Do you know your botanical blends? We’ve got the low-down on what goes into your gin to give it its distinctive taste.
The global gin renaissance is continuing to gather pace at a phenomenal rate, with dozens of new distilleries opening in the UK every year, each pushing the boundaries in flavourings and aiming to be the new stand-out gin of the year. In the 1800s, gin was primarily used to treat scurvy-infected members of the Royal Navy. Now it’s the most fashionable drink you can be seen sipping, with dozens, if not hundreds, of gins to choose from at bars and restaurants up and down the country.
So what makes ‘mother’s ruin’ the ‘in drink’? Well, it’s all down to the botanicals. As any ginthusiast will tell you, different gins are identifiable by their botanical profiles. But what are they anyway? In a nutshell, botanicals are the natural flavouring ingredients added at various points in the gin-distilling process. Without botanical flavourings, gin is basically just vodka. The gin category is huge; from the traditional gin flavour of juniper through to those distilled with fruits, herbs or spices. But how do they affect the flavour and what should you look for when buying a gin?
Let’s start with juniper. Juniper is found on mountains and heaths throughout Europe, Southwest Asia and North America. The small, dark purple cones it produces have a berry-like appearance and they are what give gin its distinctive, bitter taste. Without juniper, the spirit can’t actually legally be called gin. Although not really edible on their own, once these hard, bitter berries are distilled into gin they release a piney flavour, the flavour most commonly associated with gin.
Most gin distilleries also use citrus in their recipes. Lemon, orange and bergamot peels all play a part in lifting flavours and cutting through herbs, spices and sweetness. Although fresh fruit can be used, dried citrus peels are most common in gin production as they contain a high proportion of the fruit’s flavoursome oils. Most distillers source their lemons from Andalucia in Southern Spain, where they are still hand-peeled and hung out to dry in the sun. Orange peel tends to come from Spain, often Seville, where it is harvested and then the peel is cut off in one continuous strip. For those who love a citrusy tipple, we love Malfy Gin, which is made in Italy using Sicilian lemons and is really fresh and zingy. Lone Wolf Gin, which was launched last year by the brains behind BrewDog, also leads with lemons as well as grapefruit for a truly zesty flavour.
Roots and seeds
Alongside citrus, the most common ways to flavour the neural spirit are seeds and roots – coriander seed, angelica root, orris root and cardamom all add earthy, spicy and peppery notes and a mixture of these, coupled with citrus and juniper, form the base of most gins. Angelica root is a key ingredient as it holds the volatile flavours of other botanicals and gives a musky ‘forest floor’ flavour. Orris root has a perfumed character and, like angelica root, can help fix aromas and flavours in a gin. Cardamom pods contain numerous tiny, black seeds which add a spicy, eucalyptus flavour.
Rosemary is becoming a popular gin botanical as the herb’s oily quality and strong scent give it a Mediterranean taste. Gin Mare has become a bit of a ‘cult’ drink reserved for gin toffs that really know their flavour profiles. It contains three different types of citrus, thyme and olives – Spanish sun in a glass. Although it’s not yet hugely popular, lavender is sometimes used to add a delicate floral element to gins such as Pothecary Gin and Masons Lavender Dry Yorkshire Gin, which alongside the French lavender, also distills with mulberries and lemon. Distillers are often wary of using lavender as the aroma can be overwhelming and its a ‘love it or hate it’ ingredient for most. If it’s used, it is added in very small amounts at the end of the distillation process to avoid dominating other flavours. Another less commonly used botanical is chamomile, although it does feature in one of the world’s biggest brands (and Wine & Dine’s favourite) – Hendrick’s. In Hendrick’s, chamomile works alongside cucumber and rose to give it its distinct ‘English country garden’ taste. Chamomile has a soothing floral quality, which pairs perfectly with citrus and adds sweetness.
There are hundreds of ways to flavour gin… and we certainly enjoyed trying as many as we can!