Tag Archives: gin

Drink More Gin!

Last autumn I got into making a few of my own fruit liqueurs. Flavours of the season like quince, damson, sloe and spiced pear. Each of them was delicious and well worth the patience required to let them sit and quietly do their thing down in the cellar. Nothing quite as magical as pouring a little glass, and setting down to watch a festive film on the sofa next to the Christmas tree.

However, my autumnal shenanigans left me playing things fairly safely, as I had stuck to familiar fruity flavours. Of course, I had also made a batch of cinnamon-infused vodka, which packed quite a punch, even when served ice-cold, and this got me thinking about making something that was based on herbs and spices. And this quickly led me to the idea of trying to make my own gin.

Now, before anyone gets the idea that I might set fire to my own house or that they should call the police, I’m not actually planning to start running a home distillery under the stairs! No, the recommended approach for those of a gin-like persuasion and sufficiently bonkers to have a go at this at home is to take some decent-ish vodka, and then add various botanicals to allow their flavour to infuse into the alcohol. Given that most of the ingredients you use are fairly strong flavours, the whole thing is done in about three days. What you will get at the end is something that doesn’t look like the clear gin that you are probably used to, but it certainly has the flavours and aromas you might expect. The difference is due to the way commercial gins are produced, allowing the spirit to distil through the botanticals, taking the flavours as it goes and resulting in a clear spirit. My method will give you  bit more of an amber colour, but that probably means it has traces of vitamins in there too.

Now, if you’re going to make gin, the one non-negotiable ingredient in there is juniper berries. These have a wonderfully fruity and almonst pine-like aroma, very resinous, which when you smell them has that specific gin-like aroma. If I were being very ambitious, I would be harvesting these myself, as they grow wild in Scotland. Well, maybe next time, but I had to make do with dried berries from Wholefoods. The bushes tend not to grow wild in the streets of London. Do not be misled by the name London Gin!

Beyond the juniper, you’ve pretty much got complete freedom about what you want to add, and it is at this point that you might just want to raid your spice drawer or cabinet to see what you can get your hands on. The key thing to think about is what are the two or three key notes that you want to come out in terms of flavour, and then major on those, with other ingredients acting more as background flavours, to be hinted at rather than standing centre stage.

As supporting stars, I oped for cardamom, which is just about my favourite spice, with a fresh lemon-like aroma that I thought would enhance the juniper. In addition to that, I added some orange peel (rather than the more obvious lemon or lime) and a blade of star anise. This last spice in particular is very, very powerful. It adds an exotic sweet spicy note, but it really is easy to get this wrong. I added this on day two, and by day three (the last day of infusing) it was already quite noticeable.

GinBotanicals1

After that, free rein beckons. I also added a teaspoon of coriander seeds to add a little more citrus. I also did just as I suggest you do, raiding the spice drawer to add a pinch of the more aromatic items in there – red peppercorns, nigella seeds and caraway.

I also drew some inspiration from a Spanish gin that I enjoyed in Barcelona last year, which was infused with rosemary. That seemed like a good idea to try here. I also went for some thyme and lavender leaves. It was just like picking tea, I plucked only the fresh new leaves from the tips of each plant. Each of these could, on its own, be very powerful, and I did not want much more than a hint of their respective flavours.

Now, I mentioned already that I added a blade of star anise on day two. I also added a small piece of cinnamon at the same time. Both of these are sweet, woody spices, and I thought they would help to balance the fresher flavours that I already had in the gin. I make all of this sound like science, but of course, it really was all just guesswork.

GinBotanicals2

It is important to take all this merely as inspiration, and not to feel limited by what I’ve suggested. I enjoy Hendriks, a Scottish gin flavoured with cucumber and rose petals, as well as a recent discovery called Ophir, which strong notes of cardamom and black peppercorn (note to readers – talk to bartenders, they will introduce you to new things!). Whatever herbs and spices you enjoy, chances are someone makes a gin with it.

