What separates cucumber-tinged Hendrick’s from pine-heavy Tanqueray? Botanicals. We look at 15 bottles and ingredients to break down what’s in your gin. Fantastic article By Kara Newman
Illustrations by Alan Baker
The subtle flavorings that make gin so delicious can seem downright inscrutable. Many producers don’t even list ingredients on their labels, which only sustains the mysteries of gin, whose lore has been elevated by the likes of fictional characters such as Jay Gatsby and James Bond.
But we’re here to take the guesswork out of gin. This guide lists popular gins based on their dominant flavors, collectively known as botanicals. Pine-like juniper is required for gin, though distillers can tune that juniper note to be a whisper or a wallop. Beyond that, botanicals can vary widely. The most common include spices (coriander, cardamom, anise), flowers (rose, lavender) and citrus peel (lemon, grapefruit). Use the guide below to identify a flavour you like in old standbys, and perhaps, find a new favourite gin.
Note: The botanicals listed are as provided by the producers. Where unavailable, tasting notes were used to identify botanical flavors.
The root of this flowering plant adds a warm, musky herbal note that some describe as truffle-like. Angelica also is used to flavor various herbal amari and liqueurs that include Chartreuse, so this might be a fine choice to mix in a classic Last Word cocktail, which contains both gin and Green Chartreuse.
Also Try: D. George Benham’s Sonoma Dry Gin (angelica, chamomile, star anise)
Bracingly spicy peppercorn is used to add piquancy to a wide range of dishes, so it shouldn’t surprise that black pepper is a common flavoring for many gins, too. Bombay Sapphire East emphasizes ingredients sourced in Asia that include Vietnamese black peppercorn and Thai lemongrass.
Also Try: St. George Dry Rye Gin (caraway, black pepper)
These plump, aromatic pods often are found in Asian cuisines, but they lend their earthy fragrance and warming sweetness to liquor as well.
While juniper leads this French-made gin, cinnamon bark from Vietnam adds sweetness and spice, alongside woody nutmeg and a bright dose of citrusy freshness. An unusual addition to this gin: génépy, a small mountain flower that provides an herbaceous note similar to a drop of absinthe. Cassia is derived from a different plant, but the aroma and flavor is similar to cinnamon, and it’s also a common botanical in gin.
Also Try: The Botanist Islay Dry Gin (cassia, licorice, mint)
Both a brand and a style, this clean, mild option downplays the juniper and allows lemon and orange peel to come forward. This style plays particularly well with other flavors, which makes it a versatile choice for cocktails like a Negroni or French 75.
This is one of the few producers to offer total transparency about its botanicals. Ford’s states that coriander accounts for about one-third of its flavoring, followed by much smaller amounts of grapefruit, lemon and bitter orange peel.
The Original Aviation Cocktail
This bottling has found fans, thanks to its distinctive cucumber and rose profile. While very few gins actually use cucumber as a botanical, many have a fresh, cucumber-like flavor, which makes for a cooling addition to a Gimlet.
“Floral” encompasses a wide range of botanicals (iris, rose, violet), but you know that familiar scent. The best floral gins offer enticing delicacy, perhaps mixing floral and fruity notes, without stepping into soapy or perfume-like territory. Nolet’s offers an enticing mix of Turkish rose and white peach.
Citrus aside, quite a few gins use berries, orchard fruits like apples or other fruit to add a regional flavor to the spirit (perhaps the most unusual I’ve seen is cantaloupe). The bottling usually will read as subtly fruity, rather than distinctly fruitflavored. Germany’s Monkey 47, for example (so named because it incorporates 47 botanicals), includes lingonberries, cranberries and blackberries, though you’d be hard-pressed to pick any of those out.
Also Try: Caorunn (coriander, Rowan berry, heather, Coul Blush apple)
This is the big daddy of botanicals. It’s in all gin, and its brisk, pine flavor is a hallmark of the classic London dry style. Tanqueray starts with vibrant juniper, then it opens to more subtle licorice, black pepper and citrus. It’s ideal for gin and tonics.
Known for its fragrant purple buds, the lavender plant is part of the mint family. Since it can be so powerful, it’s used sparingly in gin, often as a counterpart to peppery or citrusy botanicals. Waterloo Gin, a “New Western”-style gin made in Texas, showcases local lavender alongside coriander, anise and rosemary.
Also Try: Brooklyn Gin (citrus-forward, just a hint of lavender)
Licorice root is different from star anise, but they’re part of the same family (as is fennel) and offer similarly deep woodsy and earthy notes that also offer mint and molasses.
The root of the iris plant provides an earthy, dusty sweetness that can be perceived as woody or hay-like, as well as a distinctly sweet scent (it’s often used to make perfume). Edinburgh uses orris root, juniper and citrus, mixed with smaller quantities of milk thistle and heather.
Also Try: Broker’s Gin (warm citrus and spice, earthy orris core)
Saffron-infused spirits are hard to miss: The spice delivers a yellow tint. Old Raj is perhaps the best known of the golden gins. Its flavor profile is a classic juniper-citrus-spice mix, but its golden tinge sets it apart.
Depending on the type and blend of tea leaves used, the flavor profile can vary widely. In general, expect a mild earthy astringency. Compared to the full-on juniper blast of classic Beefeater, the 24 bottling, infused with Japanese sencha and Chinese green teas, has a pleasingly spicy punch.
Also Try: Few Breakfast Gin (a limited-edition bottling with Earl Grey tea, bergamot and orange peel)