Gin Fever: Part III - Juniper Berries

So gin is really just flavored vodka. But flavored with what? Anything? No, not anything -- primarily with juniper berries. What are juniper berries? They're the little, dark-colored seed cones (technically not a berry) that, according to Wikipedia, have "unusually fleshy and merged scales, which give it a berry-like appearance." Juniper berries grow on juniper trees, which consist of over fifty different species grown all over the world. The trees can vary in size and height, from low-growing to tall with long-spreading branches. Juniper berries have been used as a pungent spice since the time of the Romans, who used the seed as a cheap domestic substitute for pepper when unavailable from India. It therefore makes sense that the Dutch, credited with inventing genever, used it along with other medicinal spices, to flavor their distilled malt wine with a peppery accent. 

Part of what makes gin such a fun spirit for producers to make is the role that foraging plays in the overall flavor of the spirit. With gin production, it's not so much the act of distilling the flavor out of something as it is distilling the flavor into something. Working with local farmers, growers, and suppliers to source these flavors can add excitement to the experience. Dave Smith mentioned yesterday that working with herbs and botanicals grown in the Bay Area was part of the fun when making the Terroir gin. In the same vein, regional gins like Bruichladdich Botanist express the terroir of Islay with locally sourced juniper. However, it appears Scotland is in a bit of trouble when it comes to juniper at the moment.

Read the story from this past summer about how a local fungus is endangering the juniper crop in the UK and putting gin production into jeopardy. And you thought whiskey producers were the only ones who had to worry about a shortage!

-David Driscoll


Gin Fever: Part II

William Hogarth's 1751 depiction of London's "Gin Lane"

By the 1720s, the streets of London were looking like the Tenderloin on Turk between Gough and Laguna. Gately writes:

Statistics suggested that every man, woman, and child in London knocked back more than a pint of gin per head per week. This alarmingly high level of consumption generated shocking levels of drunkenness in the capital. The problem was aggravated by the squalid living conditions in the slums. Tenement houses were packed from their cellars to their rafters. People dossed down ten to a room, and the only recreation or relief they could afford was drinking gin.

It prevailed into the 1730s. The press had a field day with the drama. Stories of intoxication were abound in the daily news, working like modern day paparazzi presses. The story of gin as a cultural destroyer was too good to pass up. Gin was causing mothers to murder their infants. Infanticide rates were rising. Gin might cause one to die in their sleep. Gin drinkers were seen as bad for capitalism--"they ate less, and they pawned their clothes instead of buying new ones." Anything to garner support for the temperance movement. Much like modern street drugs, gin had acquired a variety of new names like "kill-me-quick," or, my favorite, "strip-me-naked." A new gin act was passed in 1736 with harsher penalties, but it still did little to stem the tide. The next decade was a mess, full of gin-drinking anger, more reforms, rewards for snitches, snitches gettin' their stitches (modern-day street slang for beating down a rat), and more excessive drinking.

Gately writes that:

By 1750, London had been in the thrall of (gin) for a quarter of a century. (It) had been legislated against five times, declared the enemy of religion and health, yet persisted nonetheless. Gin had been a constant in an age of change. However, London in 1750 was no longer the rowdy place it had been at the turn of the century. The threat of rebellion has been countered and suppressed, wars had been won in Europe and elsewhere. The best and cruelest work of the golden age of English satire had been written. In 1751, approximately 7 million gallons of gin were taxed, the following year less than 4.5 million. The fall reflected declining demand and, best of all, the common people responded positively to new legislation, having seemed to have lost the desire to debase themselves.

While gin spurred several decades worth of debauchery in London, like all trends, it eventually calmed down and became less extreme of an intoxicant. Gin would never lose its status in popular drinking culture, however. It played a key role in the cocktails of the Belle Epoche, and the Gatsby-era libations we celebrate now as pre-Prohibition. It carried on into the tropical novels of Hemingway, and the colonial stories of Graham Greene in the Caribbean. It may have taken a back seat in the 1980s, but Snoop Dogg brought it right back with his 1993 gangta-rap anthem "Gin and Juice" ("Now that I got me some Seagram's gin, everybody got their cup, but they ain't chipped in). Along with Bourbon, it's now the biggest mainstay of today's craft cocktail revival.

