I know this sounds crazy in North America, where gin and vodka are in the same price bracket.
After all, why would you go to all the time, trouble and expense — with no guarantee of outcome success — of converting vodka into gin when you can simply buy a 750 ml bottle of Gilbey’s London Dry Gin for $24.95 or Gordon’s Dry Gin for $25.95 compared to paying $ 24.95 for Polar Ice or Silent Sam Vodka or $26.95 for a bottle of Stolichnaya or Absolut Vodka? (Those are LCBO prices and you’d be paying much, much less for all of those bottles in many parts of the U.S., but the price equivalency is still the same.)
It’s an entirely different matter on the other side of the Atlantic where cheap-cheap-cheap vodka is produced everywhere — and I mean everywhere — from Ireland to Turkey, not just in Russia and Eastern Europe. (I should remind you that all alcohol is much cheaper in Europe than here, except for Denmark and Norway which are about the same or a bit more expensive than Canada).
Gin, in contrast, is an increasingly popular cocktail liquor and high demand in this case equals high prices. Because of the ever-growing appetite for gin and its huge profit margins, small craft gin distillers are popping up all over Europe, especially in Britain.
For the most part, you can get a very nice vodka in Europe for about a third the price of a decent gin. That’s why vodka-into-gin is much more akin to a water-into-wine alchemy experience there than it would be in North America.
So it’s not particularly surprising that a recipe that popped up a couple of weeks ago on Britain’s Guardian newspaper website (its Word of Mouth lifestyle blog, to be precise) for making your own gin from vodka is garnering a lot of interest at the moment.
Author Andy Hamilton even tells you how to match the flavours of particular gin brands by adding or emphasizing different herb and fruit ingredients. A Tanqueray taste, for example, requires the addition of cucumbers, while oranges impart Beefeater’s zippier flavour. The taste of Hendricks, a very hip — and more expensive — brand at the moment, requires the infusion of both cucumber and rose petals along with all the other ingredients.
(Hamilton — described as “a forager, brewer, imbiber and the author of Booze For Free” — even tells you how to whip up your own tonic water for thoroughly homemade G&Ts.)
Andy Hamilton‘s photo of his homemade gin and tonic from the Guardian website.
I’m not going to give you the full recipes here. They’re not really mine to give — you have to go to the Guardian website for that.
But I am going to mention some of the ingredients for the basic recipe, just to point out how complicated (and probably expensive) the vodka-to-gin transformative process is. I really doubt that anyone on this side of the Atlantic except the most ardent, showy ginophile or an obsessive alcoholic hobbyist is going to be tempted to try the experiment. I certainly wouldn’t.
(Perhaps I spoke too soon about who would try this: Here’s a link to an American foodie website that gives its own recipe for homemade gin — and raves about the superior taste quality of the homemade variety. The Hungry Mouse dissertation by Jessie Cross is actually far more thorough than Andy Hamilton’s, so you might want to jump straight here if you’re getting the itch to make your own gin. I’m sticking with Andy Hamilton, though, because (a) I came across his piece first and (b) I’m not planning to make the stuff anyway. If you’re absolutely determined to pursue this fool venture, you might also want to consider this homemade gin kit, one of many you can apparently buy online: You’re already nuts, so why not go all the way.)
Back to the ingredients…
For starters, turning 750 ml of vodka into an equivalent amount of gin requires a minimum of two tablespoons of fresh juniper berries, more if you like a more forward piney taste to your gin.
The juniper berry is not technically a berry but the fleshy seed shell for the coniferous juniper tree. Juniper trees grow all over the world, but the species in North America don’t produce a berry that has the right taste for gin (even though a few U.S. distilleries are trying to create an “American gin” taste using them). You need European berries for the authentic gin flavour and I can’t remember the last time I saw fresh juniper berries — of any sort — for sale in the herb and veggie section of my local supermarket. I really don’t know where you’d find them, but good luck, mate, if you’re foolish enough to embark on this mad science.
(By the way, gin actually takes its name from a short form of the French and Dutch words for “juniper” — “genievre” in French and “jenever” in Dutch. That’s also why you’ll see some “Geneva” gins — nothing to do with Switzerland, just another corruption of “genievre.” And the cotton gin has nothing to do with drinking gin: The cotton gin, a rather simple machine for separating raw cotton fibre from its nasty seeds but one which revolutionized the cotton industry, got its name as the shortened version of the word “engine.” I’m a sucker for etymology, but enough of that now.)
The Dutch are credited with inventing gin in the 17th Century — initially as a health drink and remedy for rheumatism (so they said) — before shipping it off to England, where it was blamed for corrupting the morals of the nation’s entire working class for the better part of two centuries. Funny how the elite always think they can accommodate and manage their own vices but see the exact same vices as doom purveyors when adopted by the less financially and socially well-endowed.
So juniper berries are, indeed, the chief ingredient that turn base alcohol into gin. Now comes the complicated part.
The other ingredients Andy Hamilton recommends for concocting homemade gin are a little easier to find than juniper berries but still make a surprisingly long list: fennel seeds, allspice, coriander seeds, cardamom pods, peppercorns, bay leaf, lavender, rosemary, dried grapefruit peel, dried lemon peel. Sounds like seasoning for my slow-cooker stew, apart from the lavender.
Here is an illustration of gin flavour ingredients from that American food website I mentioned earlier, The Hungry Mouse. These are exactly the same ingredients Andy Hamilton uses, but he adds dried grapefruit peel.
Hamilton’s recipe for making tonic water is almost as complex and includes “28g cinchoa bark.” Where, I ask you, does one find cinchoa bark?
Still, it’s an interesting look inside a gin bottle and gives you a better sense of what’s involved in the craft.
I pretty much stick to wine these days, apart from the occasional Scotch, Irish or brandy, but I do enjoy a long, cold glass of gin and tonic on a hot summer day.
But you can keep your homemade concoctions. I’d much prefer a tall Tanqueray and Schweppes on ice with a bit of lime, please. Cheers.