Fantastic article by Aaron Knoll.
What are botanicals?
Botanicals are the herbs, spices, fruits and other ingredients that give gin its flavor. The only botanical required in order to be gin is juniper. The rest is up to the distiller.
For centuries, gins have often featured an accord of juniper, coriander, angelica, some sort of citrus fruit, and orris root. Many gins rely on this to create the “classic” gin flavor. In modern times the botanicals that are in use have expanded greatly. Many of these “contemporary” flavors like cardamom, ginger, lavender and cucumber are recent innovations in gin. Some of these botanicals have only taken off in gin since the late 00’s during the Gin Renaissance
So… Whats popular?
With the number of gins available growing by leaps and bounds each year, one of the ways they differentiate themselves is through the inclusion of new and infrequently used botanicals. But this list isn’t about those. This list is about those top 10 gin botanicals that distillers turn to time and time again.
Many of these botanicals often fly below the radar of gin drinkers. They’re so “everyday” in gin that their flavors are almost expected. What these top 10 gin botanicals have in common is that they’ve all been used in gins for well over a century, some even common in 17th and 18th century gins. These botanicals were also widely accessible in Europe during that time. You tend to see a combination of things which grew in Europe, or which were able to be dried and carted over long distances.
- Juniper has been found at Paloelithic sites across Europe. Over 10,000 years ago, people burnt juniper branches for their distinctive piney aroma.
- There’s somewhere between 50 and 67 species of juniper in the world, depending on who you ask. According to E.U. law, Gin must be predominantly flavored by Juniprus communis. If you use Juniperus oxicedrus for example, it must be called a “Juniper Flavored spirit drink.”
- U.S. laws don’t specify the species of juniper. As it only says “juniper berries,” American gin makers can more freely experiment with other types. Three Wells in Arizona uses Alligator Juniper. Spirit Hound in Colorado uses Rocky Mountain Juniper.
- Juniper is what gives gin its distinctive flavor. Without juniper you don’t have gin. When you have juniper, you technically have a gin.
- Juniper’s primary aromatic molecule is α-Pinene, though the amount of this molecule which smells strongly of spruce and pine varies greatly on where the juniper grows.
- Coriander are the seeds of the Cilantro plant.
- The seeds’ oil is primarily of Linalool, which has a distinctive spicy and somewhat floral aroma. It’s primarily responsible for the flavor that they have in gin. At times it can be more fruity and other times more spicy, depending on the quality of the seed used.
- A 2008 study published in the Journal of Food Science found that linalool was the primary aroma molecule in the smell of all but the gin tested that contained no coriander.
- It’s likely that the proportion of gins with coriander is greatly under-estimated. It may be as high as 80-90%.
- In the early 2010’s, there was a large number of coriander heavy gins being distilled in the United States. It led one foreign writer to comment, “Americans sure love their coriander.”
#3 Angelica (primarily Angelica root)
- Angelica is the third ingredient in the “holy trinity” of gin, which includes coriander and juniper.
- Native to Europe, Nearly every part of the plant has been eaten as a part of regional culinary tradition. The stalks are candied, it’s been eaten as a vegetable, but the seeds and primary the roots are what gin distillers use.
- Often times, angelica is confused for juniper in gin. It’s like a muskier, woodier, juniper.
- The primary aromatic constituents of the roots are β-Pinene and α-Pinene, while the seed oil is much sweeter with a hint more of a mint/eucalyptus note.
- Did you know that the lemon is probably a hybrid of a bitter orange and the citron?
- European cultivation of lemons didn’t start until probably the fifteenth century, but they quickly spread around the Mediterranean region.
- Gordon’s and Beefeater’s are two of the longest continuously produced gins still available today. They both contain lemon peel among their botanical bills.
- Do you like peeling lemons? Perhaps you ought to make a gin. It’s the peel which contains the essentials oils distillers covet.
- Distilled lemon has a distinct lemon aroma and flavor. It can be intense and almost candy like, depending on the amount of lemon in it.
- For how often distillers say their gin has orange as one of the botanicals, you’d think this one would be one of the ingredients we’re most familiar with in our day-to-day lives. However, the world of orange in gin is much more complicated. Most distillers use varietals such as the bitter orange a.k.a Seville orange (Citrus × aurantium) because of the essential oil content in their rinds.
- ….though Sweet oranges are becoming more common in the last ten years.
- Bluecoat Gin features a strong orange note
#6 Orris Root
- The inclusion of dried Orris Root likely owes a debt to the world of perfumery. Orris Root is said* to have fixative properties. This means that the molecules from distilled Orris Root are said to hold more tightly bound the other aromatic molecules from the other ingredients.
- The root itself smells vividly of violets (specifically those violet candies) though it’s rarely included in gin for its flavor.
- Getting Orris Root into your gin is a long arduous process. It may take up to five years for an Iris to have a root big enough to harvest, and then it may take another five to dry the root.
* It’s worth including this as a footnote. Recent work on the subject suggests that there may be weak or little evidence to suggest Orris Root has any fixative properties in gin.
- This might be the biggest mover on the list in the past decade. An incredible amount of contemporary style gins strongly featuring a cardamom note have launched.
- Cardamom is often included as a signature botanical. Its the little black seeds inside the pods have all the flavor.
- Pungent, creamy, slightly peppery and slightly chai-like, one of the best gins to study the flavor of cardamom on its own in is Sacred’s Cardamom Gin.
#8 Licorice (or Liquorice, chiefly roots)
- Did you know that Licorice, owing to its strong flavor, and slight sweetness, was used in Old Tom style gins. Often times in the 19th century to obscure the taste of the base spirit. The sweetness in licorice comes from glychyrrhizin.
- Although it tastes similar, licorice is not related to fennel, anise, aniseed, nor star anise [also relatively common gin ingredients in their own rights]
- In 2016, a group of chemists reconstituted the flavor of Licorice root from the chemicals up. Some of the molecules they identified in licorice included ones that smells “popcorn-like,” “sweaty,” “vanilla-like,” and “foxy.” Licorice is a complicated thing.
- Cassia is sometimes referred to as cinnamon, especially in the United States.
- Closely related to cinnamon, Cassia comes from the bark of an evergreen tree native to Southern China.
- You can tell a stick is Cassia based on the thickness of the bark. Notice in the above picture that the rolls are a single layer. Cassia is thicker, more durable, and harder to grind.
- Some gins which are heavy handed with cassia have an aroma of Big Red chewing gum. Cassia lends a fiery, red hot cinnamon-esque flavor to gin and tends to be used very sparingly.
#10 True Cinnamon
- Cinnamon comes from the Cinnamomum verum tree. It is native to Sri Lanka
- You can tell that a cinnamon stick is “true Cinnamon” if the rolls are tightly coiled, have multiple layers apparently wrapped around one another, and are fairly easy to grind into a powder.
- Because the fact that in some places Cassia is referred to as Cinnamon and cassia dominates the international spice market under the category “cinnamon,” it’s likely that there are at least some gins in this category which may be using cassia and not true cinnamon. But in any event, it comes in at #10 based on what distillers self-disclose about their botanical bills
The top 10 Gin Botanicals are only the tip of the iceberg. If you want to see where your favorite gin botanical ranks, here’s our complete list of every disclosed botanical for every gin in our review archive. You can also see who just missed our top 10.
Sorry, Lavender. Maybe next year.