Barstool: Making gin at home

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photo by Kacie Ragland

by Eric Ginsburg

I’ve never understood the grocery-store rush for milk and bread before an impending storm hits. Wouldn’t it make more sense to buy something that will hold up without refrigeration in case the power goes out, never mind the fact that milk is gross anyway?

As a storm named Jonas prepared to pummel the East Coast, leaving our area of North Carolina under slick snow and ice after a day of pretty relentless sleet, I found myself making multiple stops for booze — champagne at the grocery store (while picking up some non-perishable rations), a little something from the liquor store, and two stopovers at bottle shops (the second one more out of curiosity as I happened upon it) for beer.

I pointed my windshield wipers at the sky, helped my girlfriend bring in some of her bags for the planned staycation, picked out a show to start binge watching (we opted for “How to Get Away with Murder,” which turned out to be a wise choice) and considered myself ready.

An ingrained drive towards productivity (thanks, capitalism) can make days on end cooped up feel like a waste of time, and so we set aside ample time for reading. It allowed me to finally finish a book of essays about food and travel, and to knock out a quick graphic novel about Congressman John Lewis.

I didn’t accomplish much this long weekend, unless I can take some credit for successfully cheering the Carolina Panthers to victory from a brewery within walking distance from my apartment. We even failed at sledding, fruitlessly trying to slide down my icy driveway on storage-bin lids.

I’m proud we loaded up on enough food to last us, and that we still like each other at the end of it all. But I have something more concrete to show for our weekend under snow-induced house arrest: homemade gin.

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The bottle with all the ingredients inside.

My girlfriend found a kit to make your own gin online, much to my delight when I opened the wrapped box when we celebrated Christmas. And a snowstorm seemed like the perfect time to try it out.

Real distillers might object to my claim that we made gin over the weekend, but in all fairness, there are some commercial operations out there that are doing little more than I.

The kit calls for generic, unflavored vodka — “Don’t bother with the top-shelf stuff, any bottle will do,” the instructions read. Step 1: simply add the juniper berries in the kit to a 750mL bottle, shake it up, and let it sit somewhere dark and cool for a day.

I grabbed a bottle I had on hand of Method & Standard, a new, 80-proof vodka from Piedmont Distillers up in Madison. (You know, the folks who make Cat Daddy, the spiced moonshine that tastes like Christmas in a bottle, and Midnight Moon, which comes in a mason jar with berries.) Most the berries floated at the top, but a few sank. The next morning when I pulled the bottle out of my closet, the liquor had started turning a golden color as the instructions promised.

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Step 2: Add the contents of a tin labeled “botanical blend,” which includes coriander, rosemary, lavender, rose hips, allspice, fennel seed, lemon peel, green cardamom, something called tellicherry black pepper, and a bay leaf. That floated too, and required some more thorough shaking to disperse. Then wait for 12 more hours.

By Saturday night of the storm, we had homemade gin. All we had to do was strain the juniper berries and blend ingredients out using a provided strainer and funnel the reconstituted liquor into two provided glass bottles.

There’s some flowery language in the Homemade Gin Kit’s marketing material, comparing lazy experimenters like me to “a modern alchemist turning lead into gold,” and though curious, I approached the process with inherent skepticism. So when we finished, I blindfolded myself and asked my girlfriend to conduct a taste test for me.

I lined up the homemade concoction with Sutler’s Spirit gin from Winston-Salem, Cardinal gin produced by Southern Artisan Spirits in Kings Mountain, NC, and standard-bearer Bombay Sapphire gin. It’s arbitrary, sure, but it’s what already lived in my liquor cabinet.

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Left: The homemade stuff. Top photo: the author, photographed by Kacie Ragland.

As I tried each gin straight — which is not how I usually drink anything, though gin is one of my favorite spirits — and guessed which was which before ranking my preferences. Here’s how I did:

I easily picked out the homemade gin; its flavors were boldest, and if I order a re-up pack for the household kit, I won’t add all of it in at once. And I identified Sutler’s quickly too, which isn’t surprising considering I drink it most. But I mixed up Cardinal and Bombay, which I don’t reach for that often. In fact, I thought I’d ranked Bombay first and Cardinal last, but I’d done the opposite.

I figure it has something to do with the fact that Cardinal is 84 proof, lower than Bombay and Sutler’s which are both noticeably higher at 94. If I’d cut it with ginger ale or tonic, I might’ve picked something stiffer, but the Cardinal went down smoother.

I was relieved to see I’d ranked Sutler’s second — I would’ve been embarrassed if I’d been drinking something I didn’t like as much just because of the sexy labeling from a local source and two guys I call friends. But it held up.

For the golden child, made with a bottle of vodka and less than five minutes of total effort, to displace Bombay Sapphire by ranking third is a major coup in my book. And while it won’t displace the real Carolina-made gins I placed above it, that homegrown victory is enough snow-day productivity for me.

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Find out more at homemadegin.com or find the commercially made spirits mentioned here at your local liquor store.

  • Kbar Upit

    Eric, you are such a scientist at heart! Thanks for the interesting article. Ok, I’m now going out tomorrow and slap down some cold cash for a bottle of……..Cardinal Gin from those good old boys at Kings Mountain! Why go to all the trouble with “do it yourself” when Southern Artisan Spirits does all the work. Cheers!