Reading the lists of ingredients in gin can sometimes seem like a botanist's wet dream. Exotic herbs, nuts fruits seeds, roots and spices are depicted in glorious detail and in many cases, are wrangled together by distillers in a bid to create incredible flavour journeys.
What do each of these ingredients bring? Why are they in there? Gin may be all about juniper, but if i am into a certain flavour profile that's typified by a certain botanical, which gin has it more prominently than others?
In this guide, we've dived into some of the most commonly used botanicals in a bid to demystify them. We've included a little history and context around the ingredient themselves, but more importantly, which gins showcase them best.
The lemon tree is small and straggling, reaching around 11 feet high, with irregular branches throughout. The fruit it spawns – of which there are said to be around 47 varieties – is an ovoid (what a word!) berry, smooth and yellow with an acid pulp.
Lemon trees are said to have reached Europe via Persia or Medina, growing first in Greece and then in Italy.
The first substantial cultivation of lemons in Europe began in Genoa in the middle of the 15th Century. The lemon made its way to the Americas in 1493, carried over by none other than Christopher Columbus. The Spanish conquest of the New World saw lemon seeds spread, and in these times the plant was used mainly ornamentally.
The medicinal use of lemon is far-reaching, though there is perhaps no example more famous than its use as a treatment for scurvy, a vitamin C deficiency-led disease, which was rife on ships when those on board spent months without access to fresh produce. Lemons even offer benefits for those of us who aren’t salty sea dogs, as they’re said to lower stroke risk, combat cancer and help to prevent asthma.
This is all good news for the fervent gin drinker, as lemon plays an integral role in the gin universe. It is one of the most commonly used botanicals, and even when not present in the spirit itself, a wedge of it is more than likely to be seen bobbing around in a G&T or twisted into a Martini. Its usage to the industry extends further than taste as well – citric acid, derived from lemons, can be dissolved into water and is sometimes used to clean copper stills.
Once distilled, lemon remains easily identifiable. The smell is initially reminiscent of candied lemon peel – the type that adorns sponge cakes in bake sales up and down the country. It grows in the nose, though, becoming zesty and crisp– as though someone had grated the fruit into the bottle. The taste is tart, but fresh and quite lovely, though it doesn’t linger.
Gins where Lemon is noticeable to taste:
Bluecoat American Gin has a prominent limonene note throughout, while Leopold’s Gin and 6 O’Clock Gin have lemon leaning profiles. Italian gin Malfy is a borderline-obsessive love letter to the fruit. Literally, the kind a Stan might write before being handed a restraining order…
Fans with a budget to match their lemon hankering may be able to find some vintage bottles of Gordon’s Lemon Gin or Plymouth Lemon Gin, which are still around.
Oranges are a round, fleshy fruit encased by a bright orange peel. The fruit generally has 10 segments inside and is surrounded by a white tissue-like substance – its rind.
The orange tree is an evergreen, flowering tree which reaches heights of between nine and 10 metres. The trees bear fruit in abundance for 50 to 80 years, though some ancient trees – thought to be centuries old – still produce crops.
The tree is believed to be of Asian origin, its ancestry said to be from east India, Southern China and Vietnam. Oranges are believed to have reached the Roman Empire by around the 1st Century BC, when Persian traders brought them across.
The Romans established orchards in North Africa to supply Mediterranean countries, and the groves soon spread from Libya to Morocco. European groves were set up, but they didn’t make it much past the collapse of the Roman Empire, When a revival of the trade began to take place in the 11th Century, it was Seville oranges that took hold. The sweet orange, in fact, played the part of bridesmaid to the Seville until the 15th Century, when Portuguese merchants delivered orange trees to the Mediterranean. The popularity of sweet oranges took hold and has remained steady ever since – in 2012 they accounted for 70% of global citrus production.
Much like it’s estranged cousin, lemon, oranges are rich in vitamin C and have been historically used to treat scurvy. During the Age of Discovery, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch sailors planted citrus tress along trade routes, and the British Navy and East India Trading Company shared a fondness for the fruit.
The question on everyone lips is of course which came first – the fruit or the colour…? Well, the name ‘orange’ is thought to have originally been derived from the Sanskrit word, ‘Nāraṅgaḥ’ and the Telugu word ‘Naringa’, which after moving through different languages, ultimately became ‘orange’ in English. The colour was named after the fruit, and the first recorded use of orange as a colour name in English was in 1512. There you go, perfect bar bore knowledge to share around on a slow night…
Orange peel, both fresh and dried, is a popular gin botanical. Historically, the peel of a Seville orange was used dry and the peel of a sweet orange is used fresh.
More often than not, it is dried peel that’s used in gin, a tradition that may well hark back to the days in which Seville oranges were the only type available, although today it's far less likely to be the bitter variety with sweet Valencia oranges becoming a big part of the gin industry since 2010.
Beefeater, for example, uses a centuries old recipe, so it stands to reason that bitter oranges are part of the make-up. Our advice for new gin makers is to carefully consider the difference between fresh or dried and sweet or bitter – don’t default into one or the other by chance.
It’s also worth considering for a second the large concentrations of pesticides that have been found in orange peels grown in commercial sites. Given the oils are being leeched out into the spirit, logic dictates that so too will the pesticides. For those considering orange as a botanical, it may be worth investing in organically grown oranges, where pesticides or herbicides have not been used.
Gins where Orange is noticeable to taste:
Beefeater Gin, Marberg London Dry and Hayman's London Dry have an easily discernible orange note. While the taste of the fruit may not be abundant in the final spirit, Four Pillars Rare Dry Gin uses different varieties in combination for their recipe – in their case Valencia and navel oranges are both placed fresh and in their entirety in their steam basket. To date, the only examples of a gin using both dried and fresh orange peel at the same time in a gin is William Chase Elegant Crisp Gin and possibly (although needs further clarification from the distiller) V2C Dutch Dry Gin.
Orange blossom, other orange hybrids (such as Blood Orange) and entire whole fresh oranges are also used by some gin distilleries but they are a less common sighting. Tanqueray's Flor De Sevilla showcases both blossom and the fruit to its fullest most delicious form, although it's unclear if it actually uses any in production or if it's all essences and colouring…
Pink Grapefruit is a happy accident of a fruit, a mutant hybrid between the sweet orange and pomelo and a very excellent example of inbreeding. The fleshy citrus fruit allegedly first appeared in Barbados in around 1750, discovered by Welshman Griffith Hughes, whose name for it – The Forbidden Fruit Tree – stuck for over a hundred years.