St. George's Dave Smith working on our Faultline gin

We know of gin's importance to the history of alcohol and our drinking culture, but how is it actually made? To answer this question in detail I decided to call my good friend Dave Smith, distiller for St. George in nearby Alameda, to make sure I had all my facts straight.

David D: I was hoping you could just walk me through how a batch of St. George Terroir gin was made so we could help people reading the blog understand the process. You start with the grain neutral spirit, the GNS, right?

Dave S: Sure, uh....without giving away too many state secrets....the concept of the Terroir gin, and with any project that has multiple components--gin is an example--some producers want to distill all of the ingredients separately and then combine them, which sort of allows you the ultimate level of control. You have the ability to fine tune the flavors and find the ingredients' weight in that blend. We also believe in the integration of these components and their potential for being distilled together. So some of the ingredients for the Terroir gin will actually be distilled together in a 400 gallon pot still with GNS, to which we actually have a steam basket attached through which those vapors travel though. That gives us the option of actually boiling certain ingredients themselves or to steam certain ingredients that will benefit from that process.

David D: Do certain ingredients work better when boiled rather than steamed?

Dave S: Yes, a good example is bay laurel. Bay laurel is going to break down a lot more thoroughly when boiled, it's going to give off a some different flavor compounds aromatically. At the end of the day it's a leaf. It's going to fall apart. If you think about spinach, just as a point of reference--fresh spinach, steamed spinach, and boiled spinach are three uniquely different things. Citrus peels also benefit from boiling as heat helps to open up the pores, it can withstand that boiling, and we can do a better job of capturing the essence of that citrus peel. Bay laurel, not so much. The laurel goes into the steam basket with the juniper berries, so that we can get the aromatic, blueberry components, rather than the resiny, seedy aspects of the berry.

David D: So you're saying that some ingredients in the Terroir are put into the steam basket, while others are boiled?

Dave S: Yes, that's right.

David D: Are you also distilling them in different batches, then marrying them together?

Dave S: Actually, on those ingredients we'll distill them together in the same process because we believe strongly in the value of marrying those components together in the pot still. The still will help break down and capture the most balanced version of these botanical elements. You want to be mindful of how you manage each component, but the ingredients of the Terroir work together. The Douglas fir component, however, isn't something that we can forage for year-round, unlike bay laurel which we can get from Lance's yard. In that case, we have to do that as a separate component. But that helps us to isolate that flavor and control it as we blend it in. Coastal sage is another ingredient we can only get maybe once or twice a year.

David D: What about the coriander?

Dave S: The wok-roasted coriander is another big process. Every 400 gallon batch in the pot still is a an hour and half or two hours of distilling wok-roasted coriander seeds. It brings out almost a citrusy, grapefruit quality of the seeds. You can, however, run into certain botanical ingredients that are so intense that controlling them on a large scale batch, while I want to make sure they're well integrated, the choice is also to actually focus on re-integrating them--to have them out of the main batch and to use them almost like garnish on a plate. We do a separate distillation of citra-hops for Botanivore, and for Douglas fir for the Terroir.

David D: As someone who distills whiskey, fruit brandies, vodka, pretty much everything, where does gin fall in the hierarchy of spirits for you?

Dave S: A lot of people talk about gin, saying things like, "I don't like gin, but I like flavored vodka,"--I've got news for you: gin is flavored vodka.

David D: That's what I said!!

Dave S: That being said, what I would liken gin to actually is absinthe. You know about our time with absinthe and how long we worked with it. The real interesting challenge with absinthe and gin is not only to act as a supply chain manager with your ingredients, finding the best possible products and understanding how to work with them, how to utilize them and work safely with them, but also how to actually balance those ingredients. And if you're choosing not to balance them, then understanding how to do that specifically as a stylistic choice in response to other products on the market--you're looking to stand out.

