Gin schools and ‘make your own gin’ experiences are becoming increasingly popular in the UK, as distillers look for more ways to connect with fans of their gins, and to share knowledge about the category with enthusiasts. To find out more about these experiences, our editor Bethany Whymark took part in her first gin school session in her home city of Norwich, UK.
It’s a balmy Thursday evening when I rock up to the Gyre & Gimble Gin Academy for our gin-making lesson. The Gyre & Gimble distillery was launched in 2019 by friends Rory Smith and Craig Allison, formerly of Norwich distiller Bullards. Alongside launching their gin range, the duo also opened a ‘gin academy’ and cocktail bar in Norwich. The academy has recently moved to a new home in the Victorian-era Royal Arcade in Norwich, where it shares space with a bottle shop stocking a range of drinks including gin, vodka, world whiskies, Tequila and mezcal.
Upon arrival, we’re greeted with a gin and tonic made with Gyre & Gimble’s London Dry Gin (currently called ‘Nohow’, but soon to be rebranded). On our individual stations, we have all the necessary accoutrements for a small-batch distillation: a 2.5-litre alembic copper pot still and condenser; a bottle containing 350ml of 96% ABV neutral grain spirit; a beaker with an equal amount of water; a set of digital scales; a small pestle and mortar; a glass jar for storing weighed botanicals; a long-handled spoon for measuring and stirring; and three jars containing juniper berries, coriander seeds, and dried angelica root, the three foundational botanicals in our gin. There is also a notepad in which to detail the names and quantities of the botanicals we choose, and a guide to the botanicals on offer – grouped into categories such as citrus, herbal, spice, experimental, and sweet – with suggested weights for each.
While we sip our drinks, Craig – who heads up operations at Gyre & Gimble – talks us through the gin-making process we’re about to embark on: we’ll choose and weigh our botanicals, add them to our little stills with water and spirit, then heat the liquid in the stills to the boiling point of ethanol (around 78ºC). Ethanol vapours, now infused with botanical essences, will rise to the top of the still and be channelled down a pipe known as the swan neck, then funnelled down a tube through a condenser (a small copper pot filled with cold water) to condense the vapours back into a liquid. This liquid will come out of the tube at the bottom of the condenser and be collected in a beaker. And voila: we have a gin.
Now it’s time to get to work on the recipe. A shelf runs around the wall at head-height over the workbenches, holding glass jars containing a cornucopia of ingredients: whole spices, powders, dried citrus peels, and even some fruit teas. Craig circulates among us, advising on balance of flavours and quantities where necessary – more angelica here to fix all those robust spices, more citrus there to add freshness. I’ve punted for a slightly contemporary recipe – liquorice, cubeb, grapefruit, cardamom and cassia – while others are experimenting with coffee beans, blood orange tea, and medleys of sweet spices. Someone has even brought in their own Earl Grey tea bags.
It’s time for another drink: this time, Gyre & Gimble Calooh Callay, a coastal-style gin made with locally foraged samphire and diluted with water that is salted to roughly the same level of salinity as sea water. Craig encourages us to try the gin neat before we add tonic water (a good suggestion, as it’s delicious).
Next, we weigh out our juniper, coriander and angelica as per the suggested weights in our botanicals guide, then get to work measuring and, where necessary, crushing our other botanicals. All the botanicals then go into the still along with our neutral spirit (Craig instructs us to get every last drop out of the bottle) and water. Then it’s time to stir – Craig explains that botanicals are often macerated with neutral spirit and water in a still for several hours before distillation, but a good stir will help us to kickstart some of the flavour infusion which happens during maceration.
We each place our pot still onto a small hot plate and attach the swan neck to the condenser. We switch on the hot plates, position beakers under the spouts protruding from the condensers, and wait. Within minutes, our stills reach the desired temperature; inside them, flavour compounds are starting to volatise (evaporate). It’s only another minute or so before the first spirit comes out of the pipes into our beakers. At first, the beaker gives off lighter scents of citrus and florals (the most volatile flavour compounds, and therefore the first to evaporate). Craig says it’s time to taste our spirit; we hold a finger under the trickling liquid to douse our digits, then taste. So far, so palatable.
As the distillation goes on, the scents coming from my beaker change, getting piney, then sweeter, then heavy and spicy, as the different flavours from my botanicals take their turn to volatise.
A third Gyre & Gimble gin is now served: its Queen of Hearts cherry gin. Alongside sour cherries, it features botanicals including apricots, bananas, custard apples and nutmeg. This is a grown-up fruit gin, dry rather than sweet and delightfully viscous.
When we have collected 350ml of liquid in our beakers, Craig says it’s time to end our ‘hearts’ cut (the spirit we will bottle) and start collecting the ‘tails’ (which can be used in gin making but won’t be by us today). Our spirit is currently sitting at around 80% ABV; Craig passes around bottles of filtered water which we use to dilute our spirit in a ratio of 1:1, taking the volume from 350ml to 700ml.
Before we bottle our gins, Craig needs to measure their alcoholic strength. He brings around a refractometer, which can be used to measure ABV by measuring the density of alcohol in a solution (Craig explains that it’s much quicker than a hydrometer, the standard tool used by distillers for accurate ABV measuring – “if we were using one of those, you’d be here all night”). He says the gins should be roughly 40% ABV once diluted, but we have some stronger liquids in our midst – mine comes in at 43%, while my neighbour’s is a whopping 48%.
As we affix labels to our bottles, giving the gin’s name, the ‘distiller’s’ name, and the ABV, Craig brings out a heated Crockpot cooker. But it’s not time for an impromptu fondue – the pot contains hot wax, which we’re going to use to seal our bottles. After attaching an adhesive tag to the bottle neck, we each dip our bottles into the magnolia-coloured wax, holding them at an angle to drip off any excess then gently twisting them as Craig has demonstrated, before dousing them in cold water to solidify the wax.
We set our bottles back on the benches and admire them: here is a range of spirits all our own that we’ve designed, distilled and bottled. Like many other gin schools, Gyre & Gimble keeps recipes on file in case guests would like to re-order bottles of their gin (as I arrived, Craig was recounting the story of one customer who liked her gin so much, she had placed an order for 100 bottles).
It is a pleasure to have taken part in this experience, and to know that so many other distillers around the country are running similar courses, which help gin fans get to know the science behind it a little better. Learning more about a spirit you love is a fulfilling experience – and the fact you get a bottle of it to take home is a nice bonus.
The Gyre & Gimble gin academy and bottle shop can be found in the Royal Arcade, Norwich, UK.