The pink grapefruit was first discovered at Florida’s Atwood Grapefruit Co. in 1910. At the time, it was the largest grapefruit grove in the world with a yearly output of 80,000 boxes of fruit. The owner reacted to the discovery with nothing more than curiosity, saying that the fruit would be no more popular than an egg with a green yolk.
When distilled in the context of gin – pink grapefruit is quite simply sublime. Typically, it is the peel that is used, however the likes of Tanqueray No. TEN use the entire fruit.
With a caustic nature similar to lemon or lime but without their distinct aroma, often it is Pink Grapefruit’s chameleon-like quality that makes it so special when it comes to adding a citrus touch to a gin.
Gins where Pink Grapefruit is noticeable to taste:
Dartmouth English Gin and Beefeater’s Crown Jewel are good examples of what the role the botanical plays in a classically styled gin, bringing with it a fresh acidity.
Chase Pink Grapefruit and Pomelo Gin is also a good expression that showcases of a clear citrus forward profile underpinned by juniper. If you want something that's more grapefruit than gin, look towards the likes of Malfy Rosa.
Yuzu is an ugly little lemon/grapefruit monster. We know it’s unkind to say it, but this oft wrinkled little citrus fruit from Japan is not going to win any beauty contents. Luckily, when it comes to taste, it’s what’s inside (and the oils in that skin) that matters, and yuzu packs one hell of a punch.
You would have had to try really hard to not witness the explosion of this fruit in the last couples of years. As a passion for Japan came, so did a passion for its ingredients, from sansho to cherry blossom to matcha to this beautiful little fruit. Looking a little like a forgotten grapefruit, the yuzu is a beautiful one to taste, capturing the imagination of many distillers along the way.
While it is widely regarded as a Japanese ingredient, the fruit originated in China, but a wee bit of seed sewing during the Tang Dynasty saw the fruit flourish wildly across Japan and Korea. It is rare, amongst the citrus world, at least, for a plant to be as hardy as the yuzu, but its complex ancestry allows it to survive deep frosts.
Hints of lemon and grapefruit intertwine, resulting in a rich, pungent citrus taste that tends to dominate proceedings. The Japanese use it to makes jams and marmalades, they use the oils from the peel as a relaxant in the bath and – perhaps most famously of all – use it to make ponzu sauce. Koreans, for their part, drink it with honey as a tea equivalent.
The popularity of Japanese produce and the sheer deliciousness of yuzu means that it’s in hot demand. Less than a decade ago, Korea was struggling to keep up with the Japanese import market, but with the fruit now a “must have” in Western countries too, demand is far outstripping supply, driving the price up (and causing scraps in the supermarket aisle as and when it does land on these shores).
With lemons, limes, grapefruits and oranges widely available across the world, it isn’t remiss to wonder if the use of yuzu is a statement, rather than a decision driven by flavour. Yuzu screams of the exotic, positively draping a Japanese flag across the gin, the food, the bath gel it contains. Yet while the flavour it presents is rich, intense and booming, it isn’t necessarily one that cannot be substituted with lemon or grapefruit.
Gins in which yuzu is noticeable to taste:
Ki No Bi Gin, as the proud waver of the ‘first Japanese craft gin’ flag, is rich with the stuff. It fills the nose and mouth with huge lemony flavours. Japanese inspires Jinzu gin, made with cherry blossom and sake, also features yuzu, as does the brand new gin Roku… can you see a pattern?
If you want to really understand gin, it’s important to get to know juniper. We would compare it to understanding the influence of casks for whisky fans, grapes for winos or dilution of ice for bartenders. Juniper is such an important aspect of gin that quite literally, it is not only the primary botanical used in gin but by law, it needs to be the predominant flavour in anything seeking to be classified as gin. The aroma and taste of juniper is – or at least should be – the signature note in any gin, both on the nose and on the palate. Even the name Gin itself is derived from either the French genièvre or the Dutch jenever, which both mean juniper.
We’re about to go all green fingered on you all, so bear with us for a while – there is a point to this… Juniper shrubs vary in size and shape, are evergreen and are usually low spreading bush type plants. They are a low maintenance plant to grow and while they prefer an acidic pH soil, they don’t have a problem in soil pHs that are not acidic either. We’ve heard of Juniper shrubs being used for groundcovers, border plantings and understand that they are especially helpful in preventing soil erosion, weed control and planting on difficult parts of a landscape. From our own experience with them – we know that juniper shrubs are quite drought tolerant and perform well enough in rock gardens too. If this wasn’t enough, most varieties of juniper require very little pruning, if any. It is therefore not surprising to hear that depending on your taxonomic viewpoint, there are between 50-67 species of juniper and they are found in most countries in the Northern hemisphere. They are amazing plants.
In fact, “Common Juniper” has one of the largest geographic range of any woody plant in the world. Occurring from Western Alaska throughout Canada and Northern USA, in coastal areas of Greenland, Iceland, throughout Europe and in Northern Asia and Japan. It was once widespread in Europe, except for some low-lying areas around the Mediterranean and it even occurs in small patches of North Africa. It’s amazing to think that juniper occurs at varying elevations and at its southernmost extent it has been recorded at altitudes of up to 3,500 metres. If this was a grape, wine makers would be going crazy over it. Given we all understand that soil, climate and growing conditions all affect grapes and that this has resulted in the term “terroir’ used to define wine regions, styles etc… why should it be so different in juniper bushes and as a result in gin? If you interested in this, an interesting Gin to seek out is Origin as it is available in 6 different varieties, where the juniper is the only thing to change as it has been selected from different terroirs.
While juniper occurs in patches in England and throughout most of Scotland, it is only really common in the Highlands. Two subspecies can be found in Scotland, of which the erect, shrubby form is most widespread. In the UK, few specimens grow taller than 5 meters but in other countries it has been known to grow up to 10m high.
In the Highlands, juniper is more abundant in the drier, Eastern part of the country. Interestingly for you horticulturists out there, the bark is brown on young plants, but turns grey as it gets older. The flavour profile of young, green berries is dominated by pinene (resinous, woody pine notes) and as they mature this piney, resinous character is joined by greener citric notes. The outer scales of the berries are relatively flavourless, so the berries are almost always at least lightly crushed before being used as a spice. This matters less with making gin as during the maceration period, the alcohol will permeate through the skin relatively easily regardless. Juniper berries are primarily used dried as opposed to fresh in gin production, but their flavour and odour is at their strongest immediately after harvest and declines during the drying process and subsequent storage.
