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Compound Gin

The "Unspoken" Gin

For the consumer Compound Gin is not a term frequently encountered and it is rarely displayed on Gin bottle labels. This is because there is a stigma attached to the category by people who “know” the term, with the assumption it is an inferior type of Gin. Now this is not a totally unfounded assumption, given the history of this category but today this preconceived notion does not always hold true. So, what is a compound Gin and what is the connotation with this category?

What is a Compound Gin?

Gins are produced from a neutral spirit base previously made from fermented carbohydrates (usually grains like wheat, barley, rye, maize etc.) that has already been distilled. Normally the next step in the process consists of the botanicals being added to the base spirit (either put directly into the still or suspended above the spirit in a basket) before being redistilled. Compound Gins omit this 2nd stage of redistillation with the botanicals (or botanical flavorings) simply added to the high proof base spirit and left to infuse at ambient room temperature – hence the sometimes used full name of “Cold Compounding.” The resultant spirit is then filtered and diluted with water to bring it down to bottling strength. Thinking of Compound Gin as a type of flavored Vodka would not be too much of an egregious crime!

The "Bad Boy" of Gin

Up until 1830, when the coffey column still was patented and paved the way for more refined and purer spirit production, Gin was a rough & ready drink with cold compounding a popular method for adding flavor. The subsequent rise in better quality spirit production promulgated the birth of the London Dry Gin style and cold compounding fell out of favor, with Gin moving from being a drink of the working classes to finding itself at home in the drawing rooms of the middle classes.

This might have dealt a death blow for Compound Gins except it was cheaper to produce and so some Gin makers found a niche in providing inexpensive “bottom shelf” or value brands to less discerning consumers. This practice has continued into modern times, including the development of oil extractions, essences and artificial flavorings used with the base spirit, to provide a quick and convenient approach rather than using “messy” botanicals in their natural state.

A relatively brief boom in Compound Gin was experienced in the USA during the Prohibition era of the 1920’s and early 30’s. Illicit production methods, locations and storage of spirits had to be conducted quickly and secretly. Although the exact origin of the term is unknown it was during this time the phrase “Bathtub Gin” came into use. Bootleggers would use a private residence to produce their Gin and a bathtub could provide a useful makeshift “tank” for infusing a base spirit with botanicals; or alternatively it could be the bathtub provided an easier access to water (as opposed to a sink or basin) to dilute the spirit down to bottling strength.

Whatever the etymology, just like during the Gin Craze of the 1700’s, the Compound “Bathtub” Gin produced during Prohibition was of poor quality. Especially as people took to adding many things to improve the taste of this rough Gin: turpentine (providing woody resin notes almost like juniper), glycerin (giving the spirit “legs” and a fuller mouth feel), sugar (to sweeten and mask unpleasant flavors) etc. Fortunately today when making a Compound Gin, additions must be in accordance with legal regulations and approved by the representative governing body.

Unsurprisingly, this history has led to Compound Gin being viewed as inferior to redistilled Gin – perhaps similar to how a Single Malt Whisky is regarded more highly than a Blended Whisky. Paradoxically Gin makers using this methodology, in their choice to use a cheaply made base spirit and inexpensive ingredients (to maximize profits) have enshrined this inferior view themselves. This is where the story should end except some recent mavericks started to ask “what if…?”

Hiding in Plain Sight?

For nearly 100-years the London Dry style has been considered as the benchmark for the highest quality made Gin, and today is protected by a rigorous set of rules within the European Union. From a marketing perspective many brands have sought to maximize this view with consumers by clearly stating it is a London Dry Gin on the label and may even be supplemented by using iconic names and images relating to London. If a Gin wasn’t a London Dry Gin, prior to the turn of the Millennium, it would have been conspicuous in its labeling omissions and consumers might readily assume it was not a high quality Gin. Someone, at some point, would have to take a risk to change this…

The rules of what a distiller may or may not put on a bottle changes not just across time but also across jurisdictions (i.e. continent to continent, country to country, state to state etc.). In general terms, besides London Dry Gin appearing on labels, the only other choice to put on a label are either “Distilled” (or “Distilled Dry”) or “Compound” Gin. However, some distillers may not be obliged to even put this on their labels and can simply use the term “Gin” instead. In such circumstances a consumer may have unknowingly drunk a Compound Gin hiding in plain sight!

A Most Unusual Gin

In 1999 London Dry Gin was given a slap in the face by William Grant & Sons from Scotland, UK. They launched a Distilled Gin using essence of Cucumber and Rose added post distillation, a most unusual and risky choice at the time. While not the first to produce a Distilled Gin, as a large and reputable distiller of note, they gave the stamp of approval for others to look outside of the traditional London Dry standard. Now approaching nearly two decades of life, Hendrick’s Gin has become known throughout the world, more than proving it’s value. Although not a Compound Gin it is a reasonable assumption to believe this Gin brand has engendered greater momentum for distillers to stop, think, experiment and then dare.

