DIY Gin: Yes, You Can Make It Without a Still

Homemade gin in a gin and tonic. (Kate Williams)

Making homemade spirits sounds like an impossible task, given the equipment and jumps through regulatory hoops needed to produce a mere ounce of the stuff. And yes, DIYing your way to a fine rye whiskey without a distillery set-up at your fingertips is a fool’s errand. However, one only needs to look to the legal definition of one of summer’s best liquors — gin — to see that there is one option in reach.

Gin, by definition, is “a spirit that derives its predominant flavor from juniper berries.” (Thanks Wikipedia!) That’s it. There are some subcategories, the most common of which is “distilled gin,” which is produced by redistilling very strong alcohol in the presence of juniper berries and other, often proprietary botanicals. This is most of what you’ll find at your neighborhood liquor store. (There’s also London gin, genever and a few others.) But, technically, gin of the non-distilled sort (aka compound gin) can easily be made at home by infusing a neutral spirit with juniper and whatever else you want your gin to taste like. As long as it mainly tastes like juniper, it’s still (but not distilled) gin!

The only real catch is that infused gin will take on the color of whatever it is that you stick in there, so it will turn out looking more like a light-colored whiskey than a bottle of Bombay. But we’re not after appearances here, just delicious, delicious gin.

Here’s a good example of a decent bottle of vodka. Feel free to buy a different brand.
Here’s a good example of a decent bottle of vodka. Feel free to buy a different brand. (Kate Williams)

To start, head to your neighborhood liquor store and pick up a decent bottle of vodka. Some DIY gin recipes call for a high-proof grain alcohol because such spirits will extract flavors at a higher rate. However, you’d likely want to dilute the final product with a better-tasting, lower proof vodka afterward (high-proof alcohol simply tastes bad), which just seems like a waste of money, time and effort to me. So I like to start with something I’d drink on its own, but won’t break the bank.

Dried juniper berries.
Dried juniper berries. (Kate Williams)

Next, pick out your botanicals. Obviously, you will need juniper berries, which aren’t terribly difficult to find. Bay Area spice company Spicely carries them, and you can find Spicely products in most grocery stores these days. Or you can order them online through Spicely or companies like Mountain Rose Herbs.

Crush spices in a mortar and pestle to help release their flavors.
Crush spices in a mortar and pestle to help release their flavors. (Kate Williams)

Along with juniper, I like the build the backbone of my DIY gin with floral spices like cardamom, coriander and star anise. These I gently crush in a mortar and pestle to release their flavors.

Dried orange slices.
Dried orange slices. (Kate Williams)
Fresh lemon and grapefruit peels.
Fresh lemon and grapefruit peels. (Kate Williams)

Finally, I really like citrusy gin (it works especially well in a gin and tonic), so I add a trio of citrus peels — lemon, grapefruit, and orange. Dried orange peels are especially nice to add because they have more concentrated bitterness. You can find dried oranges at Berkeley Bowl (remove the fruity center before using them in the infusion), or you can purchase dried orange peels at an herb shop like Lhasa Karnak or online. Dried lemon and grapefruit are harder to source, so I just use a couple of strips of fresh peel.

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Feel free to play around with your own flavors. Fans of more herbaceous gins like those from St. George may want to play around with adding things like Douglas fir tips to the mix. Other common (and relatively easy-to-find) additions include licorice root, cinnamon, lime peel, saffron, grains of paradise, cassia bark and nutmeg. Whatever you choose, start small. You really don’t need a high volume of infusion ingredients to produce a well-flavored gin. You can always add more of a specific ingredient later.

Combine everything in a large glass jar and let it sit.
Combine everything in a large glass jar and let it sit. (Kate Williams)

Once you’ve gathered all of your ingredients, the (not very) hard part is over. Decant the vodka into a large glass jar and add all of your flavoring ingredients. Save the vodka bottle to use for storage later. Cover the jar with the lid and let the whole thing sit for about a week and a half. (This is actually the hardest part.)

While you’re waiting, consider making a batch of homemade tonic water to drink with your homemade gin. Actually, don’t consider it, just do it.

The fully-steeped mixture will be brown. That’s okay.
The fully-steeped mixture will be brown. That’s okay. (Kate Williams)

After about 10 to 12 days, taste your gin infusion. It should taste bright and juniper-y with a hint of citrus. Strain the mix through a cheesecloth-lined strainer set over a large bowl (preferably with a spout for easier bottling). Press on the solids to extract any extra gin goodness and then toss them out.

Your gin is finished! Transfer it back into the vodka bottle, and re-label it as gin in case you forget that you’ve magically transformed vodka into its much better tasting cousin.

Make a gin and tonic or two and sip on the porch.

Homemade gin.
Homemade gin. (Kate Williams)

Recipe: Homemade Gin

Makes 1 (750 ml) bottle

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Note: Many DIY gin recipes call for grain alcohol or cheap vodka. I prefer to use something that’s actually drinkable on its own. You’ll need to steep it longer than you would using a higher-proof spirit, but the flavor benefits are totally worth it. You can find juniper berries through Spicely, which is sold at stores like Berkeley Bowl and Whole Foods. Dried oranges are also available at Berkeley Bowl. If you can’t find them, you can substitute 2 (4-inch) orange peels.

    Ingredients:
  • 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
  • 1 cardamom pod
  • 1 star anise pod
  • 1 dried orange round
  • 1 (750 ml) bottle vodka
  • 2 (4-inch) grapefruit peels
  • 2 (3-inch) lemon peels
  • 2 tablespoons juniper berries
  1. In a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, crush the coriander seeds, cardamom, and star anise. Transfer to a large glass jar.
  2. Remove the fruity center from the dried orange round. Place the peel in the jar with the spices.
  3. Add the vodka (save the bottle), grapefruit peels, lemon peels, and juniper berries. Cover the jar with a lid and let steep until fully flavored, 10 to 12 days. The gin will be light brown. That’s perfectly okay.
  4. Line a fine-mesh strainer with cheesecloth and set over a large bowl with a spout. Strain the gin mixture through the cheesecloth, pressing on the solids to extract any extra liquid. Discard solids.
  5. Pour the strained gin back into the vodka bottle for storage.
  6. The gin is now ready to use in cocktails. I recommend a simple gin and tonic.

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