Because of its vast geographic global range, juniper is not considered threatened at an international level. However, in Britain there has been a substantial decline in both the distribution of juniper and the size of juniper colonies, particularly in England. As a result, juniper remains the subject of a Biodiversity Action Plan, under the government’s response to the Convention on Biological Diversity agreed at the 1992 Earth Summit. Cue paragraph one – if you like gin, and can’t really be bothered with gardening but have some space – get some juniper in there!
Rather fascinatingly, juniper is dioecious, i.e. individual plants are either male or female, unlike most tree species, where both male and female flowers occur on the same tree. Male flowers appear as yellow blossoms near the ends of the twigs in spring and release pollen, which is then dispersed by the wind. Female flowers are in the form of very small clusters of scales, and after pollination these grow to become berry-like cones. Shaped like irregularly-sided spheres, these berries are green at first, but ripen after 18 months to a dark, blue-purple colour – prime for taking and adding to a botanical selection in order to make gin.
Each juniper berry contains half a dozen seeds which are triangular, hard and black, and are dispersed by birds which eat the berries. All juniper species grow berries, but most are considered too bitter to eat. In addition to Juniperus Communis, other edible species include Juniperus Drupacea, Juniperus Phoenicea, Juniperus Deppeana and Juniperus Californica. Some species, for example Juniperus Sabina, are toxic and consumption is inadvisable. In all fairness however, it’s rare to come across anything other than the communis in the UK, so you’ll probably be okay if don’t have the Encylopedia Botanica to hand during your hike and you get peckish.
Because of their long ripening period, berries can occur on a juniper shrub throughout the year and as such, it is usually possible to see them at different stages of development on the same plant. Usually, juniper seeds are slow to germinate and normally require two winters of dormancy before they will sprout and begin growing. Juniper, as an entire plant is a slow-growing species, but in optimal conditions it can grow up to 28 cm in a year.
It is for its gastronomic, medicinal and ritual properties that juniper is best known. The Romans used juniper berries as a cheap domestically-produced substitute for the expensive black pepper. Something similar can be seen when berries were ground and added to sauces and especially to game dishes in England and Scotland to add a bitter, spicy flavour, and were used to flavour breads and cakes in the North of England. From a bit of light reading – it would seem that the juniper berry is still being considered as a possible treatment for diet-controlled diabetes, as it allegedly releases insulin from the pancreas (hence alleviating hunger).
From a remedial purpose – the earliest recorded medicinal use of juniper berries occurs in an Egyptian papyrus dating back to 1500 BC, in a recipe to cure tapeworm infestations. The Romans too used the berries for purification and stomach ailments, while the famous mediaeval herbalist Culpepper recommended them for a wide variety of conditions including the treatment of flatulence, for which juniper oil is still used today. Juniper berries have also been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, including Juniperus Phoenicia and Juniperus Oxycedrus at multiple sites. The latter is not known to grow in Egypt, and neither is Juniperus Excelsa, which was found along in the tomb of Tutankhamun. It would have been likely that the berries would have been imported into Egypt from Greece.
Allegedly, the Greeks used juniper berries in many of their Olympic events because of their belief that the berries increased physical stamina in athletes. On a separate note – chemicals in the berries also stimulate contraction of the uterine muscles and could potentially be administered during labour. These properties were used to abort an unwanted pregnancy in Middle Ages, and the phrase used in Lothian of giving birth “under the savin (an older name for juniper) tree” was a euphemism for juniper-induced miscarriage.
The largest body of folklore concerning juniper comes from Iceland where amongst other things, it was traditionally believed that juniper and rowan could not grow together because each creates so much heat that one of the trees would burn up. For the same reason it was considered not a good idea to bring sprigs of both woods into the house together unless you particularly wanted your house to burn down. Thankfully for us gin fans, Coarunn Gin’s distillery (who use both to make their gin) has been safe and sound for a few years, which should help dispel that myth.
Practical uses of the juniper’s wood are few, and it was most commonly used to burn for its smoke. Though burning juniper wood gives off only minimal visible smoke, it is highly aromatic and in ancient times it was used during the ritual purification of temples. The smoke was said to aid clairvoyance, and continued to be burned for purification and to stimulate contact with the “otherworld”. In central Europe juniper smoke played a part in the spring-time cleansing and casting out of witchcraft. Juniper was also burned during outbreaks of the Plague, while doctors were known to place it in their mask’s beaks as a rudimentary filter. Little did they know it was in fact the rats not the air that caused the problems.
Juniper’s use in alcoholic drinks and the use of its wood’s smoke are drawn together neatly in the tales of illicit Highland whisky stills hidden away in the glens, which used juniper wood for fuel so that the near absence of smoke would not attract the suspicions of the local excise man. Juniper berries are still used by certain whisky distillers to sweeten the still during the first distillation of a new still, although it is now widely acknowledged that this is more ritualistic than for flavouring.
From a more liquor-oriented point of view, in the nineteenth century Highland juniper bushes were prolific enough for their berries to be collected by the bagful and taken to the Inverness and Aberdeen markets to be exported to the Dutch gin distillers. The berries are also used to flavour other alcoholic beverages such as a Swedish health beer and a French beer-like drink called ‘genevrette’ made from equal amounts of juniper berries and barley.
Recently, some American distilleries have begun using ‘New World’ varieties of juniper such as Juniperus Occidentalis. Our favourite variety purely for its name is Juniperus Deppeana, or Alligator Juniper, whose bark is usually very distinctive unlike other junipers, hard, dark grey-brown, cracked into small square plates superficially resembling alligator skin. A few North American juniper species are known to produce a seed cone with a sweeter, less resinous flavour than those typically used as a spice.
According to George Dodd of the Whisky Aroma Academy, because of its use in herbal medicine and aromatherapy, there is a lot of information about the aroma molecules of juniper berries. Surprisingly given the amount of varieties, geography and growing conditions, there is quite a good consistency in the quantitative composition of oils amongst juniper from various parts of the globe.
The piney antiseptic notes are allegedly from the hydrocarbon Alpha-pinene, which forms between 40 and 45% of the aroma molecules in juniper. Sabinene, another Hydrocarbon is the second most common molecule (around 5-15%). Other molecules include Lemonene (4-5%), Farnesene, which gives a floral note (around 5%) and Borneol and its woody notes (around 5%) to name a few. Each molecule brings with it individual aromas that depending on the overall percentages they have, combine to give slight variations to the final nose. As George mentions in his Gin Aroma Kit, “the aromas of junipers is an exciting and never ending story and the success of some gins may be due to trace juniper ingredients rather than the [other] listed botanicals”.
If aroma can form such a large impact on our perception of taste, and that a trace within an individual botanical can vary and alter our impressions of the overall composition – just imagine the endless possibilities when you start interchanging the strain of botanicals or where they came from.
