When reading through the instructions of your new Do Your Gin kit, you may notice that you are prompted to use a neutral alcohol base such as vodka to make your gin.
You may stop and wonder to yourself:
"Hold on! I am infusing vodka, but am I really making gin like I would find at the store?"
The answer to that is actually:
Gin is a spirit (meaning a distilled alcoholic drink) that derives its flavour from juniper berries (Juniperus communis). Gin is a broad "category" of spirits, where many different unique recipes can become gin.
What are spirits? What are they compared to beer and wine?
To answer this questions, we must first look at what type of alcohols exist in the marketplace, and how they are made. It can be broken down into non-spirits and spirits.
In this category we have beer and wine. These non-spirits are made through the process of fermentation. The raw materials are fermented with specific methods to produce a product which you consume directly:
Grains (barley, wheat, corn) → fermentation → Beer
Grapes (red or white) → fermentation → Wine
Spirits all involve the process of distillation. The raw input into the spirit actually always begins with a process that involves fermentation. This means that to have a finished product that is a spirit, somewhere along the way the drink would have resembled a product that we know as beer or wine!
Before we examine all of the differente spirits, let's look at how vodka is made:
Grains or Potatoes → fermentation → distillation → Vodka
Vodka is pretty much distilled beer! Wow. This was really groundbreaking news for me when I first learned it, so do not be surprised if this seems like shocking news. If you went to a vodka factory and you stopped the production between the fermentation and distillation stage, you would actually have a product that resembles beer! Yes, seriously!
Let's look at some more recipes:
Grains → fermentation → distillation → aging → Whiskey
Sugarcane/Molassess → fermentation → distillation → aging → Rum
Fruit (plum, peach, grapes, cherry, grapes, etc.) → fermentation → distillation → Brandy
Agave → fermentation → distillation → aging → Tequila
You can see here now that the various spirits you drink such as whiskey, rum, brandy and tequila all follow very similar processes, but what is different about them is the raw materials which make up the recipe and the aging process. During the aging process, different flavours are infused.
When we look at the whiskey example, you will notice that before the aging process you have a drink that is virtually indistinguishable from vodka. You can take a trip to a distillery and see for yourself! Whiskey is essentially vodka that has been aged in oak wood barrels to give it a distinct flavour and colour.
Aging also refers to a process of infusion here. When whiskey is aged in barrels, the oak of the barrels is being infused into the flavour of the raw alcohol, leaving you in the end with a nice coloured whiskey.
Amazing, so what about gin?
Gin is not made just one way, "gin" is more about the juniper berry infusion than a specific recipe. The three main methods are:
1. London Dry Gin (Column distilled gin)
This gin begins as a neutral distilled spirit that is made from grain, potatoes, sugarcane, grapes, or really any other agricultural material. So if you read up to the previous section... you are really starting with a vodka base, or the first stage of whiskey/rum/brandy etc. production! Then, this vodka base gets redistilled while botanicals sit in a "gin basket" that is sitting in the still infusing as the distillation process runs for a second round!
The final product will have the infused flavours of the juniper berries and other botanicals inside, while still keeping a clear colour that makes it look indistinguishable from vodka.
2. Compound gin
In this method of making gin, you begin with a neutral distilled spirit (like vodka, or anything having undergone the fermentation and distillation process without additional aging or infusion) and then infuse it with juniper berries and botanicals.
This method resembles the process you are doing with your Do Your Gin kit.
According to a UK report in 2018, over 50% of growth in store-bought gin was with gin produced with this method. Gin produced this way can leave you with a finished product that is coloured - not clear like London Dry Gin. This method often produces gin that tastes the least like strong liquor, and the most flavourful and resembling the botanicals inside. As its simplicity implies, it is likely the original ginmaking method from which all other gin production methods arrived.
3. Pot distilled gin
This method involves a neutral distilled spirit (derived from grains like barley - indistinguishable from vodka) and then redistilling that mix in a pot still while it infuses with botanicals. The gin is then aged in wooden casks and has a heavier flavour that resembles whiskey. Korenwijn (grain wine) and the oude (old) style of Geneva gin or Holland gin represent the most prominent gins of this class.
In conclusion - yes you're really making gin
With the Do Your Gin kit you are producing the most flavourful and drinkable version of gin, and doing so legally! Alcohol production at home (in America) becomes illegal when you start distilling your own beverages - which never comes up in the compound gin process.