What is important is to think about what you’ve got to hand as well as what is in season. I’ve also got a blackcurrant sage bush in the garden, which could be interesting for next time? If I get back to this in summer, I can always add a few rose petals, a few violets, and perhaps a little lemon thyme…balanced with pepper, caraway and aniseed?

Whatever combination of botanicals you use, there is one way to get a rough idea of the aroma you can expect. Put everything into a bowl, then crush lightly. This should release some of the essential oils, and you’ll get a very vague sense of what you can expect. If something is dominating, then remove it, or add more of what you feel you are missing.

botanicals

Making home-made gin is a dooddle. I put everything (other than the cinnamon and star anise) into a bottle of vodka. After one day, that familiar aroma of gin was there, and the vodka has taken on a light amber hue. On day four (72 hours steeping) I strained the mixture, poured a shot into a glass with ice and a slice of cucumber, and topped it up with tonic to make what I hoped would taste not unlike a G&T. So how was it?

gin

Well…really quite fantastic. The flavours are much more pronounced than in distilled gins, and I could pick out the various flavours that I used, but the whole was definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The best way to describe this is as something that is very different from the gin that you are used to, not a replacement, but nice as an addition to the drinks cabinet. It is not as crisp, but you get more of the individual flavour components while drinking. I found that my particular gin was only so-so with lemon, nice with orange zest, but it really came to life with a slice of cucumber. Perhaps it was the fact that there was quite a lot of juniper and warm spice in there that meant it was complemented by the cool freshness of cucumber. All in all – I think I’ve had a success with this one!

To infuse your own gin (makes 750ml):

• 750ml good basic vodka
• 3 tablespoons juniper berries
• 1 teaspoon cardamom pods
• 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
• 1 sprig lavender leaves (tips only)
• 4 sprigs fresh rosemary (tips only)
• 4 sprigs fresh thyme (tips only)
• pinch red peppercorns
• pinch caraway seeds
• pinch nigella seeds
• 2 strips orange peel, shredded
• 1 blade star anise
• 1/2cm piece cinnamon

1. Lightly crush the seeds and bruise the leaves. Put everything in the vodka bottle, apart from the cinnamon and star anise. Leave to infuse in a dark place for two days, shaking from time to time.

2. Add the star anise and cinnamon. Shake well, and leave in a dark place for another 24 hours, shaking from time to time.

3. Once the mixture is ready, strain to remove the seeds and herbs. If you prefer, pass through a filter.

4. Enjoy on ice with tonic and a slice of cucumber.

Worth making? Yes! This is super-easy and the flavours are really fantastic.

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Sloe gin revisited

Back in early autumn last year, as we were enjoying an unseasonal heatwave in London – picnics in the park, drinks in the sunshine and balmy evenings. At that time, I posted about my attempts at home-made sloe gin, made with local fruit sourced from some very old bushes growing wild in the local area – the lovely Clissold Park. It’s two minutes from my house – so for the Hackney foodie set, it just couldn’t really get much more local that that!

So, today, I present the fruits if my labour, and I can confirm that it’s quite something.

The name “sloe gin” is perhaps a little misleading. Gone is the strong flavour of gin, and the mixture is transformed into a marvellous liqueur. It has a fantastic crimson colour and plummy flavour with a very mild hint of almond. It’s sweet, but not overly so, and the dominant taste is “fruity”.

Over New Year, it featured in place of cassis in a glass of champagne under the moniker of the “Sloe Gin Fizz Royale”, lending a pinkish blush and delicate “something” to the champagne. Later, after food and fireworks, it was sipped from glasses next to a log fire. By that stage, it was slightly warm and made a great liquor to share while everyone lazed around, chatting about the year that had passed and the year to come until the wee small hours.

All in all, I am very happy with this little experiment – the results were far better than I had dared to hope for, and I’m looking forward to trying something similar with other fruit this year.

