When a small mail-order company in northern Virginia recently marketed a kit for making your own gin, they quickly learned something about the contemporary imagination: in short, the glamour of the bootleg-era HBO series Boardwalk Empire counts for a lot more than, say, the visions of Hogarth or the sorrows of John Cheever. Which is to say that sales were through the roof.
“Eleventh-century Italian monks. Early American colonists. Prohibition bootleggers . . . you,” the attached instruction sheet begins. “Welcome to the exclusive fraternity of small-batch, home gin producers.”
Agreed, making one’s own gin does seem like heady stuff. And it’s hard to imagine a fraternity or club anywhere near so exclusive that one can join for only $39.99, plus shipping. But alas, only moments after my kit arrived and I tore the box open on the kitchen counter with all the greedy anticipation of a six-year-old attacking the first gift of Christmas morning, it occurred to me that I hadn’t thought this business through.
For, other than the instruction sheet, all the kit includes are two empty glass bottles, a small plastic funnel, a strainer and two small tins of aromatic flavourings. The hard truth is that step one in making your own gin is walking over to your local liquor store to pick up a bottle of vodka. And unless you happen to be 16, it’s hard to argue there is much cachet in that.
To be fair, however, it should be pointed out that it’s not dissimilar from real gin making. In the U.K., whence all my preferred dry gins originate, there is not a single gin distillery that makes its own alcohol. What’s more, they all buy their raw alcohol from the same source. Which is to say that cheapo London dry gin and an ultra-premium bottle are each made from the very same product.
But there are still plenty of good reasons that one should cost nearly double the other. The value of the particular formula for their respective infusions of botanicals and juniper is one. The method is another—for example, the singularly delicate flavouring of Bombay Sapphire is a result of its botanicals being suspended in baskets in the still, rather than mixed into the alcohol itself. More than any of that, value added comes from the number of distillations of the raw alcohol, one being the norm for a basic gin, up to four for an ultra-premium gin like Tanqueray 10.
Extra distillation makes for a more refined, smoother final product. Which is why I doubted the gin kit’s claims that it would turn “a mediocre bottle of vodka into an outstanding bottle of homemade, small-batch gin.” I was keen to give it a try, but I decided on two bottles of test vodka (one rough Canadian, one smooth Russian).
As the kit includes only enough juniper (about 90 dried berries) and mixed botanicals (about 10 grams) to transform a single 750-ml bottle of vodka, this required dividing the samples into two, and half-emptying each bottle of vodka. Then, as per the instructions, I funnelled the juniper directly into the vodka, waited 24 hours and followed with the botanical mix—a combination of coriander, rosemary, lavender, rosehip, allspice, fennel seed, cardamom, bay leaf and Tellicherry black pepper. Twelve hours later you pass the infused vodka through the strainer, and presto, you have your “homemade gin.”
It certainly smells like gin, but in appearance it has disturbing similarities to a urine sample. All the same, I had a sip—and found it to be flavoured with all the botanical character of a sound, basic gin. As for smoothness, the gin made from cheap vodka was unsurprisingly rough. And the one made from quality Russian vodka was adequately smooth.
The thing is, though, if you add the $30-odd cost of a decent 750-ml bottle of vodka to a $39.99 gin kit—and shipping—you end up with a murky-yellow bottle of gin that set you back about $80, which is far more than the most expensive gin on the market. And that must be why the gin kit comes with only enough flavourings to transform a single bottle of vodka: once is fun, but not even a gin-addled lunatic would conduct this experiment twice.