January 2012

Bathtub Gin



Gin comes in basically two categories. There’s a distilled version, in which different botanical components are added to what is essentially vodka, and the whole batch is distilled together. Another approach—popular in the days of Prohibition, when distillation’s big fires and smoke brought unwanted law-enforcement attention—is the infusing of neutral spirits with botanical components at room temperature, often in a bathtub.

Ironically, the latter technique, called dousing, can also be employed to customize and elevate mediocre gin into something with more character. After living in parts of the world where premium gins were unavailable, desperation drove me to refer to my grandfather’s 1924 bootleg formula for bathtub gin, which inspired my recipe below. (Vodka and neutral spirits are not at all the same: Vodka, at 40 percent alcohol, is meant for drinking; neutral spirits, at 80 to 90 percent, are not.)

Our recipe was recently compared in a blind test by 84 self-described gin enthusiasts. Compared side by side with Beefeater gin, this doused version was unanimously declared “more natural tasting” and “more of what gin should be.” That’s an illusion, of course, but who cares? In the end, taste is all that counts.

The spirit is best appreciated straight, but try mixing cocktails with it, and you’ll be amazed at how much character is added. Customizing any drink is the perfect opportunity to add something no one else can reproduce—unless, of course, you share your secret.


¾ ounce fresh cilantro, trimmed
¾ ounce lemon-peel strips, with as little pith as possible
½ ounce fresh marjoram leaves, with no stems
20 allspice berries
16 white peppercorns
12 green or white (not brown) cardamom pods
½ ounce plus ½ teaspoon sugar
6 ¾ ounces Trebbiano white wine
17 ounces vodka

Precise measurements are important. Combine all ingredients in a nonreactive pan and bring to a simmer for about two minutes. Do not boil. Pour into a clean, odor-free glass jar and close lid. Steep for exactly 24 hours at room temperature. Strain through cheesecloth into another clean, odor-free glass jar. Combine 1 ½ ounces of this “dousing solution” with 8 ½ ounces Beefeater gin and ⅛ teaspoon Black Grouse (or other smoky) Scotch. Store both the finished gin and base solution in the refrigerator.