If you’re keen to try making sloe gin, wait until Autumn when you get a decent haul of fruit and use this recipe.

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Take it sloe…

‘Tis autumn, and lo! In the local park, there is a patch of thorny bushes that have changed from green to golden, and those leaves are now starting to fall. And behind those tumbling leaves…the sloes appear!

Not everyone knows sloes. I make this sweeping statement based on a survey of one person. I got chatting to an American lady in the Refuel bar at the Soho Hotel last week, and she was unsure what to order. She asked me, and I suggested the sloe gin fizz, on the basis that sloe gin is very British, and it was also seasonal. She went for it and seemed happy with it. So one convert to sloe gin…but back to the point: what are they?

Sloes are part of the plum family, but much smaller than the varieties we are used to enjoying. They have a deep purple colour and a blueish bloom. But the real surprise is the taste. As a child, we were all the victim of someone who convinced us to taste one, only to recoil in horror as you realise that sloes might look nice but they are unpleasantly astringent. It’s like eating alum. Your whole mouth goes dry and your mouth puckers. The whole thing is…well…just downright horrid. And from that point (typically aged seven or so) you learn to avoid the little devils, no matter how ripe and juicy they might look on the tree. And then, in due course, you play the same trick on your friends and younger cousins.

Well, you avoid them, unless you are me.

Two years ago, I thought I would get clever and have a go at making sloe jam. On paper, it was all going to go marvelously well. I had read a little about them, and understood that the astringency will vanish if the fruit is frozen overnight. This also has a basis in homespun folksy wisdom – sloes would traditionally be picked after the first frost, so the freezer is just giving Mother Nature a little helping hand. Now, I have to admit that while the freezer option is much easier, there would of course be something terribly romantic about wandering through the trees on a cool, misty autumn morning as the fruit is tinged with frost…

So, I got my sloes. I picked them, froze them, and then chucked them into a pot. I made the jam and it set to a fabulous garnet colour.

The next morning, I settled myself on the sofa with a cup of tea, the Sunday papers and several slices of hot buttered toast with a generous spreading of sloe jam. At first, it was quite nice, a like damson jam.

Then it hit. The pure, pure horror.

I had basically just succeeded in making eight jars of astringent paste. It was inedible. Awful. So the lesson? If you’re going to do “stuff” with weird fruit, be very, very sure you know what you’re doing with it. With hindsight, I might had gotten carried away with how nice the fruit looked on the tree and should have waited longer for the fruit to ripen…but I still look back on that jam with dread…

And you know what? You would think that I would have learned. But no. Last summer, a similar disaster unfolded when I tried to get clever and make rowan jelly. Again, it was unpleasantness in a quivering, jewel-coloured form. And again, probably the fruit was picked based on looks rather than ripeness…

This is all a very roundabout way of bringing me to the issue of today’s post: how do you solve a problem like the sloe fruit? Well, there is one option which is perennially  popular tipple in Old Blighty. You take the little chaps and immerse them in alcohol. Yes, I’ve made a batch of sloe gin.

To get all technical, this is not really a true gin, but more like a fruit liqueur based on gin. The idea is very simple indeed – you just take some large glass jars, fill them with fruit, sugar and alcohol (gin or vodka) then leave the flavour to infuse. After about a month, the alcohol is drained off and left to mature, while the fruit can be used for pies or jam.

The sloe gin itself can be enjoyed neat to ward off the chills outside, or used in a range of cocktails (sloe gin & tonic or a sloe gin fizz).

As with so many traditional recipes, this is one that contains its own little rituals. You should pierce the skins of each sloes two or three times either with a silver needle or a thorn from the sloe bush. Now, I don’t have silver needles lying around the house, so I toyed with the idea of going back to the wild part of the local park to get a thorn. However, I thought better of it. I had picked them with three friends and we all emerged with large cuts in our arms and legs (nothing serious, but they looked dramatic). You see, the sloe bush is also known as the blackthorn, and as you can see from the top picture, there are some vicious looking thorns on the bush. So all things considered, it was safest to use a cocktail stick.