Gins where Juniper is noticeable to taste:
Any classic London Dry Gin should carry noticable flavours of juniper. Hell, any good gin should taste of juniper and by law, it's required to predominant to be called gin in the first place. That said, there are gins where it plays a much bigger role. Junipero Gin and Sipsmith VJOP both carry deep, resinous juniper notes and are definitely advisable for those seeking a juniper heavy gin. Never Never have a Juniper Freak Gin, which delivers what the name suggests. If you prefer a more clean, green and fresh juniper, Oxley Gin is just what the (plague) doctor ordered.
Alternatively, try either Hernö or Blackwater’s Juniper Cask offerings, where they have both taken the juniper wood and created bespoke mini-casks that give off a particularly sappy, resinous note.
Herbs & Roots
Chamomile is a pretty plant that grows on long stems and has small, white flowers with yellow heads that closely resemble those of a daisy. The plant is native to many countries throughout Western Europe, though is also cultivated in Asia, North Africa and some parts of Eastern Europe.
Chamomile as a plant is famed for its medicinal properties, having been used since the Middle Ages as a treatment for asthma, colic and stomach upset. Today, the plant is commonly used as a sedative in tea form, though its anti-septic, anti-inflammatory properties still mean it is distributed to calm the stomach.
Another, perhaps more whimsical use of chamomile that could be interesting for bartenders to play around with, is the use of the herb in encouraging lucid dreams. For years, people have imbibed the leaf before bed in a bid to take control of their night time adventures.
If distilled on its own, other than the botanical’s warming floral tones – the sweetness also becomes apparent. Soft and succulent – it seems much clearer and more aromatic than when having it in a hot Chamomile tea. As a floral botanical used in gin recipes, one of chamomile’s biggest benefits is its ability to deal with the heat required during distillation. Unlike many more delicate flowers it doesn’t rot or become putrid too quickly, allowing distillers the chance to extract the full set of flavours (from both the flower and the rest of the ingredients) during a run as opposed to having to finish their hearts cut sooner than would be ideal. This is especially true if used in its dried from.
Its second key characteristic in gin is that it doesn’t dissipate (like violet) nor dominate (like lavender) either – allowing it to compliment and soften the heart of a gin as opposed to simply impact the nose or overwhelm all other flavours to taste.
Gins where chamomile is noticeable to taste:
Chamomile’s presence is felt in BLOOM Gin, as well as Tanqueray No.TEN and Silent Pool. For those who are particulaly sensitive to it, you'll notice the effect in Hendrick's Gin, but it's harder to pick out in its own right. In Tanqueray No.TEN in particular, the delicate sweetness it adds to the gin, gives it that distinct smooth sipping quality.
ELDERFLOWER & ELDERBERRIES
The Elderberry is a small bush, peppered with delicate white flowers (i.e. elderflower) that flourishes widely in countries such as the United Kingdom and France, spreading in hedgerows across many of its fields.
The bush produces small, dark berries that are commonly used in juices and jams. The flowers are sweet, honey-scented clusters of white that, when used fresh, make deliciously sweet cordials and liqueur – the famous and globally known of which is probably St Germain’s.
The berries are known to be rich in antioxidants and are also said to reduce the time in which one suffers from the flu. They’re also used in the treatment of conjunctivitis and for relieving the pain of arthritis – the latter medicinal property discovered by a sailor, who (when elderberries were used to disguise the quality of terribly made wine) found that cheap port relieved his symptoms… Unfortunately, these properties do not distil over.
Once distilled, Elderberries keep much of their tarty nature. Deep jam-like tones are created and as a botanical, they are perfect to add a rich depth to the heart of a gin. They pair particularly well with resinous types of juniper (typically from Macedonia) as when combined, can give a booming forest fruit flavour to the mix.
Elderflower on the other hand, is as one might expect, more floral and lighter to taste. In the context of gin, it is more apparent on the nose but they also serve as a useful floral botanical to add soft freshness to a gin, as opposed to using flowers like rose or honeysuckle, that can sometimes veer into more perfumed territory.
Gins in which elderflower is noticeable to taste:
Warner's have an elderflower infused gin, while their Dry gins also make good use of it to add a floral touch to the nose. Shortcross Gin use the flower to add a levity in their gin. Hendrick’s Gin makes good use of the soft sent elderflower brings the mix, although the rose and cucumber dominate so it’s not easy to discern it as an individual botanical.
Silent Pool makes fantastic use of the flowers, where it is particularly apparent on the nose, adding an inviting bouquet to their gin.
Gins in which elderberries are noticeable to taste:
Shortcross Gin make good use of elderberries – ( combining with the flower in its botanical line up as mentioned above as well). Dorothy Parker has a delicious jammy tone as a result of the berries.
Kaffir Lime Leaves
Kaffir Limes are a bright green citrus fruit native to tropical areas of Asia. They are similar in appearance to key limes, though somewhat uglier, with dimpled, crocodile skin.
Kaffir lime leaves are used readily in Southeast Asian cuisine, bringing with them a strong (and somewhat unsurprising) lime flavour. They’re both floral and citrusy to taste, bringing an aromatic freshness to the dishes they populate.
Kaffir lime also goes by the name makrut lime – a title which is growing in popularity due to the connotations associated with the word kafir, which means non-believer in Arabic and which was widely used as a racial slur by colonialists in Africa in the 20th century.
The leaves offer huge medicinal benefits, from detoxifying the blood, improving digestion and promoting oral health. Next time you happen to be cooking up a Thai storm, rub a leaf onto your gums to test it out (or just add it as a garnish to your G&T, that’s close enough right?). The benefits seem endless, with the juice from the lime even used to treat male pattern baldness and seeing as distillation extracts all of the essential oils from a product, a gin with a kaffir lime leaf present is pretty much a health drink. Pretty much…
Although it is possible to distil the fruit, the peel or the leaves, it is the latter that tends to be chosen for gin. Once distilled it plays on this dual nature that makes it so sought after in both cooking – slightly herbal and citrus in equal measure. It makes for an ideal “bridge” botanical to go from juniper’s sometimes medicinal nature to more lively citrus. Crucially, in the ensemble of flavours lime leaves can also provide the illusion of citrus at a later period of the flavour experience (much like coriander seed) as opposed to upfront alongside lemon, orange or lime peel.
Gins in which kaffir lime leaves are noticeable to taste:
Berkeley Square and GinRaw, both make use of this aromatic wonder-leaf. It is particularly strong in Ginraw both on the nose and to taste.
