Juniper hates to be picked. The dusky blue berries nestle amongst a snarl of malevolent green spikes that make the berries inaccessible to all but goats. Hot, sweaty and in dire need of a bière pression at a bar in the village, we assess the mean looking bush in front of us.
I say decisively and pull out a plastic bag.
I’m going in. Ow! Shit!
I withdraw quickly, pincering a single berry between my thumb and forefinger and staring accusingly at the bush. Like I said, juniper hates to be picked.
Jamie solves the problem after several unsuccessful and painful attempts at probing the bush by snapping off a great bushel of berries and needles and shoving them in the bag. He repeats until we have a full bag of tears and anguish. The evil little spines pierce the plastic as if trying to escape and I hold the bag gingerly as we walk towards Moustiers Sainte-Marie in search of that beer.
The beer is cold and most splendid indeed but we have a project in mind so we slurp up and head back to the cheerful little town we are staying in and begin our research. We are going to need cardamom.
Dunno what that is.*
Haven’t got that.
Rose buds, cassia bark, coriander seeds and cucumber skin.
Got, got , got and will get.
The rest of the holiday passes in a lustrous blur of buttered pastries and chilly pressions, occasionally bolstered with salted caramel icecream and before we know it we are several pounds heavier and, alas, back on British soil. Unpacking is a ridiculous affair of unbelievable quantities of cheap wine, several terrified French spiders crying ‘Zut alors!’ when they realise where they are, an art deco pram (don’t ask), a woodburning stove (I said don’t) and an awful lot of cut price vodka. The bag of juniper berries emerges unscathed from it’s prickly hiding place in the boot of the car and is deposited inside the house with our mountainous haul.
But woe, the needles get everywhere. EVERYWHERE. In Jamie’s socks, in the carpet, in my underwear but The Guardian told us to do this so we have no choice but to bear the aromatic little splinters needling in our knickers. According to the middle class lifestyle bible that is Guardian Weekend, you can flavour cheap gin or vodka with your own botanicals in order to produce ‘compound gin’ which can taste like expensive gin if you balance it right. Sipsmith, eat yer heart out.
Gin is very fashionable right now which is why it has wormed its ruinous way in to The Guardian. There are a variety of reasons for this but in my opinion it’s because it’s easy and cheap to make and in a rather dismal time for employment, people have turned to self employment as a means to bring in an income. Multiply small, independent business with an easy product to produce and divide it by a tsunami of hipsters with a penchant for nice branding and you have new wave gin and big profits.
It hasn’t always been this way though. Gin was a bit of a joke for a long time, not unlike cider. Remember what people used to say if you ordered a pint of cider in the pub fifteen years ago?
Cider? <splutter> What are you, an alcoholic?!
Well gin provoked similar piss-taking only more elderly lady/ combustible Queen Mother based. No doubt if you brought gin to a party once or twice in the past, the phrases ‘gin-soaked and ‘mother’s ruin’ will have been bandied about and your alcoholic proferring was only redeemed by it’s classier colonial connotations and if anyone had bothered to bring tonic. This is nothing new though, gin’s poor reputation pre-hipster revival is a long and muddy one and the story begins in sixteenth century Holland.
Juniper berries in the low countries were once used to flavour an otherwise unpalatable distillation of malt wine which was made using an unrefined distilling technique known as pot stilling. The drink, called Jenever after the berries that flavoured it, was originally designed to be used medicinally to ‘defend the body from corruption’ but with it being 50% ABV and not completely revolting, it rather caught on and was consequently adopted by the British, a skill at which we rather excel.
Well the gin must have gone straight to our heads because the Government decided to allow completely unlicensed gin production across the UK and popped heavy duties on imported spirits. It must have seemed as though all our Christmases came at once and the British public duly sprang in to merry action. We made gin and we made a lot of it. The country was awash with it. It was cheap to make, easily saleable and created a market for the poor quality grain which couldn’t be used for beer. So if we had a good harvest, lots of beer! If we had a bad harvest, LOTS of gin. Win win right? Well, sort of.
Gin, so cheap and easy to produce, became the drink of the poor and drink it they did. By the 1700’s London contained over 7000 gin shops and thus began the ‘Gin Craze’, a period of extreme drunkenness the likes of which has not been since again except in Newcastle and York of a Friday evening. The juniper-crazed population drunk their way in to theft, violence, wrack, ruin and into William Hogarth’s paintings. The working classes were a mess and gin’s reputation as a misery and madness causing crime catalyst was cemented for centuries to come.
