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The first time I tried gin, I thought it tasted like an evil Christmas tree. That piney flavor I've since fallen in love with comes from juniper berries. Even though those little blue berries give gin its signature flavor, pretty much anything that comes from a plant can find its way into this spirit. Citrus zest, coriander seeds, cinnamon, anise, and licorice, along with various flowers are among the more common botanicals used in making gin.
At this point, if I had to do a pie chart of the spirits in all my homemade cocktails, gin would be the biggest slice of the pie. It's a cocktail chameleon, bold in one drink yet subtle in the next. Because of the respect—nay, reverence—I have for gin, it felt like sacrilege to try to make my own. But I was naughty and did it anyway. And you know what? I liked it.
What's Available to Buy
Of course, you can easily find gin in any shop that sells liquor. Some boutique brands may be harder to get a hold of, but even the sketchiest liquor store and blandest big-box outlet will have a variety of gins. I have a boatload of gin in my bar, and my favorites change from month to month. But right now I find myself going back to the same four. (Yes, choosing only four is really narrowing it down for me.)
Tru2, a citrusy and spicy organic gin, has been my go-to for martinis lately because it tastes smooth while also feeling substantial and thick on the tongue. Bluecoat is a bit in-your-face, with juniper upfront along with bold herbal and lemon flavors, so I've really been digging it in my Gin & Tonics. Nolet's is light and very floral, with fruity notes that come alive when you mix with citrus. I've been loving this one for creative cocktails made with fresh fruit or preserves. For my French 75 and other Champagne cocktails, I'm on a Hendrick's kick because of its gentle character and hint of rose petals.
When it comes down to it, gin is basically a neutral spirit flavored with juniper berries and a bunch of other stuff. In fact, while most gins undergo a second distillation, some companies do a more elaborate, commercial version of what happens in this recipe. (Technically, this recipe makes what's called compound gin. For more about how commercial gin is made, check out this week's Cocktail 101.)
While it might seem like putting a bunch of berries and herbs in vodka couldn't possibly result in a drinkable gin, you definitely can make a gin just as complex and delicious as what you'll find at the liquor store. I like to call it I Can't Believe It's Not Gin, even though that's selling it short because it does not taste like a substitute or compromise.
The best part about DIY gin is cherry-picking your favorite botanicals to make a gin with your ideal flavor profile. It's a low-effort way to geek out on something you love with ingredients you can find in any grocery store. It's easy and fun to create a variety of gins. I like floral notes like lavender and chamomile, but if you wanted to forgo those for bolder flavors like rosemary or cinnamon, go for it.
For a more intense juniper flavor, add more berries or simply let them steep longer. The gin will be a light amber color, instead of clear, because you're not running it through a still after the flavoring. But the color isn't dark enough to make mixed drinks look muddy. (Bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler runs his homemade gin through a Brita-type pitcher several times to make it clear. Since his process and recipe are different, I'm not sure how that would affect my recipe.)
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In addition to these essential gin cocktails, some other exciting ways to put your DIY gin to work are Fizzy Gin & Lillet Punch, Watermelon Crawl, and Pomelo & Basil Cocktail. Homemade gin really shines in drinks made with fresh ingredients.
About the Author: Marcia Simmons is the co-author of DIY Cocktails: A Simple Guide to Creating Your Own Signature Drinks. She also shares cocktail recipes and tips on the DIY Cocktails blog and on Twitter @DIYCocktails.