each botanical combination is scaled down in quantity, carefully measured and CLEARLY LABELLED THIS TIME UNLIKE LAST YEAR. Into each glass goes an identical quantity of vodka – I want Santa to bring me a laboratory pipette for Christmas.

Then seal the glasses with clingfilm and leave covered for a few days in a cool place, strain, taste and give marks out of ten.

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After that there will hardly be time for fine-tuning. Whichever mix is the most promising will be scaled up as we swing into full production, with the botanicals in cheesecloth “pillows” suspended in two large Kilner jars, which will sit in a suitable spot in the kitchen to encourage the evaporation cycle.

The professionals

I’m not saying we should follow professional gin companies to the letter, but I was wondering what botanicals they use in leading brands such as the mass-produced Bombay Sapphire and the more artisan but sublime Hendrick’s Gin.

The Hendrick’s splendid website is a charming experience of phantasmagorically Pythonesque (Terry Gilliam) proportions. It lists its main flavourings as:

  • Juniper
  • Coriander
  • Orris root
  • Cubeb berries
  • Angelica root
  • Citrus peel (oranges)
  • Lemon
  • Elderflower (presumably the flowers rather than the berries)
  • Yarrow
  • Caraway seeds
  • Camomile

Last but not least, it has an infusion of “the remarkable Bulgaria Rosa Damascena” (commonly known as the Damask rose) and… cucumbers.

Even Gordon’s Gin – which continues to dominate the gin market – tipped its hat off to Hendrick’s with a Crisp Cucumber variant in 2013, followed by the launch of Gordon’s Elderflower in 2014.

I’m definitely gonna try cucumber this year.

As for Bombay Sapphire, it lists 10 botanicals. Six we’ve already come across in the Hendrick’s mix: juniper, coriander, angelica, orris, cubeb and citrus peel (lemons not oranges). The other four are almond, liquorice, cassia and grains of paradise.

Better explain some of the more obscure ingredients. I’ve checked a few online stores, and some of these spices can be seriously pricey – and a bit of a waste if they are going to sit at the back of your spice cupboard for centuries after making a tiny quantity of prizewinning gin…

Take orris root (Iris Florentina). I know what you’re thinking: sounds like something from a witches’ brew, along with other devilishly hard-to-find ingredients such as tannis root (remember Rosemary’s Baby?), Adam and Eve root, Beth root, lady’s thumb, eye of newt and toe of frog.

Orris root comes, in fact, from the root of the Iris flower and certainly doesn’t come cheap – €9.51 for 100g (unit price per kilo: €95.10)

Grains of paradise (Melegueta pepper) are strong peppery seeds from West Africa and a distant relation of the ginger plant. Though little known in Western Europe nowadays, in the 14th and 15th centuries they were a popular black pepper substitute.

But at over €8 for a 60g jar (unit price per kilo: €135.16 from the same supplier), I think I’ll also give the grains of paradise a miss this Christmas.

As for cubeb berries, they’re part of the pepper family but with a more floral aroma, including notes of lavender and rose. At €7.37 for 28g (unit price: a whopping €263 a kilo), I won’t be buying them in a hurry either.

It may be an important annual competition and honour is at stake here, and you do end up with truly unique gins and all that, but not at a price that’s even higher than what your local crack den is charging.

Irish botanicals

Finally, what about Irish gin producers – and uniquely Irish flavours?

Dingle Distillery gin

Dingle Distillery gin

In Ireland we’ve always been great at whiskey, but we’re almost complete novices when it comes to white spirits. Gin was something to do with empire, particularly empires of the British and Dutch varieties.

Then suddenly – or at least over the past five years or so – the Irish discovered gin. We even had our first Dublin Gin & Tonic Festival last June. New small-scale producers have popped up, including the Blackwater Distillery in Waterford, the Shortcross Distillery in County Down, and the Dingle Distillery in County Kerry.

The latter was founded by Oliver Hughes, one of the people behind the Porterhouse chain of pubs. They say on their website that

…we are not prepared to reveal our recipe but are happy to give some idea of what is involved in creating the unique flavour profile of Dingle Original Gin. We use, amongst other botanicals, rowan berry from the mountain ash trees, fuchsia, bog myrtle, hawthorn and heather for a taste of the Kerry landscape.

The Shortcross people say they “forage in the estate for botanicals, including apples from the orchard, wild clover, elderberries and elderflowers”.

And the Glendalough Distillery works with local forager Geraldine Kavanagh (www.wicklowwildfoods.com) for seasonal “botanicals, berries and fruit” from the Wicklow countryside, to produce a maximum of 3,000 bottles each season.

They call 3,000 bottles a small run. I’ll be happy with three. And if you have any handy tips on how to make a winning gin, please let me know before Chrimbo. Chin-chin.

Postscript: see how my recipe got on.

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