5. The art or science of alchemy ?
Experimenting on a distillery tour was a great initiation into the world of gin making. It’s a fun thing to do but there’s a world of difference between popping your pre-measured botanicals into a pot and heating it up, if you want to create a quality gin. For us though it was undoubtedly a big encouragement in taking those next steps.
The thirst for more information following our tour, was as intense as our desire to get our business off the ground. We spent months reading books, taking webinars, courses and talking with other distillers. I’d say we discovered that making gin is a mix of science and pure alchemy!
The scientific part is fairly simple and straightforward, assuming you are starting your gin production from the point where you are buying in Neutral Grain spirit from another distillery. This is the way of most craft or artisan gin makers. It makes a lot of sense - in essence the regulatory hurdles; the required production quantities; and the stages involved in trying to create a 96% proof spirit are huge. For a start up business such as ours it just wasn’t practical, furthermore the product is, as it’s name suggests, simply a neutral spirit. In other words almost nothing but pure ethyl alcohol, a blank canvas upon which to create your gin.
Grey Goose follow this same procedure and simply proof the spirit down and add marketing, to create a “premium” product. Not true for most craft distillers who focus on a combination of quality botanicals, bespoke recipes, foraging and incorporation of local aspects into their product. This process is known as rectification and basically involves re-distilling the neutral spirit along with your chosen ingredients to create a gin.
There’s some science to this part of the process. Firstly for a gin to be called a gin there are various readings and rules to which you need to comply. The gin must be over 37.5% proof and have a dominant flavour of juniper. There are then further rules to determine whether your gin is a London Dry, simply a distilled gin, a bath tub gin, an old Tom etc. All points which can be proven and tested scientifically.
The distilling process has a series of tried and tested scientific principles. For example, the boiling point of ethanol is much lower than water and the boiling point of eg acetone is lower than ethanol. These boiling points are well known and so during the distillation process, the steps of taking cuts in order to remove the Bad stuff which can be produced at the lower temperature points, and minimising the capture of water at the higher temperatures are scientifically proven. However, establishing exactly when to make your cuts to extract the best flavour is very much an art and relies on the distillers skill. This we found to be a pretty expensive process, requiring many bottles of vodka and neutral spirit to experiment - but what fun before and after :)
Next comes the ingredients and it’s true to say that there is a great deal of science behind the process of mixing and matching botanicals. We can find details of the chemical composition of the various botanicals and from this look for complimentary chemicals. The juniper has a huge spread of chemicals ranging from those generating woody flavours, pines, citrus and many more, it’s therefore no surprise that matching juniper with such a wide range of botanicals is not only possible but yields fabulous results and very different taste outcomes.
That’s about as far as the science goes because the impact of combining different botanicals, the rate of heating, the exact point of the cut etc often have unexpected outcomes and this is where the Alchemy comes into play. Indeed if you accept for a moment that there are, let’s say 100 botanicals (and in fact there are more, before considering the different flavour profiles dependent upon origin of the plant) then scientifically speaking there are 186,087,894,300 potential permutations. That’s alchemy! No wonder bar shelves are stocked with so many options!