The recipe is actually quite easy – take a clean jar, fill one-third full with sloes. Check the weight of the sloes, and add three-quarters of that weight of white sugar. Then top up the bottle with gin or vodka, and shake gently. Then you shake the bottle every day for a week until the sugar dissolves, then shake it two times a week thereafter, and after a month, remove the sloes and store the sloe gin somewhere dark to mature.

As you can see in the picture below, the gin starts to take on the colour of the sloes straight away. I write this on day four, and all the sugar has now dissolved and the colour is now a deep pink colour, which should become stronger with time. So for the time being, this is tucked away in a cupboard. Let’s see what it’s like by Christmas!

Update: you can see how it turned out here!

To make sloe gin:

• sloes
• white sugar (three-quarters of the sloes)
• gin or vodka

Rinse the sloes and remove any bruised fruit, leaves, stalks and insects (yup, there will be some in there!). Put the sloes into a tub and leave in the freezer for a couple of days.

The night before making the gin, remove the sloes from the freezer. Spread them out on a plate or a try, and leave somewhere cool to defrost.

The next day, pierce each fruit 2-3 times with a needle or a cocktail stick. If you’re making a lot of gin, this is best done sitting at the kitchen table with the radio on as it can take quite some time.

Fill the jar one-third full of sloes. Weight the sloes, and add 3/4 of the weight in sugar. Fill the jar with gin or vodka, seal the jar, and shake gently. Store the jars in a cool, dark place (the back of a cupboard is ideal). Shake the jars gentle each morning and each evening for a week, then shake them twice per week for the next three weeks. After a month, strain the gin and decant into a sterile bottle. I’ll keep an eye out for some ideas for the boozy fruit!

Worth making? No idea. Normally I would be in a position to say that I made something and it was either amazing or awful. But not today. This stuff will take a while to develop, so you’ll just need to remain patient and check back in a few months. But I’m quietly confident and expect rather great things from this. Fingers crossed!

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Holiday Drinks – Pomada

Goodness, is it pomada o’clock already?

A phrase that you might hear if you are in one of the Balearic Islands on a warm afternoon. Pomada is the perfect drink for warm weather – ice-cold local gin from Menorca, mixed with cloudy lemonade. Very simple and quite delicious, as well as being dangerously more-ish (the full effect not really felt until you are four in, so to be consumed in moderaton).

Now, I hear you ask, what is this Menorcan gin of which you speak? Surely gin is something from the north of Europe, and more specifically, Britain? Well, it becomes a little clearer when you look at the history of Mallorca’s eastern neighbour. Back in the 18th Century (following the War of Spanish Succession and the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht, to be exact if you’re a bit of a history geek), Britain was “given” the island of Menorca. Part of the navy was promptly moved there. Nice posting for the sailors, but they had a bit of a weakness for gin, and that wasn’t something that was very easy to come by.

How to cure that? The locals started making their version of the stuff, infused with the local herbs on the island. When the Brits finally left, the tradition had firmly taken root, and they’ve been making the stuff ever since. The leading brand today is Xoriguer (sho-ri-gair), which comes in a pleasingly retro bottle.

So when they sun is shining, sit back, relax, get out the glasses and ice and mix up a glass. Or four.

To make pomada:

• 1 part gin (Xoriguer brand, if you’ve recently been on holiday…)
• 3 parts lemonade
• ice
• slice of lemon

Fill a highball glass with ice. Add the gin, lemonade and lemon slice. Stir well. Relax, enjoy and repeat as needed.

Worth making? Tens of thousands of Menorcans can’t be wrong, and this is a great drink for a hot, lazy summer day in the park. If you’re feeling fancy, go a little more upmarket with pink lemonade which seems to be appearing all over the place in London at the moment.

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