The sloppy smashed residents of our nation’s great capital didn’t please the Government, whose fault this was in the first place, one bit. They began clamping down on the production and consumption of gin in 1729 though rather unsuccessfully and the consumption of gin per head in the UK in 1743 was still an astounding ten litres a year. So then they got really tough and through a combination of rising grain prices and expensive gin licenses, the 1751 Gin Act had the rowdy nation at least partially under control.
By 1831, some bright spark had invented the ‘column still’ which replaced the pot still as a means of producing spirits. The column still creates a lighter tasting spirit and thus, gin took off again. During the 1800’s, the renewed enthusiasm for this cleaner tasting booze saw the opening of hundreds of ‘gin palaces’ across London. Popular they were, salubrious they were not, inciting the Temperance movement to much indignant frothing and the further staining of gin’s already tarnished reputation.
Gin, it seemed, was doomed to remain the drink of excess, corrupting the poor and filling the streets with gin drunk poverty and no matter if this remained true in the following decades, its reputation as a misery-making, hang over inducer was never far behind. 1950’s ad-men still saw fit to capitalise on this when ushering Vodka in to the UK from the United States where it was enormously popular. Shelves of gin were cleared away to make room for a new drink, one that didn’t make you weepy, one that didn’t give you a hang-over or ruin your mum. Vodka left you ’breathless’ claimed the 1953 Smirnoff advert which sought to disseminate the health giving, hang-over free benefits of vodka and sweep the filthy, grumpy gin under the carpet. And apart from it’s only reprieve as the good bit of the gin and tonic, gin stayed there babbling away under the rug waiting for trendy beards and top-knots to find it and give it the renaissance it deserves.
Says Jamie dubiously eyeing his glass. It seems we haven’t got the balance right just yet. The jars are filled with a deep, caramel coloured liquid which is a far remove from the crystalline clarity of ordinary gin. The colour has leached from the cinnamon bark, the allspice berries and floating mat of juniper berries that sits at the top of each. This particular sample is way too heavy on the cinnamon and leaps out to decorate your olfactory senses with tinsel and little drummer boys.
I say when I taste it and Jamie runs the mixture through the Brita filter he has bought expressly for this purpose. The flavour does improve somewhat but our over zealous application of cassia remains a clear stumbling block in that particular batch.
We pour out some samples from the other bottles and taste them cautiously.
Jamie frowns, scrunching up his face and looking in to his glass. It’s cardamom, way too much of it. The flavour is astringent and over powering, knocking out all the woody juniper and clouding the gin. It looks, when mixed with tonic, distinctly like a urine sample and we conclude rather quickly that it’s us, not Sipsmith who can eat our hearts out. It seems as though there is nothing to be done but plod to the shops to buy more vodka and try again and again and again until we have something palatable. Or failing that, until we can’t stand up.
Cheap vodka or gin- the cheapest you can get for it really doesn’t matter a jot if it tastes rubbish at the beginning.
Botanicals you can try-
Juniper berries- the only botanical that is legally required in order to make an otherwise tasteless spirit become gin.
Rose buds/ petals/ oil
Cassia (cinnamon bark)
Grains of paradise (a type of peppercorn)
Liquorice root- dried
Angelica root- dried
Cubeb berries (another type of peppercorn similar to black peppercorns so you could swap them out, perhaps adding less black pepper)
You can get all of these very easily on Ebay! Yahoo!
One recipe I have found calls for the following percentages:
1 litre spirit with X being 20g
X- juniper (that’s 20g)
X/2 Coriander (10g)
X/10 Weak Botanicals (2g each)
X/100 Strong botanicals (0.2g each)- these appearing to be the citrus peel though I’d add cinnamon bark to this list too.
Grind up the juniper in a pestle and mortar and put in a mesh bag, old (clean) pair of tights and hang in to the gin. Seal and allow to steep for 24-48 hours then remove the juniper bag and empty in to the bin. Refill the bag/sock/mesh with the rest of your botanicals and allow to steep for a further 24 hours. It will be a brown or yellow colour depending on what you have used.
Strain the gin through a coffee strainer to remove any bits and, for a much smoother finish, run your gin through a Brita filter (which can also be picked up cheap on Ebay! Yahooooo!) Then serve as normal.
You can adjust your flavours as you like with each new bottle
*Orris root, so it turns out, is iris which is not only a beautiful flower but also a rhizome like ginger.