For us, the dry rye gin is rye whiskey-based with coriander, caraway, black pepper--these are elements that are really focused and dialed in to make something that's a play on a London dry style, but also very malty creating a spirit that's very unique. When you first smell it the rye shows immediately. The black pepper shows later, but there are very few ingredients involved. The Botanivore on the other hand has nineteen specific ingredients, yet comes across as softer and more balanced. The challenge in making gin, and with absinthe, is to make choices and to understand your ingredients as a painter would understand his paints. You have to understand how to layer your colors to make a balanced picture. Or, if making an unbalanced picture, to understand why you're doing so.

David: Wouldn't that be an argument for viewing gin as one of the tougher spirits to produce, rather than seeing it simply as "flavored vodka"?

Dave S: I can see where you're going with that and I think there's a strong argument there, but I hate to say that distilling gin is harder or easier. Sometimes we get caught in that idea that something is better or worse. I don't think there's anything better about a four piece quartet versus a twenty piece orchestra, or even a soloist--a unique beautiful voice. None of these things are better, greater, or harder than another, but their processes are very unique and the challenges that they present are all very different.

-David Driscoll


Gin Fever: Part I

Someone asked me the other day: "David, you've done week long reports on tequila, rum, whiskey, etc. When are going to do a series on gin?"

To tell you the truth, I'd never really thought about it. I love gin. I personally drink more gin than I do all other spirits combined. My mother drinks gin every day. Her mother still drinks gin every day (at 94 years of age -- maybe that's the secret?). Gin is simply something I take for granted. I don't really think too much about where it comes from or how it's made. Gin is essentially just flavored vodka--neutral grain spirit with juniper and a number of other botanicals and spices. There's a lot of room for creativity and exploration when it comes to gin production (see our Faultline series with St. George for examples, along with our Rusty Blade barrel-aged gins from Old World Spirits), but is it a process that will interest drinkers and engage them in the same way that other spirits do?

Let's find out. I'll fill you in on the details and you tell me whether or not you think it's worth knowing.

If we're going to get technical, no tongue in cheek allowed, then let's get technical. The European Union breaks gin down into four categories. I could type them all up, or I could just copy the definitions off of their webpage:

Juniper-Flavoured Spirit Drinks - This includes the earliest class of gin, which is produced by pot distillinga fermented grain mash to moderate strength (e.g. 68% ABV), and then redistilling it with botanicals to extract the aromatic compounds. It must be bottled at a minimum of 30% ABV. Juniper-Flavoured Spirit Drinks may also be sold under the names Wacholder or Genebra.

Gin- This is a juniper flavoured spirit made not via the redistillation of botanicals, but by simply adding approved natural flavouring substances to a neutral spirit of agricultural origin. The predominant flavour must be juniper.

Distilled gin- Distilled gin is produced exclusively by redistilling ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin with an initial strength of 96% ABV (the azeotrope of water and ethanol) in stills traditionally used for gin, in the presence of juniper berries and of other natural botanicals, provided that the juniper taste is predominant. Gin obtained simply by adding essences or flavourings to ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin is not distilled gin.

London gin- London gin is obtained exclusively from ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin with a maximum methanol content of 5 grams per hectolitre of 100% ABV equivalent, whose flavour is introduced exclusively through the re-distillation in traditional stills of ethyl alcohol in the presence of all the natural plant materials used, the resultant distillate of which is at least 70% ABV. London gin may not contain added sweetening exceeding 0.1 gram of sugars per litre of the final product, nor colorants, nor any added ingredients other than water. The term London gin may be supplemented by the term "dry".

In the EU, the minimum bottled alcoholic strength for gin, distilled gin, and London gin is 37.5% ABV.

In the United States, gin is defined as an alcoholic beverage of no less than 40% ABV (80 proof) that possesses the characteristic flavour of juniper berries. Gin produced only through distillation or redistillation of aromatics with an alcoholic wash can be further distinguished and marketed as "distilled gin".

