With the right combinations of herbs, spices and alcohol, it’s possible to make a passable gin and tonic
We all have a creative instinct and mine tends towards things that I can place in my mouth. Over the years, I have tried my hand at various cheeses, yoghurts, kefirs, sausages, hams, kimchis, preserved lemons, chutneys, marmalade, salt-pickled cucumbers, cabbage, radishes and various other edibles.
More recently, I have turned to drink. While researching Irish gin, I came across a blog in the Guardian by writer and forager Andy Hamilton that included recipes for gin and for tonic water. Hamilton began foraging at the age of eight, inspired by the Australian television series Bush Tucker Man, making chickweed salad, and then nettle soup for his parents. He started making alcoholic drinks as a student. “I made a load of elderflower champagne, 180 litres. It lasted a year and half and I ended up hating it. But it set me on the road to making my own booze.” Author of Booze for Free, and Brewing Britain, Hamilton is now experimenting with cocktails made from foraged herbs, flowers and weeds which will feature in his forthcoming book Wild Booze and Hedgerow Cocktails – you can help fund this through his fascinating blog, theotherandyhamilton.com.
Hamilton says that making your own booze is easy and great fun. “I start out with existing cocktails and ingredients and try to make my own versions, substituting with foraged stuff where possible. I wanted to make my own Campari, but there is one ingredient only grown in the Caribbean; I am currently looking for an alternative. I have been making my own vermouth for a while. It seems complicated, as you have to infuse about 10 different things, but actually it’s really easy. I’ll make it up by grabbing a bottle of wine and add a few infused spirits – I have at least 10 on the go at any time. It sounds pretentious, but it is my flavour library.”
His favourite drink at the moment is gin flavoured with foraged Alexanders, although he is also adding sage to a few things at the moment – “just put it in vodka for a real toffee flavour”, he suggests. He even made his own Buckfast recently, adding that it tasted just as bad as the genuine article.
I tried my hand at the two recipes on these pages. My own gin was easier and more successful than my tonic water. Both were a strange pale brown/yellow colour, as they had not been filtered the way commercial products are. The gin was very good, full of juniper, citrus, with a light herbal note, probably from the lavender and rosemary.
The tonic on the other hand was far too sweet for my taste. I crushed some of the allspice berries before adding them, making it too earthy and spicy. The next time I make it, I will cut down on the sugar and add less allspice.
I did, however, manage to find a very good homemade tonic. I came across Claire Davey of the America Village Apothecary (americanvillage.com) in Galway through an article by John McKenna in the health section of this paper.
Not only did Claire kindly supply me with a bottle of her tonic syrup, she also sent samples of her other syrups, bitters and cocktail mixes. These are foraged where possible and sometimes seasonal too, using herbs, flowers and vegetation. Her tonic and my gin made an excellent combination, full of lively, zesty citrus underpinned by complex notes of herbs.
I also recently came across Irish forager, chef and nature guide Mary Bulfin from Co Offaly. Otherwise known as Wild Food Mary (see wildfoodmary.com), she is responsible for the delicious wild beech leaf liqueur that three of Ireland’s Michelin star restaurants now serve or use in their desserts. I enjoyed it lightly chilled as a digestif.
Caught up with the spirit of the thing, I used my second bottle of vodka to create three of my own flavoured spirits. My lemon vodka is very good, and will make an interesting addition to cocktails. The cucumber and dill has very intense, heavy cucumber flavours, and could make an interesting ingredient in gravadlax. Strangely, the dill was less obvious – I was hoping for a Danish aquavit.
These two were simple to make. Simply add the desired ingredients to the vodka in a clean Kilner jar and leave for a week or two, tasting every now and again.
Chocolate vodka has quite an online following. There are plenty of recipes that include chocolate bars, Mars being the most popular. Some suggested dishwasher vodka, made by placing a sealed bottle with chocolate or boiled sweets in the dishwasher and running a full cycle. Apparently, the heat dissolves the chocolate or sweets into the vodka.
I melted my chocolate in a bain marie, gradually adding the vodka. As I am not a fan of sweet things, I used a dark chocolate with 72 per cent cocoa solids. It tasted a bit too bitter, so I added a few teaspoonfuls of Claire Davey’s Pine Syrup No. 1, which worked very well. The result was not unlike a boozed-up chocolate sauce. I suspect it would work very well with whiskey, as proven by Baileys and various other cream liqueurs. However, I am reluctant to waste a good bottle of whiskey on the experiment.
One website suggested that I freeze the vodka. It turned solid, and on defrosting, remained a gel-like substance, not unlike a very pumped-up chocolate mousse.
Most wine people look on homemade wine with a certain distain, usually with good reason. I strongly suspect distillers will frown on my efforts in a similar way. My gin was certainly not as complex or refined as the Irish gins I featured here a few weeks ago. However, it is a delicious drink and I find it more interesting than some of the cheaper gins on the market.
750ml vodka (preferably 50% ABV)
2 tablespoons juniper berries (or more if you like lots of juniper flavour in your gin)
1/4 tsp fennel seeds
1/4 tsp whole allspice
1/4 tsp coriander seeds
4 cardamom pods
1 torn bay leaf
A small sprig of lavender
A larger sprig of rosemary
Small piece of dried grapefruit peel (no pith)
Small piece of dried lemon peel (no pith)
A Mason/Kilner jar
Muslin or cheesecloth
Whipping up a batch of tonic water is fairly easy. The hardest part is finding all the ingredients, but a trip to a herbalist or a quick online search should furnish you with all you need.
Zest and juice of 2 limes
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
Zest and juice of 1 orange
28g cinchoa bark
28g citric acid
1-4 sticks of lemongrass
2-4 cardamom pods
10 allspice berries
You will need
An accurate small scales
A large saucepan
A wooden spoon
A bottle or two