Photo by Tory McTernan
Over the years, I’ve made my fair share of sloe gin and damson vodka. I love the process: picking the fruits at the end of summer, returning to the kitchen to wash them and then steeping them in alcohol, religiously turning the bottles throughout the autumn, and looking forward to the festive parties when the bottles will be opened and enjoyed with friends.
While these familiar wintry tipples are delicious, I wanted to expand my booze repertoire for this book. This turned out to be an easy task, thanks to a cool independent microdistillery that’s just a 15-minute walk from my house. Danny Walker, co-owner of Psychopomp Microdistillery, is something of a spirit evangelist. While he and his team make a pretty fantastic craft gin, Danny is totally brilliant at spreading the word about making and flavouring it. A few minutes after meeting him, two things become evidently clear: first, he truly LOVES what he does (then again, who wouldn’t?), and secondly, there isn’t much he doesn’t know about Mother’s Ruin or, it turns out, a whole range of other spirits.
The good news, for those of us who grow botanicals but might not have a copper still tucked away on a kitchen shelf, is that it’s possible to produce very drinkable liqueurs using very simple methods – essentially, flavouring the spirit with botanicals or creating tinctures (macerating an individual botanical in a high-alcohol spirit – vodka, to you and me) and combining these in your chosen spirit.
Danny was keen to get across that there really aren’t any rules when it comes to crafting your own booze. Sure, gin, for example, has to be flavoured with juniper – its name is derived from jeneverbes, the Dutch word for “juniper berry”, but that’s about it. For purists, perfectionists and traditionalists (depending on how you look at it), there are three other base flavours that comprise the classic gin recipe: coriander seeds, to provide citrus notes; angelica root, to add a woody, earthy layer; and liquorice root, as a natural sweetener. (These are the “Fab Four” ingredients in Gordon’s and Tanqueray gin). However, after that it’s about having fun and working out what you do and don’t like. It’s about experimenting and – wait for it – tasting as you go along. So grab yourself a bottle of vodka, a handful of your favourite botanicals and see how it goes.
A good tip is to start by experimenting with small amounts of gin and keeping a note of the ratio of botanicals to the spirit, so you can scale-up production once you hit on a great recipe. The longer you leave the botanicals to steep, the stronger they will taste. As a rule of thumb, potent flavourings might only need a few days, whereas mild or subtle herbs might benefit from a few weeks – remember, taste and test the flavours as you go. Once your flavoured gin is ready, strain the liquid and then pass it through a muslin cloth and transfer to sterilized bottles.