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Making Gin and Hophead Vodka at Anchor Distilling

This post is sponsored by Anchor Distilling, makers of Junipero gin and Genevieve genever-style gin.

JuniperofinalAnchor Distilling currently has just three tiny stills in one corner of the large brewery on Potrero Hill in San Francisco. Two of them make their rye whiskeys and Genevieve. The other one makes Junipero gin and Hophead vodka.

In this post we'll look at the history and production of the spirits produced in one of the stills at Anchor.

Once Upon A Time

The first product released by Anchor Distilling was a 13-month aged malted rye whiskey in 1996, but by the time it was launched they had already been working on another product.

Head Distiller Bruce Joseph says, “As soon as we got our distilling procedures down we started working on Junipero right away. We took I think it was over a year and a half of experimenting before we came up with the recipe. Every Tuesday and Thursday we would meet in the lab and drink gin.”

Fritz Maytag, former owner/founder of Anchor Distilling, told a story about this testing process in an interview with Alan Krop for Mutineer Magazine back in 2012. Maytag said, “We had a team of people who’d been tasting the whiskeys the whole time. We called it the Water Committee because everything we were doing was top-secret, so we said that if anyone ever asked what we were doing we’d say we were tasting the water (for the beer) every morning.”

I asked Joseph how much assistance and consultation he and Maytag had with creating not just Junipero, but in distilling in general. He says of Maytag’s working style, “He fully throws himself into (new projects) and he would ask advice, but he also wasn’t afraid to deviate from that. He had very strong opinions about certain things. It wasn’t his way to just turn over a decision to someone from outside.”

He continues, “Fritz would throw himself into it and since he wanted to make a geneva, he bought a ticket and went to The Netherlands. Very much like he did in the early 70s when he wanted to make ales using traditional English brewing techniques. He went to breweries (in England) that weren’t even making it (that way) anymore and he’d talk to the old-timers working there.”

In April of 1996 they released Junipero, a bold, high-proof gin very much different from the less-juniper-intensive gins that had just started to change the industry.

Joseph says, “That was in the mid 1990s when some brands were trying to make lighter gins to woo vodka drinkers. But we wanted that intensity and crispness that would really stand up in a martini; not the softer rounder flavor of some other brands. ”

How Junipero is Made

There are many different ways to make gin, which is essentially a neutral spirit like vodka flavored with juniper and usually other botanicals.

The cheap and quick way to make gin is to add juniper oil and other flavorings to neutral spirit. But like most quality gins, Junipero mixes neutral spirit with real botanicals and redistills the mixture. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Fritz Maytag product if they didn’t at least consider doing it the hardest way possible.

Joseph recalls, “When we first started, Fritz was looking at producing his own neutral spirit but the amount of mash and space it would take weren’t possible.”

The base for Junipero is purchased wheat and corn spirit made elsewhere. To that they add their (top-secret) mix of botanicals and redistill it. This is performed in a hybrid-style still (a pot still with a column on top) now common in micro-distilleries for its versatility.

Gin Still at Anchor Distilling
The Gin and Vodka Still at Anchor Distilling

Many gin brands actually make a gin concentrate in the still – they add more botanicals to get a very flavorful gin, then dilute this with both water and more neutral spirit after distillation. Other brands make separate distillations of individual or groups of botanicals, then blend these distillates together and redistill the mixture.

For Junipero, all the botanicals go into the still at the same time with the base spirit. After redistillation, only water is added; not more neutral spirit. This is usually called “one-shot” gin-making.

In the process of figuring out how to make Junipero to their liking, Joseph says they attempted putting the botanicals in a ‘basket’ in the steam part of the still (as opposed to mixed into the liquid) as some other brands do, but it wasn’t producing the flavor profile that they were seeking. He says, “We found that the intensity and crispness (we wanted) came from putting it in the still.”

Junipero is bottled at 49.3% ABV.

HOPHEAD – Flavored Vodka, Made Like Gin

In the same still used for Junipero, Hophead Hop Vodka is made. Two kinds of hops are added to neutral spirit and the combination is redistilled.

HOPHEAD websiteJoseph says they experimented with just soaking hops in neutral spirit to achieve the flavor but that the bitterness was “out of whack” with the flavor and aroma. So they distilled the bitterness out of it.

Still, Joseph says it wasn’t a cake walk. “It was more difficult that we thought. There’s a lot of sulfur compounds in hops.”

He didn’t reveal their solution to that problem, though he did mention an attempt at putting more sulfur-retaining copper in the still.

Hophead is a flavored vodka, made in the style of gin, tasting of the beer for which the company is famous. 

HOPHEAD is bottled at 45% ABV.


This post is sponsored by Anchor Distilling, an innovative small distillery in San Francisco.  

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