Lavender is an evergreen shrub whose bright purple flowers give off an overwhelmingly striking, completely unique fragrance. The plant – which is part of the mint family – is believed to be from the Mediterranean, Middle East and India.
Lavender was used by the ancient Egyptian’s as an embalming ingredient, the Greeks as a perfume-come-headache-remedy, and the Romans as a fragrance. In fact, the plant takes its names from the Latin word ‘lavare,’ which means to wash. In the Provence region of southern France, the lavender bloom from June to August and much of the crop that is farmed there is still to make soap and cosmetics.
As well as fragrance, lavender is used as flavouring, though it is so rich in essential oils as to be overwhelming. That said, when used sparingly it can give a hugely floral, surprisingly savoury taste to the dishes it adorns. It is a key part of Provençal cuisine and if you haven’t tried lavender honey or lavender sorbets… you’ve missed out!
In terms of an ingredient in gin, it can be distilled to provide exactly what you might expect from the plant – a booming lavender smell. As a botanical, it is also a great way to tell how accomplished a distiller is, as if overcooked, over-infused or simply, if the wrong variety is selected in the first place – once distilled it can be incredibly soapy. If too pungent, not only does it dominate the rest of the botanicals, but it also makes the aroma highly perfumed, artificial and no longer fresh.
If distilled judiciously however, lavender can provide a rich aroma and dance off many spiced botanicals, in particular, the like of Cubeb Berries. Many distillers who use it, do not infuse it overnight even if they are steeping their other botanicals, rather opting to place it in the pot at the last minute.
Gins where lavender is noticeable to taste:
Masons Dry Yorkshire Gin have a lavender edition in their range, Mews Gin combines it very cleverly with Pink Peppercorn in theirs to delicious effect, while Aviation Gin use it to soften the profile of their gin.
If you want to taste it by the bucket load and love lavender forward gins however, it is clear in Brooklyn Gin and pungent in Pothecary Gin – where it is upfront and centre from the second you pop the cork!
Lemongrass, less catchily known as cymbopogon ciratus, is the stalky, fresh taste of so much Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, famed for its fresh, lemony taste. There are two types of the plant in existence: West Indian, with long, spear-shaped leaves, and East Indian. Both are used interchangeably, though it is the former that has spread its way amongst the tropics.
Lemongrass has an incredibly distinctive taste, but it’s one you’d struggle to describe without sounding like a bit of an imbecile. What does lemon grass taste like? Grassy lemon, actually…
The leaves – more specifically, their oils – have a historic use in medicine; it’s been used to treat everything from high blood pressure, to convulsions, to rheumatism, fever and even fatigue. If you happen to have some of the oil lying around the house, dab it onto your skin next time you get a headache and it’ll help ease the burden.
The popularity of lemongrass as a gin botanical gas leaped in the past couple of years, with gins from across the world making great use of the huge aroma it offers. When distilled, it delivers a bright green, citrus nose with a zingy, ever so slightly candied feel. It’s vaguely medicinal, but brings a huge, crunching freshness to a gin. The smell translates, too; it’s so bright and overwhelming that it coats the tongue entirely, bringing a perfume like waxiness and the taste of fresh cut grass.
Gins in which lemongrass is evident to taste:
Bangkok made Iron Balls Gin makes great use of the botanical, as does Isfjord Arctic Gin. Asian inspired gins in particular love a bit of lemongrass, like Bobby’s Schiedam Dry Gin and Adnams Rising Sun.
Great examples where it’s a little more evident to detect on its own can be found in St. Giles Gin and Le Tribute, in which the botanical paints a particularly vivid picture.
Rosemary is a woody, perennial herb with needle-like leaves and small blue flowers. Its Latin name, Rosmarinus, translates to “dew of the sea,” a tribute to its Mediterranean origins.
The history of rosemary is somewhat varied, with tales of fairies, witches, death and weddings in its past. Medicinal uses of rosemary have ranged from the logical (rosemary contains an ingredient, carnosic acid, that can combat free radical damage in the brain) to the bizarre (it is one of four components of an elixir used by French thieves during the outbreak of the bubonic plague. They’d douse themselves in an herbal vinegar and plunder the homes of victims with no fear of catching the disease themselves).
Rosemary is a divine smelling herb that is incredibly easy to grow yourself. It’s piney and fresh with a savoury feel, though there is an underlying, perfume-like sweetness. Its use in gin is usually quite understated as it can be a little medicinal, but when it is used well it adds an increased sweetness and a long finish to a gin.
As it tends to dominate, many distillers opt to place it in the vapour chamber (if they have one) during distillation – or use it in such small quantities that proportionately, it is in a smaller dose than other pervasive flavours such as orange peel and even in this low amount, still has a big effect on the end outcome.
Gins where Rosemary is noticeable to taste:
Rosemary makes its way into the botanical line up of many gins. The two where it's clear as a button both on the nose and to taste are: Gin Mare and Sabatini Gin.
Angelica is somewhat of a nomadic plant – believed to be a native of Syria, though also grown wild in the Nordics and cultivated in France, Germany, Romania and some East Asian Countries. Provenance makes little mark on quality with both good and bad sources in all of these countries, making ginsmiths generally relaxed on the matter of where they get it from.
There are around thirty varieties of the species, with some grown as flavouring agents and others for medicinal purposes. The plant can also be used to make a fadno – a traditional musical instrument used by the people of Lapland (and here we were, thinking they were busy making our Christmas presents!), and is very popular amongst Wiccans, who use angelica to promote healing & protection against negative energies.
The historically curative nature of angelica lends itself nicely to a drink-based exploration into old medicine, and the Green Tea Tonic, as featured in Warren Bobrow’s Apothecary Cocktails book, could be just the thing needed to kick that cold, without kicking our beloved gin to the curb. Angelica can also be found in the likes of Fernet, some vermouths and Chartreuse.
The root of angelica is the part most commonly used in gin production, though there are some gins that use the flower or the seeds instead. Beefeater for example, uses both the root and the seed in their botanical line up. Once distilled, angelica has an earthy flavour. It’s a little bitter and a little herbal, and is reminiscent of wormwood. The herbal tones carry through to the nose, with a faintly nettle-like smell.
The flavour of angelica can sometimes be mistaken for that of juniper berries – though the two are quite separate. This confusion is likely due to the root’s enduring use in gin – angelica is regarded by many as the third major ingredient in the spirit, following juniper and coriander seeds.
Many producers acknowledge Angelica’s role as a “binding’ agent in their gin, but to date, there has been little to no evidence to suggest this is true on a chemical level. Must be some of the botanical’s witchcraft associations coming back in.
