It's the weekend, you've made it through the long week and it's time for Happy Hour, Gizmodo's weekly booze column. A cocktail shaker full of innovation, science and alcohol. My blood-type is juniper.
The Need for Better-Tasting Booze
Distilling, in its crudest form, is only about 500 years old. Those early distilled spirits packed plenty of punch, but they were also quite nasty, the result of trial and error that ended more often in error.
The beginnings of any batch (the "heads"), then and now, will often contain methanol and other nasty impurities. The (the "tails" or "feints") isn't much better. But while modern distilling practices have figured out how to isolate the good stuff in the middle, the original boozesmiths didn't know how to separate the wheat from the crap. The resulting spirit was the whole run, mixed together. It tasted awful.
The Dutch were among the first to try to fix the problem, not by removing the impurities but by looking for ways to mask the flavour. Their best solution? Tossing juniper into the mix. And so gin was born.
A lot of distillers start with gin because, in some ways, it's easier to make. Or, at least, there's immediate gratification. Unlike whisky, gin does not require any ageing, so it's possible to whip up a batch from a fermented mash in last than a day (think "bathtub gin" from the Prohibition era).
The Modern Process
Surprisingly, most major gin distilleries — Beefeater, Plymouth and pretty much anyone else you can think of — don't do the bulk of their own distilling. Instead, they purchase a high-proof neutral spirit from third-party suppliers, the identities of whom are tightly guarded secrets. Probably because it ends up being one of the major determining factors in the quality of a gin.
The neutral spirit is generally 95-percent pure alcohol, however, "neutral" is a somewhat subjective term. Some may are bitter, some are astringent. But the more that flavour is truly neutral, the better. Beefeater and Plymouth both use neutral spirit distilled from English wheat, but it's worth noting that it can come from anything from apples and grapes to sugar cane, even.
Once the ingredients have steeped for the desired amount of time, the fires are lit under the pots, and the distilling process begins. The vat is heated to and kept at a very precise temperature. Alcohol has a much lower boiling temperature than water (around 173 degrees F), and so it's kept right around there so that the alcohol steam rises through a series of columns and pipes. As the vapour cools, it sinks back down, eventually turning back into liquid alcohol (now very pure). It is then collected in a series of large vats.
Again, only the mids are kept. As the run goes on it gets nastier, so before that happens a valve is flipped, and the tails (or feints) go to a separate holding tank. You'd think that the heads would be fine for drinking since you're already beginning with a neutral spirit, but what happens is that the tails from the previous run coats the pipes, so when the new batch is fired up the heads acts as a solvent, and sweeps that nastiness through. This is why only the mids are good.
The discarded heads and tails are later re-distilled to about 95 per cent ABV (they're only about 40 per cent when they initially come out) and are sold to a third-party company that repurposes it. In other words, your mouth wash may be made with discarded gin. Almost enough to get you to start using it.
In this video, shot at the Plymouth distillery, you can see the process in miniature. We started with a neutral spirit and then added juniper and other botanicals. You can watch it as it's re-distilled. The drip back you see at the beginning (known as reflux) helps to ensure that only the purer alcohol is making it to the top of the still where it cools, and comes down the other side into the awaiting bottle. (My gin, incidentally, tasted like shit, but I've no one to blame but myself.)
Not only do these companies not do their own initial distilling, most don't do their own bottling, either. Beefeater and Plymouth both take their extremely high-proof gins, put them in tanker trucks, and then transport them up to Scotland. The gin is then cut with Scottish water (which is delicious, by the way), and bottled by the Chivas Brothers (as in Chivas Regal Scotch). It's then distributed from there.
The Many Faces of Gin
What ties all gins together is that the dominant flavour has to be juniper. But that leaves room for plenty of variation. Specifically, there are seven recognised types of gin: London Dry, Plymouth Dry, Navy Strength, Dutch, New Western Style, Old Tom, and Sloe. Beefeater makes London Dry.
"London Dry" turns out to be a bit of a misnomer; it doesn't have to be made in London at all. What makes it distinctive is that no flavours can be added after the final pot still. In contrast, take Hendrick's, which has prominent cucumber flavours. That fresh cucumber flavour would not come through if it were tossed in the boiling pot still with juniper and the rest of the ingredients. Instead, the cucumber is put in a basket further down the pipe, where the alcoholic steam passes by it. Slow Gin, another example, has sloe berries and sugar added after distilling.
Striving For Consistency
One of the big questions for these big distilleries is how they achieve consistency, year after year, and across so many batches. After all, a bottle of gin doesn't have a vintage like a wine. Indeed, it's something that must be somewhat obsessed over.
Beefeater requires 50 tons of dried berries per year, and since there are subtle differences between the berries, it cannot pick from a single source. Instead, it relies on a blend from five or more sources, until it finds the right balance. If someone else buys one of the five they were after, they start over, smelling and tasting berries until the right combination of five sources are determined.
Other ingredients are replaced on a staggered schedule. Plymouth, for instance, has it timed out so that they run out at different rates. That way the new batch doesn't have all new botanicals — just the orange peel, say, will be replaced. A couple of months later, the coriander will be swapped. This helps to compensate for the subtle variations within the ingredients, and, of course, the distillers taste all of the new additions to keep them as consistent as possible.
The master distillers at both Plymouth and Beefeater have been at their jobs for decades, and have the kind of refined taste that only experience can bring. "Two plus two doesn't always equal four when you're dealing with flavour," said Beefeater's Desmond Payne, who has been distilling for more than 45 years.
Obviously, this only scratches the surface, but it gives you a bit of a primer into the world of distilling gin. Now that you know what it is and how it's made, stay tuned for some rather delectable gin recipes in the weeks to come. Don't miss the next Happy Hour.
Music: Ravel's Ma Mère l'Oye, performed by Felipe Sarro. Free Music Archive