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Times have changed since the dark era of 1920's Prohibition, when the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages was outlawed. Unfortunately, the industry is still stuck in the 20th century and we're taking it into the 21st with the spirit of speakeasy.... more inside.
Before we get technical about all the different ways Gin can be made, it’s worth first defining what Gin is. To be called a Gin, the spirit must have a predominant flavour of Juniper.
There is a number of different Gin styles and classifications; everything from a London Dry Gin, (which is governed by a number of EU regulations such as only using a pure grain spirit and natural botanicals, the flavour of which can only be introduced via re-distillation), to a sweeter Old Tom Gin, to Aged Gins (which are matured in oak barrels, many of which have previously contained Bourbon, Scotch or even Vermouth).
The one thing that all these different styles of Gin have, in common (or should have), is that they’re all predominantly juniper flavoured.
Any Gin starts life as a neutral (often grain-based) spirit. It’s essentially pure ethanol, and then flavours are added through a process called re-distillation.
Methods of distillation
There are many different methods of distillation, each of which can be used to create different flavours of Gin. The two most common forms for extracting flavours from botanicals are:
Steeping of the botanicals
This traditional method is when the base spirit is placed in a pot still (a vessel which holds the liquid and can be heated), along with the juniper berries and other botanicals. These can be steeped for as long as 48 hours, although some producers will distill the liquid almost immediately. Once completed, water is added to reduce the distillate to bottling strength.
This method is still used by Beefeater’s Gin for example. Unique to their is production is the steeping of the peel of lemons and Seville oranges, whole juniper berries and other natural botanicals for a full 24 hours prior to distillation.
Vapour infusion of the botanicals
In this process, the botanicals never come into direct contact with the neutral base spirit. Instead, they’re placed into baskets in the still, above the base spirit, which when boiled, vaporises and rises up and infuses with the botanicals. The infused vapour then condenses into a liquid, and finally, water is added to reduce the alcohol to its bottled strength.
This method is said to give a more gentle flavour to the spirit, and is used by producers such as Sibling Gin, and the iconic Bombay Sapphire, which favoured this production method to give a lighter style of spirit.
The above two methods can also be combined
So while some botanicals are steeped, others will be placed at the top of the still to infuse the vapours. One famous example of this is Hendrick’s Gin, which uses two separate stills (one for steeping botanicals for 24 hours before boiling, and one for vapour infusion of different botanicals) and then combines the distillates for the final blend, along with the addition of its well-recognised cucumber and rose petal essence.
New Gin production methods are on the rise
In recent years, there’s been a rise in more unusual production methods. As producers try to develop new styles and flavours of Gin, to push the category and find a niche, the need for trying new methods of extracting flavours, as well as using more unusual botanicals, has grown.
Vacuum distillation is, as the name suggests, when the redistillation of botanicals takes place in a vacuum. A vacuum - and here’s the techy science bit - creates a lower boiling point for the ethanol, which in a pot still would be somewhere around 85 - 95 degrees centigrade. The lower temperature means that the botanicals are essentially cooked less than they would be in a normal still, resulting in a more fresh flavoured Gin at the end of it all.
Every Gin has its unique recipe
It’s not just the way in which the botanical flavours make their way into a Gin which affects its flavour. Every Gin is made to a specific recipe, with a specific number and weight of botanicals.
While the flavour of one batch made by steeping and boiling will be totally different to one made using the vapour infusion method, even using the same method, and the same botanicals, can have different results.
The distiller plays a key role
It’s the job of a distiller to ensure that the botanicals used in a Gin are treated in a way which results in the same flavoured end product, despite, for example, using different crops of berries, seeds and herbs over the course of a brand’s lifetime.
Variances in a single batch of juniper berries will occur naturally, so it’s up to the distiller to taste a number of samples from each botanical crop in order to ensure consistency in flavour.
So the next time you’re drinking a Gin (and hopefully that’s now, reading this), think about all the individual botanicals which have made it into your glass, think about the method used to create it, and think about - and thank - the distiller who undoubtedly spent months trying batch after batch, to get that recipe spot on.
Here’s to you, Gin Distillers the world over. Cheers!