Gins where Angelica is noticeable to taste:
Angelica almost always takes a backseat in gin flavour profiles however, Plymouth Navy Strength and Hayman’s Royal Dock are two gins in which the taste of angelica is discernible on the finish. If you can't taste it, look out for the effect it has in that it dries out the profile.
Also, 58 Gin uses an usual, fresher type of angelica root – which is clearly noticeable when tasted neat.
Liquorice – the root of the Glycyrrhiza glabra (try saying that after a couple of G&Ts) – is a sweet, woody botanical that has been used as a sugar alternative for centuries.
Native to southern Europe and India, liquorice has a steep and varied history. It was found in King Tut’s tomb (apparently, he wanted to make his favourite sweet drink – Mai Sus – in the afterlife), and was distributed to the army of Alexander the Great to fend off thirst and to increase stamina. Napoleon, too, was a fan of the stuff – so much so that it ground his teeth to blackened stumps.
Liquorice root carries a somewhat unique taste; it’s like anise or meadowsweet but without the mentholic qualities. A soft, hay-like wood taste comes through, along with a loud, bright, crystalised sugar. Distilled, the flavour doesn’t much change – it brings all of those qualities to a gin, and also has a very powerful capacity to change the texture and mouthfeel of a gin, bringing oily, viscous qualities. The biggest misconception that people associate with gins that list the botanical in their recipes is that liquorice root is similar to liquorice sweets. It couldn’t be further from the truth.
Gins where Liquorice is noticeable to taste:
City of London’s Christopher Wren Gin has liquorice root by the bucketload. Made in partnership with Tom Nichol, the gin uses just five botanicals but is given an incredible depth of flavour and length of finish by the root.
Tanqueray Malacca shares a very similar DNA to Christopher Wren and takes its smoothness from thick, oily liquorice root. Strathearn Heather Rose Gin also makes good use of the root; it provides the spirit with a lovely, earthy sweetness – entirely reminiscent of old school sweet shop liquorice sticks.
Orris is the root of the iris, a beautiful, blooming flower species that grows across widely across the world. The root is taken specifically from the Iris Pallida and Iris Germanica plants.
A lot of work goes into harvesting orris; after three to four years of growth, the roots are dug up and left to dry for many years, before being ground to powder. Typically, orris root used in Gin has been dried for five years or more.
Dried orris root take on a hugely floral, sweet smell that is most often compared to (Parma) violets. The root has been used in perfumes for years – not just for its own smell, but for its ability to bind and enhance other scents. That said, there is no science to back claims that orris has a fixative quality once distilled and to date, the understood chemistry of molecules and papers submitted on the subject have only opened up more questions than they have resolved.
In fact, its cosmetic use far surpasses its medicinal use (although fresh root of iris was said to have been used as a cure for oedema). Ancient Greeks and Ancient Romans used orris in perfumery and the root, mixed with anise, was used to scent linen as far back as 1480. Channel No5 is thought to contain a high proportion of Orris Root.
Distilled, orris root retains its floral notes, but it also carries an earthy, dusty sweetness that falls somewhere in the middle of grass and hay. The nose is dry, sweet and clean, while the mouth is strong, sweet and woody – similar in taste to liquorice sticks. Much like liquorice, orris has cheek filling qualities and is capable of adding depth and texture to a gin.
Gins where orris root is noticeable to taste:
Orris is a little shy in gin as it is often used in very small doses. Furthermore, much like juniper, angelica and coriander, it is used so widely in the spirit that it can be hard to pick just one out. It shares strong similarities with angelica, which is also used as a binding agent.
Plymouth Gin has a notable orris presence, so too does Victory Gin and the Devon violets within Tarquin’s Dry Gin combine well with orris to give an overall floral note to the gin.
Nuts & Spices
Caraway is a plant native to western Asia, Europe and northern Africa. The plant stems grow one and a half – to two feet high, and flower in June. The fruits of the flower – commonly, and incorrectly, referred to as seeds – are said to ease gas, but they’re most commonly used as flavouring in food, sweets and spirits.
The cultivation of caraway is more restricted than it’s wild growth would attest – it grows in Canada and the United States, for example, though neither country grows it as a field of garden crop. In fact, cultivation comes from almost exclusively from Europe and North Africa.
Caraway has its place in history – its use is believed to have begun with the ancient Arabs and it has its name in the works of Shakespeare. In old times, caraway was though to hold the gift of retention – the theft of any object which contained it would hold the thief in custody in the invaded house. Similarly, as an ingredient it is part of many a love potion, thought to prevent lovers from becoming fickle.
Caraway has a peppery, menthol taste on the tongue and adds a real freshness to gin. After the initial minty hint has diminished, the flavour gives way to a taste not unlike sunflower seeds.
Gins where Caraway is noticeable to taste:
Hendrick’s Gin has caraway however, you’ll have to have a nose like a blood hound to discern it in there. In The Bitter Truth Pink Gin it’s a little more prominent.
Look towards Scandinavian Gins for more discernible caraway back notes - for example Bareksten Botanical Gin.
Native to southern India, but also cultivated in Guatemala, Indo China and Tanzania, cardamom is a unique spice, as essential to tea in India as it is to sausages in the Western world. The seeds come from a plant belonging to the ginger family, and are contained in small pods around the size of a cranberry.
As with many popular gin botanicals, cardamom pods were valued for its medicinal qualities ahead of its taste. Ancient Egyptians doubled it up as a mouthwash/embalming solution and Greeks and Romans added it to perfumes and ointments. Its medicinal use has been varied – from curing congestion and tuberculosis to spider and snake bites. Modern medicine believes cardamom to have mood-elevating properties, and as such is used to treat depression.
Cardamom has a pungent and identifiable aroma in spice form, but once it’s been distilled it becomes very green, like a blanket of grass. There is a definite piquancy on the nose as well, and to taste it’s identifiable only as itself – a slightly perfumed flavour, sweet at the fore with a fiery finish. Green cardamom seeds lend an additional eucalyptol flavour to gins, while black cardamom add a more smoky finish.
Gins where Cardamom pods are noticeable to taste:
Gins with a strong cardamom kick are Bathtub Navy Strength Gin, 209 Gin, Sacred Cardamom Gin and Opihr Gin.
A gin with Black Cardamom rather than the usual green is Dodd’s Gin, who deliberately use it for its smokier profile.
The evergreen trees from which cassia bark is stripped originated in southern China and have been widely cultivated across Asia. The trees produce long, beautiful leaves and buds that resemble cloves in appearance.