Some legal classifications of gin are defined only as originating from specific geographical areas without any further restrictions (e.g. Plymouth gin, Ostfriesischer Korngenever, Slovenská borovička, Kraški Brinjevec, etc.), while other common descriptors refer to classic styles that are culturally recognized, but not legally defined (e.g., sloe gin, Wacholder and Old Tom gin).

Let's get less technical now. If you'll notice, the EU distinguishes between gin and distilled gin. Both are neutral grain spirits with juniper as the dominate flavor, but one is simply macerated with juniper (i.e. simply soaking vodka with juniper and other botanicals like tea) while the other is "distilled" with the botanicals. However, this does not mean that the wheat or corn is fermented and distilled with juniper in the mash. It means that the GNS is essentially re-distilled and the vapors pass through a basket of botanicals placed in the still that add the flavor before the alcohol is condensed back into a liquid. This is how most producers I am familiar with do it (although with Faultline Batch #2 we did soak the orange peels and leaves in the liquid, giving it a slight greenish tint). They buy neutral grain spirit from the bulk market, put it into their still, and then re-distill that spirit with botanicals of their choosing. There are some producers who actually distill their own GNS, but I personally haven't found that the extra work and expense has helped to create a better gin. I know it doesn't seem very romantic or "hand-crafted" to buy bulk GNS for agricultural producers and then flavor it, but that's what gin is. Why we think it's cooler and more "authentic" than vodka is beyond me, but it sure does taste good.

While the production of gin may not thrill our geeky inhibitions, the history of gin is fascinating. Iain Gately's tome of alcohol's longstanding past, Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol, has an entire chapter on the subject. While the story of gin probably should begin in Holland, for the sake of this blog post it begins in London in the 1700s. Imagine it. A huge metropolis brimming with 600,000 people living in cramped quarters, side-by-side, the rich and poor alike. Gately writes:

The British prided themselves on their drinking. Foreigners marveled at their consumption. A Swiss traveler wrote home: "Would you believe it, though water is to be had in abundance in London, and of fairly good quality, absolutely none of it is drunk? The lower classes, even the paupers, do not know what it is to quench their thirst with water. In this country nothing but beer is drunk.

While beer was the drink of choice for London, gin would take over by the year 1720. Gin, just the English word for Dutch genever, was about to get a boost from the royal crown. Due to a huge surplus of grain in England, King William was bound to help growers and landowners maintain their wealth even with the price of the commodity dropping quickly. As Gately writes:

William had witnessed the phenomenal demand Genever could create for grain in his native Holland and hoped the same might occur in his new kingdom. An "Act for the Encouraging or the Distillation of Brandy and Spirits from Corn" was passed, which allowed anyone in England to distill alcohol using English cereals, upon ten day's notice to HM Excise and payment of a small fee. The act was a great success and stills sprang up all over the country. ("corn" being a generic term for wheat, barley, rye, and oats)

The increased production of gin lowered the price of the juniper-flavored spirit across the country, which spiked consumption. The demand helped to stabilize the price of corn, making the landowners very happy. The spirits boom mirrored many of the same trends we see today in the American craft spirits movement. People with little knowledge of distillation began jumping into the industry, hoping to find success in this budding market. They used anything from professional copper stills to converted bathtubs. Gately adds:

Among them they produced a torrent of gin, which was sold from shops, houses, the crypts of churches and inside prisons from kiosks, boats, wheelbarrows, baskets and bottles, and from stalls at public executions. Gin was cheap, and above all a quick way of getting drunk. Why work your way through porter at three pence a pot when the same money would buy a pint of gin?

This is the same logic the National Geographic special I watched last night made comparing methamphetamine to crack. Cheap white crystal on the street is angering the cartels in control of the cocaine trade. Much in the same vein, the brewers in England were not pleased. Tales of "scorch gut" from gin consumption were spread, and a link was quickly drawn between London's rising crime rate and gin usage. It wasn't until 1929, however, that Parliament acted, declaring a new gin act that restricted sales to licensed retailers, putting a high price on those licenses (much like we have in the U.S. today). The act didn't do much, however. Illicit gin distillation and sales were still a problem. The issue was revisited in 1933 with "a more liberal attitude" towards the issue. Gately states:

The '33 Act stimulated supply, and Londoners debased themselves with fresh abandon.

