Distilling Craft: Ep 011

8675309/(Gin)y with Rob Masters from Family Jones Distilling in Breckenridge, CO

In this episode, we are talking about gin and the different ways to make it. Then Rob Masters is the interview but unfortunately, it was partially eaten by the internet spiders luckily, we still have part of the conversation where we talk about gin.

Gin is a great spirit to fit into the initial launch of a distillery or as an adjunct spirit that gets added as part of a growth plan due to its simplicity to make a relatively high demand. There are two types of gin; Distilled and Compound. Compound gin tend to be perceived as of a lower quality then distilled gins and this trend goes back at least as far as the 1800s. I personally don’t agree with that since compound gins give greater control and flexibility of the flavoring agents the final product can be very complex. Control of the flavor in compound gins is done two ways one is through the additive process flavors are added to the spirit the other is through a dilutive process, by adding more water or base spirit the added flavors can be diluted past the point of sensory perception. What makes compound gins nice if that if you over dilute you can just add more flavor while just like distilled gins if you’d like less flavor you can dilute it away. The extra level of control is pretty handy but, of course, that level of does mean that the requirements of flavor creation skill are lower even though the skill to design a flavor profile are the same. That being said most craft gins are distilled so that’s what we’ll focus on today.

Gin started out as a Dutch spirit – Genever. Which was originally made by the addition of crushed juniper berries to a malt fermentation base by having the berries in the fermentation base the juniper flavor was quite pronounced after distillation. Over time Genever moved into England and morphed into the London Dry style of gin which typically used NGS or other neutral base spirit and then a limited botanical profile typically 3-5 botanicals with heavy juniper notes and typically citrus as the secondary flavor. From there the path of gin evolution moved around a bunch and the direct connections are much harder to draw. The western styles of gin have stuck with the neutral base of the London Dry style but typically have bloomed the botanical profile with 7 or more botanicals are featured in a gin and juniper taking a lesser while still lead role. The most common botanicals in use today are (from Fermented Beverage Production Second Edition):

  • Juniper Berries
  • Coriander Seed
  • Angelica Root
  • Sweet Orange Peel
  • Bitter Orange Peel
  • Lemon Peel
  • Aniseed
  • Calamus Seed
  • Caraway Seed
  • Cassia Bark
  • Cardamom Seeds
  • Cinnamon
  • Fennel Seed
  • Grains of Paradise
  • Liquorice Root
  • Nutmeg
  • Orris Root

A current style of gin that seems to have different historical roots then the Genever/London Dry root is from Germany and is called Steinhager. Steinhager uses crushed juniper berries as the sole fermentation base and derives it juniper flavor that way while other botanicals can be added to that base pallet.

Within the different styles there are basically three ways to get flavor into you gin; from the base fermentation, through maceration in the liquid, or by inclusion in the vapor path during distillation. For vapor path inclusion, there are a couple of ways to accomplish it, despite my fixation with it vacuum distillation is still a minor way to create the vapors that will be passing over the botanicals. With a typically heated distillation where you put your botanicals will affect the flavor with generally the closer to the liquid creating the least amount of flavor and closest to the condenser the most. This is because reflux is still a purifying effect and picking up flavors in a basket low in your pot and then have reflux afterward will reduce some of the flavors that have been picked up. In this way, Offset or Carter style heads are used to ensure that there is no reflux after leaving the botanicals. The other difference in a botanical location where the gin oils end up. To make the heaviest flavored gin you could have your botanical basket in the lyne arm with a slight downward angle this would ensure that any oils created would run to your condenser and be captured along with the rest of the spirit. The other end of the spectrum would be a low-hanging botanical basket where any excess oil drip back into the pot. Carter heads are typically build to return oils that build up back to the pot below the liquid level but this line can be rerouted so that the oils are captured separately for inclusion or not at the distiller’s choice.

With maceration, there are two main ways to accomplish it either by adding heat or by letting the mix sit at room temperature. Adding heat gives a faster and more complete extraction but that can extract some of the undesirable flavors as well. The heat can destroy some of the more delicate flavor elements as well but consider the cold maceration is still going to be distilled I don’t think that’s a perceptible difference for distilled gins though it will mater for compound gins. Macerations are typically done with the heartiest of the botanical flavors (typically your bitter flavors) since some of them will be lost to the pot rather than all making it to the vapor phase. Doing cold macerations generally, requires more equipment to store the maceration and then to filter out the botanicals prior to distillation. Hot macerations on the other hand typically involve more cleaning because the botanicals will break down in the still and you will have their remnants as well as the oils that need to be cleaned out of the still.

Historically, (possibly currently I just don’t know anyone who is doing it) another method was used that combined vapor path and maceration and that was percolation. Now we typically see percolation used in making coffee and even then, generally only when camping. Percolation basically has the hot vapors run up through the botanicals and the condenser and run back through them prior to falling back into the liquid at the bottom. The creates a very flavorful liquid base that is then either called coffee or gin depending on what you have up top. The easiest way for a distillery to duplicate this would be to use an NGS base and low-hanging gin basket and the run your still at 100% reflux until you’re done and then shut down you’re still maintaining the 100% reflux. Once everything has cooled down you would have percolated gin as your stillage.

Once we’ve figured out what flavors we want to extract and how we’re going to accomplish that extraction the last step is to figure out what we’re going to extract those flavors into. The first step to this is looking at our concentrations. Like Henric Molin was saying a couple of episodes back each of our botanicals has a sensory threshold below that you won’t notice that they botanical is present and over that threshold, you are spending more for no gain since the flavor stays flat. With the ranges from each component, you’ve selected we need to look at how to maximize extraction within that range so that we can minimize the amount of botanicals that we use. The easiest way to do this is to split your botanicals up into groups that extract similarly (or do them one at a time) and then focus that extraction process for that flavor. The most desirable juniper flavors are extracted at high proof so cold juniper macerations typically occur at greater than 60 proof and a lot of distilleries are doing it with straight NGS on the other end you would have to pack a lot of flower petals into your NGS to get a noticeable lavender component where if you were using a Rotovap you could use 90% less. Typical proofs that I see are 190 for cold maceration, 120 for hot maceration and hearts collection around 160 for the vapor phase components.

The last component to the flavor profile of your gin is the base. Historically and current grain bases (malt or NGS) have been king. Most of the time right now the base doesn’t matter since it’s being distilled above 95% prior to starting the gin process but for those who are making gin without the dilution step this is another easy to add flavor complexity. There is a bit of a gin philosophy question here is the point of gin (or at least your gin) to provide a well-blended botanical flavor profile or is the entire spirit that is being evaluated. If you’re just looking for a blank canvas for the botanicals to pop off of the NGS or other high proof bases is the way to go. If on the other hand, you are looking for a little more depth some other bases may be a better choice. Malt bases will add whiskey notes to your gin and play particularly well with barrel notes if you’re looking at aging gin. Brandy has been used a lot historically to help bump the fruit notes in the gin profile while also changing the mouthfeel. Craft distilleries are starting to play more with alternative bases to add other complexity like the agave base we talked about with Sean Smiley back in episode two to add some smoky earthy notes or a rum base to add sweetness. Of course as seen in both Steinhager or Genever including juniper into you fermentation can add the depth of the juniper flavor.

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