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Homemade Gin from Foraged Sticks, Flowers, and Berries

13 Nov

This summer we spent 5 days backpacking in and around the stunning Caribou Wilderness.



Inspired by my past brewing with foraged plants (yarrow, mugwort) in lieu of hops, an afternoon vermouth class, and following Pascal Baudar‘s photos– everywhere I looked I saw components for beer, gin, or vermouth– such as sap and wild yeast on freshly-opened pine cones:


Or juniper branches and berries in gnarled old trees overlooking glacial ponds:


dscf0944Back home a few days later, I unloaded my foraging bag:


I decided to try to make both a vermouth (more on that in the future) and a gin, using only alcohol and things collected in the woods. Older methods of gin production involve alcohol that’s distilled so the vapor passes through a basket of botanicals (notably including juniper berries) before re-condensing– but not having a still I decided the simpler approach of a cold infusion into a neutral spirit was good enough.

I submerged eight potential components (coyote mint, pine sap, juniper bark and berries, green manzanita berries, fresh pine tips, not-yet-open pine cones, and yarrow flowers) in both jars of vodka and jars of fortified wine (white wine bumped to 19% ABV with brandy, for vermouth):


I had no idea what would taste good and what would be distasteful or overly bitter, or how strong a flavor would come from of each component over time, so rather than throwing everything into a jar with vodka and hoping for the best, I decided to infuse each component separately and then blend them to taste later (accepting that I’d throw away some of the vodka from the stronger-tasting components). If I were planning to do this again, I could record the ratio that tasted good and then directly infuse that mix of components– but even then I’d expect every individual pine cone, branch, and handful of berries to be a bit different.

Every few days I smelled and tasted each jar, straining them at anywhere from 3 days to 4 weeks as flavors developed and before they got too bitter. The pine sap smelled and tasted horrible within days so I poured it out, but everything else produced a distinctive and interesting (if sometimes harsh or intense) flavor.

Finally, about three months later, I tasted each of the infused vodkas again side by side. Some had taken on significant color:


I tried a few different mixtures at thimbleful scale to balance components with powerful aromas and/or tastes, and found a nice ratio that relied heavily on juniper berry and green manzanita berry, with a moderate addition of pine cone, yarrow flowers, and juniper branches, and just a touch of pine needles (harshly pine-y) and coyote mint (a lovely mint but very strongly flavored).

Without a re-distillation step it’s not transparent, but I think this is an attractive bottle of homemade alcohol– and it will always remind me of walking through those woods with a compass:


Making Vinegar

11 Nov

Making vinegar is easy. At a simple chemical level, alcohol + bacteria from the acetobacter genus + oxygen + time -> acetic acid (vinegar).

There’s acetic acid bacteria floating around in the air, so red wine or cider left open over time will eventually turn to vinegar (the sugars in cider first fermenting to alcohol), but unpasteurized and unfiltered commercial vinegars may already contain “mother” (a significant amount of acetic acid bacteria + cellulose) that can be harvested to kick-start a new batch of vinegar (and ensure the acetic acid bacteria quickly becomes the dominant player and lowers the pH to a range where they are heavily favored).

In my case, I mixed a small bottle of organic unfiltered red wine vinegar and the remnants of a few bottles of left-open-too-long red wine, swirled/shaken together in a jar with cheesecloth over the top.

After two months of checking in, it finally tasted like a good red wine vinegar– so I tapped off two large bottles (one for now, one to age another year+ before using), and what’s left will be the starter for future bottles of unfinished red wine.


(more) Citrus Shrubs

5 Mar

Another winter, another bounty of local California citrus to preserve. I’ve made some marmalade, but shrubs (juice/oils from fruit+vinegar+sugar, shelf-stable) are my preferred form. Makrut lime, yuzu-chipotle-anise, and bergamot shrubs, all made with mostly rice vinegar to leave the citrus as the focus:

It was also a good excuse to strain, filter, and rebottle other shrubs from the past year with sediment that had settled out.

Homebrew Tasting

6 Dec

The annual family blind homebrew tasting (the righthand six are mine):

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They ran the gamut of beers (kit, extract, and whole-grain, traditional and not (aged-on-fruit, wild plants in lieu of hops)), and ciders (apple, pear, wild fermented and brewed with controlled ale yeasts).

As usual, I had the strangest and lowest-rated brews (a punishingly bitter vaguely absinthe-like Mugwort ale) but also a few more pleasant ones (both takes on a Grisette were popular). My sister’s apple-pear cider made from a variety of roadside drops was my personal favorite.

Preserving Cherries

26 Jul

A few photos from an all-day preservation binge earlier this summer on a large quantity of Bing, Brooks, Rainier, and Tulare cherries:


I’m deeply skeptical of all single-purpose kitchen utensils, but I will say the 6-cherry pitter was effective:


Macerating some of them in sugar in preparation for shrubs.


A few weeks later, the final bottled and labeled shrubs:

  • Rainier cherries with fennel
    • 5 cups pitted and chopped cherries macerated in 2 cups sugar with half a bulb of fennel for 24 hours, which drew juice out of the cherries, producing about 2 1/3 cups of juice, then strained and rinsed with 1 1/2 cups of champagne vinegar and 1/2 cup of cider vinegar and bottled (a roughly 2:1:1 chopped fruit to sugar to vinegar ratio)
  • A mix of Tulare (less flavorful) and Bing (delicious!) cherries, macerated on sugar and rinsed and bottled with cider vinegar, in three different batches:
    • Cherries with bay leaf and peppercorn (very subtle bay leaf, just tasted like cherries)
    • Cherries with vanilla beans and pink peppercorns
    • Cherries with fresh ginger


Leftover sugared fruit from shrubs (with some juice extracted) still makes good cherry jam:


Other cherry preservation we performed that day: cocktail cherries (both salt brined and unbrined, I don’t have the recipe handy), cherry mostarda, cherry-infused bourbon (bulleit 95 rye poured over a 1qt jar of bing cherries for about a month, then strained)…

Making Sauerkraut

31 May

Made sauerkraut. One head of cabbage and some salt, massaged to break down the cell walls, then fermented in a ceramic pot (with water seal) for two weeks, making a tangy, tart, still slightly crunchy sauerkraut. Success! Next time I may try fermenting it longer and shredding it more finely.

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Seville Orange Marmalade

20 Jan

Bitter things.

Traditionally, marmalade is made with Seville oranges— which occasionally show up in season in the Bay Area for a week or two.


No added pectin– the pith copious number of seeds in a bitter orange produces enough (boiled in a muslin bag for ease of removal, in a pot with the whole rest of the orange sliced thin).

marm cook

As the sugar heats, it bubbles up and changes form several times. In absence of a thermometer, dropping bits of marmalade on a chilled plate in a freezer until it forms a skin gives a hint it’s at the right stage. A splash of scotch whiskey in honor of The Bard‘s birthday adds a little smoke.


After canning, trying it out the next day. Tart and bitter and jelled– not bad!