My Quest for Non-Alcoholic Gin
So I started thinking about how I'd go about making this faux gin. I knew that juniper berry was the predominant flavoring, but I wasn't sure what the other ingredients were. What I learned was that, other than juniper berry, the herbs and spices can vary. I figured I had to start with juniper, and I figured there might be a commercially available juniper berry extract. There indeed is, available from several brands and sold at health food stores and suppliers. Apparently juniper is an ancient herbal remedy, especially for urinary tract disorders. I called up my local health food store, Back to the Land, to see if they carried the stuff. They answered in the affirmative, and the next time I stopped in I picked up a 1-ounce bottle of Eclectic Institute Juniper.
I then consulted with fragrance blogger Christopher Voigt. I told Christopher about my plan to work on a non-alcoholic gin substitute, and asked for his flavor advice. We quickly got into a discussion of gin flavor preferences. Christopher is a Bombay Sapphire fan, and I'm more partial to the classic London Dry style of gin, with my favorite, Tanqueray, being perhaps the most juniper-forward of the bunch. Bombay Sapphire has a more complex blend of botanicals, yielding a mellower gin, but I prefer in-your-face gin (the scent of which always reminds me of the Vitalis of my youth).
Christopher suggested that Angostura Bitters would help to round out the flavor of whatever I came up with. The only listed ingredient of Angostura is gentian, a bitter herb traditionally used as a digestive aid, but Angostura Bitters is made from a blend of otherwise secret ingredients, with only a handful of people privy to the recipe. According to one source, "The company has special government permission to import the herbs and spices in sacks labeled 'rice' or 'corn' to keep the ingredients secret. To intensify the mystery, the company buys a far greater number of botanicals than they actually need. People speculate anyway. There are guesses such as orange peel and tamarind pulp as the main ingredient. Residues are burnt to prevent identification." I bought a bottle of Angostura Bitters.
All right, I had my flavorings, juniper extract and Angostura Bitters. Now I had to deal with the question of what to use as a base. At first I thought I might just add these ingredients to tonic water or juice, for a mixed-drink flavor. But I nixed the idea, deciding that I really wanted to come up with a true faux gin. I knew that tap water wouldn't do. I needed something with a little more presence, to provide at least a subtle flavor base on which to add the seasonings. My first inclination was to go with a still spring water that has a bold mineral presence, like Evian. The mineral quality of certain dry sakes led me in that direction.
Then I had a brainstorm. I thought of Metromint water. I recently discovered the stuff—mint-infused, purified water—and became especially fond of the lemon mint version. It has a very slight natural sweetness from the mint, with a lemon finish. Something told me this might work.
I went to my favorite local gourmet shop, D'Vine Taste, which I knew carried Metromint. They didn't have Evian, but they did carry a water that turned out to be an even better bet, Jana, an artesian water from Croatia with high alkalinity. I bought a pint of Metromint lemon mint and a pint of Jana.
As soon as I got home I started mixing. Into a glass of each of the waters I started adding drops of the juniper extract (it comes with an eye dropper), tasting it progressively. I decided that 10-15 drops per 8-oz glass was the right amount of juniper. Once I got a satisfactory juniper level it was clear that it indeed needed something else. I added a dash of Angostura Bitters to each. A little bit of Angostura goes a long way, and one small dash did the trick. It gave me a more well-rounded flavor, though I'd say it added a vermouth-like quality, which was just fine. I had just invented the softini.
I alternated tastes of the two versions. While the augmented Jana was interesting for sipping, something was lacking for me. I decided that the Metromint version was the winner, and realized that the vapor component of the mint provided an extra dimension that helped to make up for the lack of alcohol.
This is just a start. I'm sure the recipe can be improved, by working with the balance of ingredients as well as considering additional extracts. I don't intend to make this a full-time occupation, though.
So, what to call this drink? I've already suggested softini. But there's a nostalgic side of me that wants to pay homage to the Shirley Temple (and once, as a kid, a waiter offered me the macho version, a Roy Rogers). But who to name it for? It's too late to name a virgin cocktail a Lindsay Lohan, for a variety of reasons.