On the Trail

Distilling Gin

David Driscoll

I'm at Four Pillars in Australia's Yarra Valley this morning distilling a batch of gin for K&L, tasting through botanicals and ironing out the final recipe for Cameron Mackenzie, the company's head distiller, to eventually scale up for a larger run. While gin has made a large comeback over the last decade, I still find that a lot of its most avid fans don't understand quite what gin is; therefore, I thought I'd take the opportunity to break it down for you step-by-step since I'm in the middle of working through each phase right now! Gin's origins date back to the 13th century when juniper berry tonics were a common remedy for various ailments like an upset stomach. With the beginning of the spice trade in the 1400s and the invention of Dutch genever (the precursor to the London style we're more familiar with today) the recipes began to include various other herbs and botanicals like cloves, cardamom, and pepper. In essence, gin is just flavored vodka. It's a neutral grain spirit macerated and distilled with a custom recipe of ingredients, which can be infused, boiled, and vaporized in various ways. All of these techniques are at the whim of the distiller, who need not even create his base material these days. Today most gin producers are purchasing the neutral spirit pre-made, then simply running that base through a still filled with their own customized botanicals. The commonality to all of these recipes is the juniper. From that point on, however, the sky's the limit.

When I arrived at the distillery this morning I found that Cam had laid out a table of various fruits, nuts, herbs, spices, and roots for me to sample. My goal was to come up with a recipe that we could distill and use for a K&L custom batch of Four Pillars gin. There were things like red and green szechuan, peppermint gum, cassia, and roasted wattle seeds to nose, along with heaps of local Aussie citrus options. I was imagining a fruity and sweetly-spiced expression that built on the distillery's house style and simply increased the intensity. I began grabbing things like Tasmanian pepperberry, and strawberry gum, along with lemon myrtle and heaps of sandalwood nuts to add an oiliness of texture.

Cam had been heating up a base of neutral grain with juniper berries, into which I began dumping my additions. For all of the seeds, nuts, and spices, we added them directly into the liquid; almost like making a soup. With the citrus and fruit, however, we put all of those into a mesh sack that we then hung at the top of the still. Rather than boil the fruit and end up with marmalade-like flavors, we wanted the freshness and zippiness of the citrus to shine through. When the alcohol in the base spirit begins to boil and separate from the water, the vapor will pass through our fruit sack, allowing us to flavor the spirit in its gas state, before it's condensed back into a liquid.

After getting our various botanicals into place, Cam and I sealed the door and began heating up the copper Carl still. At about 78.3 degrees Celsius the alcohol begins to vaporize and move through the top of the pot into a second chamber that has a series of plates creating reflux. The heavier elements are unable to move through the permeated levels and get pushed back into the pot. Those vapors that are able to rise into the condenser are the brighter, fresher, and cleaner elements we're after. 

As the spirit began coming off the still we began to get an idea of how the gin was taking shape. The initial flavors were all citrus dominated, but as time went on the heavier juniper and nutty characteristics were released and began making themselves known in the liquid. Hopefully we've got a winner on our hands! We'll know more as the afternoon goes on.

-David Driscoll