Quality Shines Through

For as long as quality Gin has been available, it is fair to say a quality Compound Gin could have been made also. Overcoming the stigma of this type of Gin is a tough nut to crack and it has been left to hide in the cover of darkness…until fairly recently. While the taboo of overtly putting “Compound Gin” on the labels of quality Gin has yet to be broken, there are several bold distillers who have openly launched Compound Gins onto the market.

As early as 1996, during the infancy of craft distilling in the USA, Bend Distillery in Oregon launched their Cascade Mountain Gin. This single botanical Gin infuses juniper berries post distillation, using the cold compounding method of production. Now renamed Crater Lake Gin, it has a juniper forward nature – more so than a New Western Gin but less so than a London Dry – and most striking is the citrus, spice and herbal notes, creating a feeling it has more than just one botanical. Some critics find this Gin a bit rough around the edges with a little alcohol burn (it’s 95 proof) but I think the overall quality shines through.

Hayman Distillers in the UK produced Bafferts Gin in 2000. This is  a lightly flavored Gin, comparable with a New Western Dry or Contemporary style where the juniper is much reduced, and considered a crossover for Vodka drinkers.

The Modern Spirits Group from California, USA launched their TRU 2 Organic Gin in 2008. Besides being one of the earliest organic Gins to be produced it also openly promotes itself as a Compound Gin with the 14 botanicals steeped post distillation (i.e. with no further redistillation), creating a complex herbal Gin. This is also a very “Green” product with the packaging 100% recyclable or biodegradable and a tree is planted for every bottle sold.

In 2011 Master of Malt in the UK released their Professor Cornelius Ampleforth Bathtub Gin, another quality Compound Gin. Since this time the Professor Cornelius Ampleforth range has expanded, using the Bathtub Gin as a base, to include: Navy Strength, Cask Aged, Cask Aged Navy Strength, Old Tom and Sloe. Winning a gold medal at the Gin Masters in 2014 this Bathtub Gin has gone on to be the basis of the Batshit Mental Ideas range of spirits, called Darkness Aged Bathtub Gin. Here the Bathtub Gin has been rested in barrels previously used to age Single Malt’s, the four different offerings coming from: Abelour, Ardbeg, Clynelish and Macallan Whisky’s. The possibilities seem endless and Master of Malt's list of things to do with their Bathtub Gin continues to grow.

Butler’s in the UK launched their Lemongrass & Cardamom Gin in 2013. This one-man operation by Ross Butler has managed to show the world how even when armed with a small amount of resources a perfectly good Compound Gin can be produced. Perhaps it is time to agree Compound Gin can actually be of good quality after all.

A Compound Future

The hitherto “Bad Boy” of Gin has started to gain a clean image with some good quality Compound Gins not only beginning to appear but making themselves known. This could be the springboard for a new journey and there are plenty of miles stones ahead before this category could be deemed as having it’s own renaissance, like Barrel Aged Gin is enjoying at this time. Talking of which…the Compound Gins mentioned above gain coloring from the infused botanicals (Crater Lake is light yellow, Bathtub has a slightly deeper straw color and Butler’s is yellowy/green in hue) and they could on first glance be easily confused with Yellow or Barrel Aged Gins.

Start Playing With Your Gin

As a child you might have been told (even numerous times): “Don’t do that!” or “Stop playing with that!” or similar such phrases. Even if you weren’t we can sometimes grow up conditioned or disinclined to “tinker” with things that are considered complete or finished. Certainly this is a not always the case, and thankfully many famous scientists, inventors, engineers etc. have managed not to be become so conditioned; however, there is still a propensity not to “mess” with alcoholic drinks. Well let us encourage you (even grant you permission, not that you need it) to start “playing around” with your Gin.

Take an already made (preferably high proof e.g. Navy Strength) Gin and start adding your own botanicals. Use ingredients from your pantry or buy them from a grocery store and starting infusing – examples include juniper berries, lemon/lime/orange zest, cardamom pods, star anise etc. You could simply add these additional ingredients directly to the bottle, storing the bottle and then sampling it each day. However, once you have gained the flavor profile you require, the contents need to be removed from the bottle.

Perhaps a better methodology is to decant the original Gin into suitable glass containers with lids (e.g. mason jars) and experiment with different “botanicals” in their own container. When ready, filter through muslin or other suitable material and return to the original bottle. This allows you to get the right level for each ingredient separately and can be especially important, as many require different amounts of time to infuse. It also means small amounts of the Gin can be used to experiment with and “scaled up” accordingly. This is a particularly fun activity to “improve” Gins you have bought but have not enjoyed and to really find out how different botanicals can impact upon the flavor profile of the Gin. You can also experiment in diluting the Gin with spring water if the resultant Gin is too strong!

Make Your Own Compound Gin

One step further is to use a good quality, low flavor, high proof Vodka as your “base spirit” and make you own flavored, compound Gin from scratch. There are even “Home Gin Making Kits” available to purchase with the botanical ingredients and muslin provided, you just add the Vodka. Why not try one of the kits and maybe later step out on your own without a kit.

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