Brilliant botanicals

What goes into gin you're drinking?


Today, the craft gin market is booming, and with the huge variety of gins available, there has never been a better time to be a gin drinker. According to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, off-trade sales of gin have more than doubled in the last five years. Dubbed the ‘ginaissance’, this trend has seen the number of distilleries in England overtake Scotland for the first time.

Gin begins as a neutral spirit, but it is defined by botanicals. These are the spices, herbs, fruits, flowers, and barks which infuse it with the flavour that makes it stand out from other clear spirits. Some popular gin botanicals include coriander seed, angelica root, citrus peel, cassia bark, and liquorice root, though the list is endless, and the specific botanical blend is what makes each gin unique. Juniper berries are the flagship botanical. These deep blueish purple berries – also used in jenever, gin’s Dutch predecessor - are harvested in the autumn. Toby Whittaker, director at Whittaker's Distillery in North Yorkshire, emphasises that understanding the importance of juniper, and how to blend juniper with other botanicals, is key. “Juniper berries is the overriding, key factor,” says Toby. “A lot of people will start off trying to make gin and they’ll get it all wrong because they’re not putting enough juniper in. Gin has got to taste of juniper. Otherwise, it shouldn’t have the name ‘gin’ written on it.”

When it comes to making a fantastic gin, patience is the key. Toby says that talking to Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh – where The International Centre for Brewing and Distilling is based – was a helpful experience for him as he learned how to craft a winning botanical blend. He explains that part of creating a great gin is simply recognizing that there will be a lot of trial and error along the way. “It takes time and effort to work towards something that is worthwhile,” he says. “You can’t just hit the bullseye first time. You have got to just keep trying and trying and trying.” 

Juniper berries is the overriding, key factor

Factors such as soil, climate, and minerals can impact the flavour of juniper, which is why selecting which juniper to use is an important process for gin makers as they create their perfect spirit. Martin Murray, owner and distiller at Dunnet Bay Distillers in the north of Scotland, explains how he handled this aspect of creating his botanical blend. “We sampled juniper from different countries, and tasted them distilled side by side, and I had two favourites,” he says. The Italian and Bulgarian junipers stood out to him for different reasons. He says that the Italian juniper was warm, deep, piney, and traditional, whereas the Bulgarian juniper was more modern, and heavier on lemon notes. “It sounds silly, but at the time I remember feeling forced, that I had to pick one, and I couldn’t decide,” he says. Martin ultimately chose to use both junipers in his Rock Rose gin and loves the way that they complement one another. “We also tried Scottish juniper, but because we don’t get the same sunlight, it’s really earthy,” he says.

Martin loves to source botanicals from the local area where possible. “We started to look at ingredients that had real stories linked to the area,” he says. He has worked with a local herbalist and a local ranger to identify potential botanicals that might work well for gin. For example, the root from the local Rhodiola rosea plant, which is thought to have been foraged by Vikings over a thousand years ago, as they sought extra strength for their long journeys. “It’s so much fun going out and getting something, distilling it and then tasting it, and then reading about it and learning about it,” says Martin.

Growing botanicals in the harsh Scottish winters can be challenging, and Martin has a gardener to help. One local botanical is sea buckthorn; a shrub that grows along the coastline, and in the garden at the distillery. “It only grows here every second year,” says Martin. “We harvest it here one year, and then we harvest it at another site the following year.” He says that it was a pain to harvest the very first time. “We learned that the hard way. It’s got lots of thorns, the juices are bright orange, and it stains clothing,” he says. Fortunately, the thorns don’t ever grow back, so it has become easier to harvest with time. Martin explains that sea buckthorn has incredible tropical fruit flavours. “Mango, passionfruit, clementine. These kinds of flavours that you wouldn’t expect, or associate [with] a cold climate like Scotland.” 

Sea buckthorn has incredible tropical fruit flavours

Toby is equally passionate about creating gin with a strong connection to his location in the Yorkshire countryside. “We wanted to deliberately identify with ingredients that grow in the vicinity,” he says. “[The gin] is from Nidderdale, everything about it is made from Nidderdale as far as it can be.” He explains that he played around with distilling one litre at a time to experiment with flavours of different botanicals. He ultimately decided to use Bog Myrtle, which grows on moorland close to the distillery. It has a spicy aroma and offers a bitter and rich taste to the gin. In addition, Toby uses thyme that is picked fresh from his garden on the morning of the distillation.  

Since modern distillers like Toby and Martin are experimenting with using locally sourced botanicals to create a strong connection between product and place, there is a more exciting variety of gins available to drinkers than ever before. This experimentation has the capacity to make gin more sustainable, as well as more diverse, and research shows that this should be a hit with consumers. A 2020 report by E.ON found that four in five Brits plan to purchase from businesses they know have made a concerted effort to be environmentally friendly. Thanks to these trends towards sustainability, many distillers are thinking more and more about the carbon footprint of the ingredients that go into their gins. 

Toby says that he tries to source as many of his raw materials from the local area as he possibly can. “With gin making, most of the time, the neutral spirit is being brought in from elsewhere. Identifying where that neutral spirit has come from is important,” says Toby. “I think people want to know what they’re drinking and where it’s from.” Similarly, Martin is focused on the environmental impact of his business. “We’ve just appointed an Environmental Manager, which for a small business is kind of unheard of,” he says. He explains that even when he needs ingredients that he cannot grow himself, he works with local businesses, such as a local seaweed company which harvests kelp, along with an artisan salt maker in the Hebrides. He uses both ingredients to create the coastal edition of his gin, giving it a truly local flavour. “This is where we were born, where we were raised,” says Martin. “We love this area, and when we were creating the product, we wanted to tell people about the place that we love so much.”

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