Sarah Lohman is a historic gastronomist. She recreates historic recipes as a way to make a personal connection with the past, as well as to inspire her contemporary cooking. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Four Pounds Flour.
Good news for lovers of refreshing summer drinks — gin is making a comeback. And we’ve got the rise of the craft distillery movement to thank for that: Within the last decade, more than 600 small distilleries have opened nationwide, and many of them got their feet wet with gin. Since gin doesn’t require aging like whiskey and rum, it can be released to the market quickly — an appealing quality for a spirits startup. Now you’ll find local craft gins with complex, well-balanced botanicals on more and more liquor store shelves, as well as in the fanciest cocktails in the most expensive bars — a substantial image upgrade from its downright sordid roots.
Gin originated in Holland in the early 1600s, and was then known as genever. Original gins used juniper berries, which give gin its familiar pine notes; later the English began adding spices like coriander and sugar. In 1720, 2.5 million gallons of gin were produced in London, allowing a per capita consumption of three gallons per person (!). Gin became a drink of the common people: cheap, readily available, and considered ruinous to domestic life. It was believed that the sweet, flavorful drink appealed not only to men, but to women and children, earning it the nickname “mother’s folly.”
Throughout the 19th century, gin remained popular as an ingredient in alcoholic punches, and later, American cocktails. But gin’s most famous role came in the early 20th century, when Prohibition prevented the sale of alcohol. It was particularly easy to produce “bathtub gin” in those trying, dry times. Gin is commercially made by distillation — steaming the alcohol through a basket of spices — but it can be made by infusion. Any plain spirit, like industrial-grade alcohol, could be transformed into “gin” by infusing it with strongly-scented spices, which would hide any bad flavors from the sub-par spirits. Calling the homemade hooch delicious would likely have been a stretch.
Today, it’s just as easy to make gin at home — but with far tastier results — using a kit from Bootleg Botanicals. The Las Vegas-based outfit offers two botanical blends with different flavor profiles: the No. 6 uses juniper berries, orange peel, licorice root, coriander, cardamom and cinnamon, while kit No. 9 is a simpler blend of juniper berries, lime peel, coriander and fennel seed. Each kit comes with the spice mix, an airtight bottle, and a metal funnel, which you can reuse to experiment with your own gin flavors later on — perhaps something more citrusy, or an herby concoction with plants from your garden.
To make the gin, you’re going to need a high-proof vodka: 151 proof, which is 75% alcohol by volume. You’ll infuse it at full strength in a glass mason jar to quickly leach out the flavors of the spices, then filter out the spices and cut the liquid with an equal amount of water to create a 75-proof gin.
When I poured the spices from the No. 6 kit into the vodka, it looked like a witch’s brew and had the color of swamp water. But it smelled like Christmas — not just the tree, but a profusion of comforting holiday scents. The finely ground spices in Bootleg Botanical’s kit infuse quickly: In less than 10 hours you’ll have gin, and you can taste it as you go to test the intensity of the flavor. You can also use whole spices, which take a little longer to infuse but are easier to filter out and leave the gin clear. I let mine sit for five hours before straining the liquid (using the funnel and coffee filter provided with the kit) into a fancy bottle and adding the water.
Playing off the gin’s special golden color, I wanted to make a cocktail using one of my favorite historical ingredients, green tea. A common component of 19th-century punches, it adds a vegetal depth of flavor. Paired with lemon juice and topped with seltzer, it’s a fresh and complex cooler for summer.
Gin Fizz Punch
(Inspired by “Sloe Gin Fizz” from Sloppy Joe’s Bar, 1932)
- 1 ounce gin
- Candied lemon peel
- Juice of 1 lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
- 1 teaspoon sugar (or 2 teaspoons simple syrup)
- Strong green tea
In a mug, brew one cup of green tea. While the water is hot, add three pieces of candied lemon peel and sugar. Allow to cool to room temperature.
In a glass with ice, add gin, 1 ounce of tea, lemon juice and sugar. Top with seltzer, stir, and enjoy.
Much of the research for this post came from Alcohol: A History by Rod Phillips.