I arrived for a “create your own gin” experience at Matchbook Distilling Co. in Greenport confident in the knowledge that Tanqueray is the gin for me. In 1979, my then-boyfriend’s elegant mother ordered a Tanqueray and tonic at a fancy restaurant, and I became a lifelong devotee of the juniper-forward London dry style gin, which has been around since the 1830s. Boyfriends come and go, but Mrs. Gard’s sophisticated cocktail preference has stayed with me.
But once Paul Monahan, Matchbook‘s chief operating officer got done with me, I was a changed woman. The create your own gin experience offered at Matchbook on Saturday afternoons is a hands-on, nose-on, sensory experience that starts with what you thought you knew about gin, breaks it down and sets you free to build a bottle of your own brave new spirit.
Gin is a clear distilled alcoholic beverage, with at least a trace of juniper. Traditional London dry gins rely heavily on the piney tang of juniper along with earthy angelica and orris root flavors. But new American-style gin uses less juniper and leans in on botanicals.
Matchbook has plenty of botanicals to choose from. The first thing a visitor sees is a wall of blue glass bottles containing every imaginable flavor, from plum to sugar kelp to fennel. They are New York organic single botanical distillates; a palette of flavors.
Monahan begins by asking the group (a session can accommodate up to 10) if anybody wants to see how the vodka and botanical extracts are made. “No one ever says no,” he assures me. At Matchbook, the vodka used for gin is made from corn, and the juniper is locally grown. “There is no minimum,“ Monahan said. “Any amount of juniper, it’s gin.”
In the distillery, I see the 20-foot-high column still, bubbling with clear alcohol, and half-filled demijohns (clear, egg-shaped 15-gallon glass vessels of alcohol) “resting” and slowly absorbing water to bring the alcohol level down from 80% alcohol after cooking in the distiller, to 40%. On the day I visited, workers hacked enormous winter squash into smaller pieces to allow the full flavor to be extracted for a single bottle distillate.
After seeing how Matchbook makes alcohol from corn and extracts flavor from plants, it was time to go back to the laboratory and mix my own spirit. I took long whiffs of the blue bottles that most interested me; almond, angelica, bergamot, cardamom, chamomile, coriander, fennel, grapefruit, juniper, kaffir lime, lavender, lemon grass, rosemary, orris root, plum, sea fennel, strawberry, sugar kelp, white peppercorn and yuzu. If there were bottles labeled eye of newt and toe of dog, I’d have smelled those, too.
Monahan explained that having so many flavors to play with does have a downside. “If you like fennel, and you want to taste fennel in your gin,” he said, “mix no more than four or five botanicals so you can taste what you are drinking.” If you want a beautiful bouquet of flowers, he suggested, choose more botanicals. Many a gin mixer has learned that lavender is a lovely component, but on its own it tastes like soap.
The formula is built in a graduated cylinder, and then it’s time to taste. As with all creative processes, there are failures. At Matchbook, they deal with an unfortunate mixture by encouraging you to pour it onto the concrete floor where it evaporates. It must be the most germ-free floor in town.
Gradually you taste and nose your blend before you scale it up to a full 750 mL bottle to take home. “You are not going to like them all, so you dump it and then you pour again,” Monahan instructed. “You are understanding what you like and what goes well together. Taste, smell, dump, nose, blend, build, taste.”
I’ve decided I like juniper, since I’m a fan of the London dry style, alongside citrusy kaffir lime and sea fennel, a seaweed from Maine with a gingery, minty taste. For $100 this experience delivers a unique bottle of booze and an education. I’ll be back to mix again.
Matchbook is constantly creating new flavor extracts. They are working with a local farm to grow meadowsweet, a grass that produces an extract that is said to taste like vanilla and hay. I can’t wait to experience bladderwrack, a seaweed that is said to taste like the sea. I’ll raise a glass of my new spirit to Mrs. Gard, the model of a worldly gin-drinker.