But we'll save all that for Part II.

-David Driscoll


Where Can I Get Barton Bourbon?

Are you wondering where to find Barton Bourbon in California? Yes, I too had read often online about how there was an incredibly tasty, value-priced brand of Bourbon out there called Very Old Barton that whiskey enthusiasts liked to site as an example of pricing stability. I read about, looked around for it, and then realized like everyone else that you can only get it in and around the state of Kentucky. Needless to say, I bought a flask of VOB 100 proof for about $8 when we visited a few weeks ago to see what the fuss was about. And I got what the fuss was about. The whiskey is mellow, round, easy to drink, and quite rich for what you're paying. You won't find a bottle of VOB in California, but you're not out of luck completely.

Very Old Barton is indeed a Sazerac brand, but it's not made at Buffalo Trace -- it's made at Barton Distillery down the road from Heaven Hill in Bardstown. Sazerac owns two different Kentucky distilleries and this is the one that often gets overlooked because there's not much Barton whiskey available out west.

You can get Barton-distilled Bourbon whiskey in California, however. It's just not called Barton, but rather 1792 Ridgemont Reserve. We've had it in stock for ages. We've done single casks before and we've got another one on the way that we found while in Kentucky. Having stowed my flask of Very Old Barton away in my suitcase, I was looking forward to comparing it against the open bottle of 1792 Ridgemont sitting on my bar at home. They're very similar. That same rounded, mild-mannered creaminess is the key characteristic, lacking the force of spicy wood tannins or big rye character. It drinks like a richer version of Four Roses Yellow much of the time -- and it's well-priced for an eight year old Bourbon of said quality.

If you've been wondering what Barton whiskey tastes like, but don't want to fly out to Kentucky to find out, you can get it here. Just under a different name.

1792 Ridgemont Reserve Kentucky Bourbon $25.99

-David Driscoll


Played Out II

That last post came at the end of a busy day last night right as we were closing the store, so there wasn't much time to expand on the idea of booze trends and how certain drinks go in and out of style. One point I did want to make that I could only allude to was how the idea of fun plays a role in what's popular and what isn't. Part of what defined the music of the 1980s was the free-spirited party-centric theme at the core of it all. Rap music was about having a house party. Rock music was about hittin' the Sunset Strip and looking for chicks. Pop music was about dancing the night away. As the 1990s approached, however, the trend swung completely the other way. Suddenly life was serious. Kids were being killed in the ghetto. The police were oppressing the African American youth. White suburban kids were using heroin to suppress the pain of their existence. Angst, suffering, and disillusion replaced the carefree attitude of the previous generation. How could you have fun when life was so depressing?

But it always comes back around. It became cool to enjoy yourself again. Fashion became more colorful, the looks more playful and edgy, and people stopped taking themselves so seriously, but that's starting to change once more. If you look at the cocktail culture of the past five years it's also centered around the conflict between fun and seriousness. The pre-Prohibition movement to get more serious about one's "craft" stood in complete contrast to the sugary shooters a la mode. Why would any one want to mask the flavors of alcohol, bartenders asked, when they could be highlighted to make a more complex drink (much like the grunge era rockers asked about the hardships of modern living)? All of sudden you had people telling you to sip rather than shoot, to take your time and enjoy the complexity within the glass. Drinking became a studious activity rather than an escape. Fun is definitely not at the root of today's booze culture as stuffy rules about appreciation become points of contention between online enthusiasts.

It will swing back the other way, however. People who take their booze too seriously will become a mockery in the eyes of the next generation that will rebel against these constraints. The war on fun will continue for now, until its time to remember to start having it again. And then we'll likely fight it once more.

-David Driscoll