Cassia is a relative of the true cinnamon of Sri Lanka, and is often mis-sold as “cinnamon” in North America (especially in powder form). For those seeking out a food with strong cassia bark flavour to compare – Big Red chewing gum is the perfect example. According to modern studies, the smell of cinnamon increases cognitive processes, so if you want to remember the following, grab a handful and great inhaling…
The use of cinnamon dates to at least 2700 B.C. It was adopted as a treatment for fever and menstrual problems by Chinese herbalists and was even present in the time of the pharaohs, where it was used as part of the mummification process.
While cassia bark emits a fiery scent, it’s a little sweeter than cinnamon. Gin makers use both spices quite commonly, though they are used sparingly. As a botanical it lends a complex base note and a certain feeling of familiarity. Its hot and spicy smell conjures up images of exotic markets and far-flung destinations, but it has an earthy tone and a sweet finish, reminiscent of liquorice. Typically, the flavour is more noticeable towards the finish when tasting gin, as opposed to on the aroma.
Gins where Cassia Bark is noticeable to taste:
Opihr and Bathtub Navy Strength Gin have a noticeable cassia kick, and while it is more nuanced in Langley’s No.8 Gin, there is a distinct cassia kick on the finish.
Native to regions as wide and varied as Southern Europe, North Africa and South West Asia, coriander – also known as cilantro – is quite the controversial plant. The herb is said to create a reaction more Marmite than, well, Marmite, with aficionados claiming a deep-rooted love and denouncers taking out billboards decrying the soapy taste of the stuff.
The etymology behind the name coriander is an interesting one. Named for its smell rather than it’s medicinal or culinary qualities, coriander derives from the Greek word koros (insect) or koriannon (bug). We’re yet to sniff any fragrant bugs here at Gin Foundry, but we’ll let you know the comparison as soon as the chance arises.
In the context of gin, almost always (whether defined or not), 99% of gin makers mean coriander seed when they say they use coriander. The location from where it is sourced has a large impact on the overall flavour profile too and many gin makers will spend careful hours researching where they get their crop.
Moreover, some gin makers even roast their coriander seeds before steeping, while others deliberately crush them.
The aroma of freshly crushed coriander seeds is said to have a narcotic effect when inhaled, earning it a cute little nickname – dizzycorn. While it’s safe to say that the blame for any effects you feel after a couple of G&Ts lies solely at alcohol’s door, it’s a fun notion to play around with and would couple up well in a cocktail with a certain green fairy…
On a molecular level, nearly 70% of coriander seed oil is a single alcohol called linalool but the second major component is alpha-pinene, the key ingredient in juniper. Perhaps this is why the pair blend together so perfectly. Other molecules in a considerably quantity (just under 10%) is gamma-terpinene, which is responsible for that lemony-citrus note.
Coriander plays a central role in the gin world, and is the second most used botanical after juniper. It is actually quite rare to find a gin that doesn’t have coriander see. That said, its tone is usually nuanced. The plant has a complex flavour once distilled, all at once citrusy, nutty and a little spicy.
Typically, in a gin, the flavour of coriander seed is more discernable towards the end of the flavour journey. If a gin has citrus, these elements will come off upfront while the citrusy nature of coriander seed will present itself thereafter –towards the heart / end of a gin.
Gins where Coriander Seed is noticeable to taste:
Coriander is particularly prevalent Tanqueray London Dry. The juniper might star, but its relationship with coriander seed and that oscillating citrus-meets-floral-meets-spice twang is present throughout. Brands that also make distinguishable use of coriander seed are Cremorne London Dry and Greenall's Gin.
Cubeb is an Indonesian plant that is cultivated for its fruit and oil. The fruits are gathered before they ripen and left to dry. Once dried, they’re similar in appearance (and taste) to black pepper, though easy to discern as they’re usually sold with their tails attached.
Cubeb has long been used in medicine and also has its place in irony – see for example, the fact that cubeb cigarettes were sold in the Victorian era as an asthma treatment. It’s is also sold as an aphrodisiac and is featured in many love potions. We’re not sure it worked for either use… It is however fantastic in Gin.
Cubeb berries have long been used alongside juniper as their unique combination of intense lavender-like floral aroma combined with a cracked pepper taste, allow them to pair so well with it and other core gin botanicals. While they reputedly have high levels of limonene which should give off a strong citrus feel – this is not evident to taste at all.
Once distilled, the berries change in surprising directions. If distilled as an individual distillate, to taste, the spirit is certainly spicy and walks a fine tightrope between being savoury and soapy, with an unexpected floral sweetness. A higher ABV spirit will bring a black pepper piquancy to the nose, but when watered down, has a soft, floral hint with an earthy undertones. The fact that it is hard to place, yet so evocative, means that Cubebs can give a gin both a soft lift and deep finish to gin, all without revealing why or what’s behind it. This bi-polar nature makes the botanical both an extraordinary ingredient to play with in the context of gin but also, one thats fraught with difficulties to perfect.
The pervasive nature of the spice is one to be wary of in particular – it can very easily dominate a gin if not kept to a small and carefully controlled quantity.
Gins where cubeb is noticeable to taste:
Cubeb rears its spicy head in Poetic License, Opihr Oriental Spiced Gin and in can be smelled, tasted and lingers long after the gin has gone in Blue Bottle Gin.
Grains of Paradise
The West African coast became so infamous for its abundance of spices that it quickly became known as The Pepper Coast (or Grain Coast). Grains of paradise were a particular cash crop for the region, its worth bolstered by the claims of medieval spice traders who claimed that the spice could only grow in Eden (hence the name).
Grains of paradise – or aframomum melegueta if you’re feeling a bit Latin – is a member of the ginger family and is a naturally herbaceous, perennial plant that grows comfortably in swampy habitats. The plant has trumpet-shaped, purple flowers that develop into 5 – 7cm long pods which contain numerous small, red-brown seeds with a peppery taste.
Grains of paradise has played a role in the history of alcohol production, especially after its popularity waned and it became used to flavour beer. England was importing between 15,000 and 19,000lbs a year in 1855, though this ground almost to a halt after a parliamentary act forbade its use in malt liquor, aqua vita and cocktails.
The seeds have a woody, almost piney aroma and a warm, peppery taste. Though the grains are re-emerging as an increasingly popular pepper alternative, they don’t have the harshness. You could happily bite down on a seed or two without sneezing yourself into the next room (although your teeth won’t thank you – the grains tend to be rock hard), though the fiery taste is undoubtedly present, and carries through when distilled.
Gins where Grains of Paradise are noticeable to taste:
Gins with a discernible grains of paradise hint include Opihr Gin and Bathtub Navy Strength Gin.
