How to Create the Best Neutral Spirit for Gin

Well, here we are preparing to discuss a topic that could create a discussion that could last forever: how to make gin.

I like to compare this discussion to making chicken soup. Chicken soup can be made in more than 150 different ways, none of which are necessarily wrong. Why? Well, because chicken soup is delicious no matter whose recipe it is.

Think about it:
What part of the chicken provides the best meat? Bones, or no bones? Celery, or no? Carrots? Adding vegetable stock, chicken stock, beef stock, or just plain water? Parsley? Can you see where I’m going with this? It never ends.

The only true requisite ingredient for making chicken soup is, well, chicken.

Gin production is similar in that in order to be a gin, it has to have been flavored with juniper berries in the same vein that without chicken, it’s not chicken soup. Like chicken soup, the remaining flavoring compounds are entirely up to the cook.

It can be easy to assume that if the cook strays too far from their gin medley flavoring, the finished product may not be well received. In this regard, there are gins that include some additional, common ingredients that appeal to the broader gin enthusiast’s sensibilities.

In other words, the gin has to taste like gin. Gins can certainly taste differently from one another, but it must taste like gin.

The gin has to taste like gin in other words. Gins can certainly be different in taste, but they must taste like gin.

The overriding consensus among gin enthusiasts is that the base spirit must be very clean. And by that, I mean a very strictly distilled to a neutral spirit. A neutral base spirit allows all of the botanicals to influence the finished product.

If your spirit is less than neutral, you’ll increase the chance of having poorly distilled spirit mask some of the more delicate notes in the finished product. Clean spirit absolutely helps achieve a more well-balanced final product.

How do we create the cleanest neutral for gin production? Having the best tool for the job always helps best. A 30-plate distillation column really is where you want to be if you want to do a “one and done” neutral.

However, not everyone can work one of those into the budget. And not everyone has the required ceiling height often needed for a 30-plate column. Notwithstanding simply buying NGS from the open market, what are our alternatives if we really want to stay strictly true to the “craft” moniker? Well, we must distill the base spirit more in order to arrive at an acceptable level of cleanliness.

Understand that 95% abv from a 10 or 12 plate column is not at all the same finished product as 95% abv from a 30-plate column. My point is a 10-plate single pass is not really enough to produce a premium neutral even if the 10 plates can achieve 95% abv.

There will always be less desirable hanger-on flavor notes clinging to our ethanol molecules with only 10 plates worth of phase change cycles. To further compound the dilemma, running high reflux ratios will ultimately serve as a catalyst for carboxylic acid formation.

This is seen clearly when we examine an analysis of sample spirits from 3 separate types of distillation apparatuses.


Here on this analysis, we see some interesting numbers. The Beverage Panel shows a predictable trend with the decrease in all of the constituents as we incorporate more plates into the distilling process.

The most noteworthy being the Ethyl Acetate concentration. Accordingly, as we increase the plate count, the concentration of Ethyl Acetate is then reduced as the higher rate of phase change cycles does a better job of scrubbing that particular compound off of our ethanol molecules. Seems to make perfect sense. No?

But then as we look at the Fusel Oils, we can see that all of the listed constituents have actually increased with adding plates to the distilling process. How can this be? Two words. Reflux ratio.

The reflux ratio is the term used to characterize how much condensed liquid at the top of the apparatus is sent back to the column to be redistilled vs the amount of vapor that the dephlegmator (reflux condenser) allows being sent to the product condenser as the final product. For shorter columns, the reflux ratio can help boost and maintain proof.

The problem here is that shorter columns require a higher reflux ratio in order to keep the proof high enough to achieve the desirable abv. But the abv is not necessarily an indication of clean spirit as we see in the analysis table. Higher reflux ratios essentially allow the fusel to have more opportunity to infiltrate the top of the apparatus.

The higher RR literally drags more fusels to the top. In order to mitigate this behavior, we need to reduce the RR. But in doing so how will we maintain our desired proof? Well, we go back to the beginning and use the best tool. A tool that requires a smaller reflux ratio needed to maintain our proof. The best tool? Oh, a 30-plate column.

Try as I may, I can’t seem to stop this circumlocution. Ok, stop. Let’s fix this.

We know some excellent gin base has been produced with pot stilling techniques. We know some excellent gin base has been produced with short columns. And we certainly know that a mighty fine gin base has been produced with tall rectifying columns.

So, what gives? Well, the tall column is the tool of choice. But not at all necessary to produce a good clean, neutral. Notwithstanding the use of carbon filtering, here is what you do if you don’t have a proper rectifying column; Distill more than once.

That’s it. But how much more? Distill as many times as it takes to render your spent kettle charge perfectly clear. As in crystal clear. Then, as much as your budget can tolerate, once the spent kettle charge is crystal clear, continue stripping until the subsequently spent kettle charge is as odorless as possible.

This applies to all stills. Naturally, there will be some loss of alcohol yield with each run, and so you’ll need to make the judgment call on how many times distilled is too many (or too little).

Also diluting the fresh kettle charge with clean water will also help the undesirable congeners release their bond from the ethanol molecules.

Another trick to help reduce odor is to steep a measure of baking soda in the diluted kettle charge for a day or so, prior to distilling.

And finally, lots of emphases should be placed on making very strict cuts for your final spirit run. Finding the center of the heart’s cut is critical and should involve your sensory awareness team if you have a hard time finding the center.

Initially, this can be done by collecting all of your distillate in smallish, individual collection vessels. This will allow each part of the run to be isolated and therefore prevent heads or tails from contaminating the heart of the run.

Once you’ve dialed in the procedure and have achieved repeatable outcomes, you can move on to collecting larger quantities on the fly.

Good luck making your own NGS.