It stands to reason that if you open a gin bar, you might consider making your own gin. And, bathtubs aside, it isn't as easy as it looks. Those industrious mooks during Prohibition might have thrown some oil of juniper into a tub of grain -- or worse, rubbing -- alcohol and called it a day, but Brady Caverly and John Peet, respectively co-owner (with wife Mary Elizabeth Caverly) and head bartender at the Flintridge Proper in La Cañada Flintridge, had other ideas. After all, if you want to make something drinkable, it requires a little finesse.
And, if you want to make something that captures the Proper's neighborhood/locavore philosophy, it means traipsing down the boulevard and clipping stray star jasmine sprigs. As a result of the Proper's mixological alchemy, you can sample their own Flintridge Native Botanicals Gin, which is true to its juniper-centric roots but offers, quite literally, "the flavor of the foothills."
When Peet was given the task of creating the Proper gin, he wanted to make a spirit that embraced the character of the neighborhood, but perhaps more importantly, welcomed non-gin drinkers into the fold. As Peet observes, "Gin is a rather polarizing spirit. Like tequila or chicken livers, it's one of those things that a lot of people say, 'I don't like that,' without giving it another chance. We wanted to make a gin that could create new gin drinkers and open people once again to the idea of gin."
Regardless of the above qualifications, no one argued the fact that juniper had to be at the fore of the mix. By any definition, juniper is key to defining gin, which is a spirit made of grain alcohol either distilled with or flavored by juniper berries, as well as other botanicals. In the felicitous case of the Proper, the use of juniper also echoes the aromatics of La Cañada Flintridge's famous "piney" Deodar Cedar trees -- which further enhances the local appeal of the bottling.
To make the juniper character of the Proper's gin more unique, Peet uses some of the juniper as it comes -- fresh and ready to crush, releasing its potent aroma and flavor -- but also roasts about 20 percent of the juniper berries to enhance the flavor.
Not surprisingly, juniper is Peet's favorite botanical and the roasting is his favorite part of the process. "The burning juniper is really enjoyable and it makes the whole space start to smell like a fresh batch of gin," he says. "Also, the roasted juniper gives the gin a very full mouth feel and a little remnant of a smoked flavor that pays homage to the old Switzer Campgrounds up in the Angeles National Forest."
This constant evocation of the local environs is both intentional and essential to the character of the Proper's gin. As Caverly notes, "Our mission with the Proper concept is to create destinations that are authentically local -- that really encapsulate and help define the culture and heritage of the community -- a quality that I fear is being lost in the world in this age of homogenous, big-box restaurants. So we filtered every decision through that lens." Every decision, including the making of the gin.
In the quest for the botanical mix, Caverly literally brought wild sage, rosemary and fennel to the table, freshly gathered from his morning walks on the local bridle paths. These herbs are used in every batch of gin. Peet himself became something of a foraging fiend, gathering Meyer lemons and pears from friends' and neighbors' backyards, as well as wandering down the road and gathering (or as he calls it, "volunteer gardening") star jasmine flowers, which grow rampant in the flower boxes along Foothill Boulevard. While some of the ingredients -- such as grains of paradise and black cardamom -- may not be indigenous to the region, more than half of the botanicals are locally grown or gathered within 15 miles of the restaurant.
While distilled gin requires that the juniper and other botanicals be re-distilled in grain spirit, gin in its simplest state is basically flavored vodka, albeit flavored primarily with juniper.
The gin made by the Proper is a compound gin, which doesn't use distillation but instead infuses the flavors into the alcohol. Peet admits that his process isn't exactly a science, but it's clear that he handles the job with care and more than a little intuition. Starting with distilled grain neutral spirit (vodka), Peet addresses each botanical individually, either muddling, cutting or peeling it in a way that best releases its character. He then adds all the botanicals to the vodka and lets them sit for about 24 hours.
"This isn't scientific. If I go in the next day and it tastes great, I will pull all the botanicals out. If it is a little light, maybe I will wait until the end of my shift or even until the next morning." Once he finds a blend he likes, Peet uses a simple but effective technique, filtering the gin through coffee filters to get all the particulates out. From there, he cuts the concentrate with more grain neutral spirit until he reaches somewhere between 84 and 88 proof.
That somewhat-higher-than-normal proof makes a mean cocktail, obviously packing a wallop but also delivering a more intense flavor and standing up to equally powerful ingredients. Peet's favorite evocation of the Proper's gin is the Frank Flint, a martini homage to the founder of La Cañada Flintridge, composed of Flintridge Native Botanicals Gin, Cocchi Americano (an Italian aperitif wine) and Amaro Averna (an herbal liqueur).
Another cocktail that spotlights the character of the Native Botanicals gin is the Flintridge Lady, a riff on the White and Pink Lady cocktails, mixing gin, lemon and lime juice, Mathilde pear liqueur, house-made elderflower syrup and egg white. And there is the perennial classic gin and tonic, served with a Meyer lemon slice to highlight the citrus element in the gin.
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While the product itself varies slightly from batch to batch, the soul of the Flintridge Native Botanicals Gin remains constant. "We wanted to create not just a good, local, drinkable gin but also a gin that could actually embody the things that we love about the neighborhood that we are in," Peet says. In the search for that profile, the Proper has not only made a gin that is accessible to neophytes thanks to its New World profile but also a gin that holds its own in cocktails and, in Caverly's eyes, against the 200-plus gins on offer behind the bar.
And all that without a bathtub in sight.
Lesley blogs at 12 Bottle Bar, tweets at @12BottleBar and is the author of the book "Gin: A Global History." Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.