While it’s not as easy to tell, as the overall impression isn’t of a “spiced” gin – Bombay Sapphire has a clear grains of paradise streak on the finish.
Nutmeg, along with its twin sister mace, is a spice taken from trees within the myristika frangrans family. Though the spices come from the same fruit they are created differently, with nutmeg the product of the nut in its centre, and mace taken from the red, glossy skin that wraps itself around the nut like a web. Nutmeg has been a permanent fixture on spice shelves throughout history, and it is with no hyperbole that we say wars were fought over it. Such was its popularity that English colonials fought for control of the Indonesian Banda Islands (also known as the Spice Islands), from which the tree originated.
The tiny Banda Islands, as the sole source of nutmeg at the time, were quite vulnerable to those who sought the spice, and this susceptibility played out when the Dutch invaded them in 1621. The Dutch East India Company, founded by Dutch merchants in 1602, took great measures to protect the nutmeg. They executed every male over the age of 15 and displayed the heads of village leaders on poles to discourage rebellion. To keep value high, the production of the spice was concentrated into easily guarded areas, and seeds were not allowed to leave the area while still fertile. The Dutch East India Company went broke by the end of the 17th century, affected in some part by the successful smuggling of nutmeg plans to Mauritius, a tsunami wiping out their crops and the return of the English, who seized the Islands by force in 1809. That and continuous wars with other enterprises and corruption running rife anyway… Karmic retribution either way.
As well as its indigenous home, the nutmeg tree is also cultivated in Malaysia, the Caribbean and Kerala, and while Indonesia is responsible for 75% of the world market share, the Caribbean – particularly Grenada – is accountable for 20%.
The essential oil obtained by steam distillation of ground nutmeg is used widely by the perfumery and pharmaceutical industries, and as an additional bonus, the spice is said to be an aphrodisiac. In fact, history tells that tucking a nutmeg into the left armpit before attending a function was very much believed to attract admirers, so next time you find yourself out on the prowl tuck into a nutmeg heavy gin to build up some Dutch courage (though please, not the beheading kind) with a little help from your spicy friend.
Ginsmiths love nutmeg for the sustained finish it gives a spirit. The spice leaves a lingering warmth on the palate and while there is a dry, earthy sweetness on the nose, to the mouth it brings only a gentle heat.
As pretty as they are spicy, these flavoursome little berries are, in fact, not a pepper at all, but rather a surprise addition to the cashew family. Taken from the Peruvian pepper tree, pink peppercorns have been a growing addition to the British culinary scene, as well as the gin one.
The cashew family, it transpires, is a wide one. In her superb (honestly, it’s a bit of a must-read for all gin/flavour geeks) 2013 book, The Drunken Botanist, Amy Stewart explains that the Peruvian pepper tree is part of the Anacardiacae species, one which holds mangoes, cashews, shellac and poison ivy under its belt. She advises, with that in mind, approaching pink peppercorns with a touch of caution: “People who are highly sensitive to poison ivy, for instance, may find that mango rind gives them a rash. Fortunately, mango flesh is perfectly safe.”
Pink peppercorn is native to South America, where it stills grows in great abundance. The pepper tree has a fondness for the hot, wet climate, though it does its best to proliferate elsewhere, with many species cultivating their way through North America (in fact, the tree is banned in Florida, where it is considered to be an invasive species).
The pink peppercorn is regarded as an equivalent to the cubeb berry in many ways, sharing similar antiseptic and diuretic qualities. In Peru, the pepper berry tree is used to treat conditions as wide and varied as fractures, cuts and rheumatism.
Pink peppercorn has a resinous, pinene quality, which is why it works so well with juniper (hence, it’s rapidly increasing use in gin). There is a light berry sweetness to it, too, but overall it brings a great pop and a big dose of levity. Rounded and fruity, it’s a great addition to anything calling for a hit of spice without that dusty, peppery slap.
Gin isn’t the pink peppercorn’s first foray into the booze world. For years (we’re talking thousands, here), the fruits were used to make beer Chicha, a sort-of beer made by the Amazon Wari tribe from around the year 600BC. There is a deeply fascinating write-up on the ancient brewing techniques here, for those of you inclined to know more.
When distilled, the pink peppercorn retains its almost sappy nature, bringing a certain amount of fire to a spirit. It’s a genuinely exciting flavour and impossible to pinpoint to any one comparison. Pungent, yet light, it brings heat but not fire, is present right off the bat growing in stature until at its peak towards the finish, bringing a sparky introduction to the very first sip of the gin that holds it.
Gins in which Pink Peppercorn is noticeable to taste:
It goes without saying that those seeking to taste the pink peppercorn in all its glory should make an immediate pitstop at Pink Pepper Gin. Vanilla and tonka may dominate the mouth somewhat here, but the pink pepper brings a beautiful depth. Durham Distillery also make great use of the spice, as does Whittaker’s with its Pink Particular Gin. It puts in a brief cameo in Graveney Gin, and… well, others. Many others.
Saffron is a spice taken from the stigma of a crocus flower. Though native to Greece, the popularity of the seasoning led to its cultivation elsewhere and the biggest grower is now Iran, which accounts for around 90% of global production.
The enduring popularity of saffron prevails, despite the fact that it is one of the most expensive spices in the world, and it is used widely in cuisine as a flavour, a fragrance and a colourant.
The first known image of saffron stems from the Bronze Age, and frescoes from as early as 1600 – 1500 B.C. depict the flowers being harvested. It’s history is as rich as it is long – Cleopatra of Egypt was said to bathe in the spice, while in Greco-Roman times, Greeks would wear pouches of saffron in order to cover up the smell of their compatriots on theatre outings.
There is also a place in mythology for saffron – Hellenic legend speaks of handsome youth Crocus and his pursuit of a beautiful nymph, Smilax. They share a brief moment of love in the woods near Athens, but Smilax soon grows tired of Crocus’ attention and transforms him into a flower, the bright orange stigmas of which are said to represent unyielding, unrequited passion.
Though her reaction may seem strong to us in the Internet age, Smilax didn’t quite have the opportunity to unfollow poor old Crocus on Instagram and block his number on Whatsapp, so…
Saffron, once distilled, has a beautiful, gentle flavour. On the nose, it’s sweet and grassy, like sun-warmed hay. To taste, saffron lends a nice push to the juniper in a gin and while there is an overall savoury feel to it, the sweetness in the smell translates to the tongue and the overall flavour recalls cinnamon toast, albeit lightly.
Gins where Saffron is noticeable to taste:
Saffron-heavy gins include Cadenhead Old Raj and Saffron Gin.
Both are leant a distinctive hue as a result of infusing the spice after distillation.