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Do You Speak ‘Botanical’?

Posted on  | April 22, 2015   Bookmark and Share
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London Dry, New Western & Beyond, Botanicals give Gins their Complex Identities

Every hundred years or so, gin starts getting restless. Starting out as the 16th century malty Dutch spirit called genever, the spirit made its way to England, where local tastes favored a juniper-focused style that became known as London dry gin, or the 18th century sweetened version known as Old Tom.

For the most part, gin has remained unchanged since then, with companies including Bols continuing to produce genever for a mostly domestic market and London Dry becoming the best known type of gin. But starting at the end of last century, the amalgam of juniper, coriander, citrus and other botanicals found new companions, from lavender and fir to hawthorne, white pepper and blueberries.

Restless distillers started rummaging about for new recipes and flavors using botanicals consumers didn’t fully understand. In many cases, these spirits started arguments, as the juniper-restrained styles now known as New Western gins were assailed by purists, even while gin as a category declined in the U.S. Some distillers suppressed the juniper so much they were forced by the government to call their wares flavored vodkas.

“It’s important for us to understand that there’s more than one kind of gin,” says Alexander Stein, founder of Germany’s Black Forest Distillers where Monkey 47 Gin is made. “Over centuries, several differing styles such as Old Tom, Plymouth and London Dry have been developed while lawmakers have imposed classifications to provide the legal framework for modern gin production. In other words, gin isn’t gin. Apart from taste and level of sweetness they also differ in terms of how they are produced. So, THE GIN, as some sort of sensory reference, does not exist.”

David King, former President of Anchor Distilling, which produces four gins and Hophead Vodka, notes it’s as if the classifications can’t keep up with the innovations: “One reason London Dry evolved was there was a total lack of acceptance of the British public for the malty flavors of genever. Old Tom the same—people thought some sugar would make it better.” Essentially, as different styles were added, none were replaced, leading to gin aficionados needing to navigate a Tower of Babel-like situation.

Advantage: gin

Experimentation aside, there has always been a mercenary case for gin making. Like vodka, gin is generally done when distilled, not requiring lengthy aging in order to achieve the correct balance of flavors and aromas. So new distillers looking for ways to pay the bills while their other spirits mature, and those with idle or underworked stills, have frequently gotten into the game. And then there are the modern alchemists looking to create spirits with unique qualities that fit the new world of Cocktail Nation.

“Gin, maybe along with tequila, is one of the most polarizing spirits out there,” says August Sebastiani, President of the Sonoma-based 35 Maple Spirits, maker of three super-premium gins under the Uncle Val’s label—Botanical and the just-released Restorative and Peppered gins. “We’ve found as we introduce our gins that people are either excited to try it or they recall a bad experience and are skeptical. With the Botanical gin, the floral, sweet, citrus aroma and flavor profile are enough of a departure that it introduces new consumers to the category.”

Lance Winters, Master Distiller at Alameda, CA-based St. George Spirits, who also makes three recipes of gin—Botanivore, Dry Rye and Terroir—says the response to the cucumber and rose-driven Hendrick’s and Nolet’s, with its pronounced rose petal and raspberry flavor profile, busted open the category and taught the consumer that gin can go somewhere beyond juniper. “We see in our tasting room every single day people who don’t fancy gin, and when they smell our Terroir gin, they convert easily. It is nice to see that it does please the non-gin drinker, and yet gin drinkers like it as well.”

Terroir was initially conceived not as a gin but as a spirit with a sense of the aromatic impact of Northern California’s Mount Tamalpais, with Douglas fir, bay laurel, coastal sage and wild fennel joining more traditional gin botanicals—orange, lemon, cinnamon, coriander and angelica. Winters points out that his gins aren’t meant to be reproductions or local versions of classic London Dry gins: “I’d much rather fail at originality than succeed at being a really good copy.”

That was the thinking behind Portland-based House Spirits’ Aviation, often credited with being the first of the so-called New Western gins. Its lavender-and-sarsaparilla enhanced flavors found favor with many bartenders looking for new flavors to incorporate into drinks.

Ingredients Make Statements

Among the newer botanical mixes are Bulldog, which includes poppy seeds and lotus leaves; Caorunn, a Scottish gin using rowan berries; and Ungava, a Canadian entry using rose hips and Labrador tea. Brockmans is a departure from the standard gin offerings, even by New Western standards, using blueberries and blackberries as the standout flavors. Adirondack Gin, made in New York State, tweaks the classic London Dry neutral grain spirit model by starting with corn spirit rather than neutral grain and incorporating 10 botanicals and essential oils, including Alpine bilberries.

Monkey 47, as its name states, includes 47 botanicals including cranberries and spruce shoots, but is also distilled from molasses. The botanical mix in Darnley’s includes juniper, elderflower, lemon peel, orris root, angelica root and coriander to produce a more full-flavored gin.

Farmer’s Gin uses herbs such as elderflower, lemongrass and angelica, and sources all of their grains from organic farms in the upper Midwest region of the country. The finished product is fragrant and slightly floral, as opposed to the more piney London Dry style.

Traditional category leaders haven’t rested on their laurels: Beefeater 24 adds in grapefruit and tea, and recently developed Burroughs Reserve, made in small batches in limited production and aged in oak. Bombay added Bombay East, made with black pepper and lemongrass, to its stalwart portfolio of Bombay and Bombay Sapphire, while Tanqueray has recently relaunched citrusy Tanqueray Ten. Boodles has also been redesigned, a brand that long ago distinguished itself as a London Dry style made without citrus.

Seagram’s continues to dominate the gin category overall as the popular-priced brand, especially in southern states. Brands like Georgi also compete for the bargain shopper with Burnett’s; these classic London-style gins made in the U.S. count on brand-loyal shoppers who either aren’t targets of the new brands or are simply content with brands they know well. New Amsterdam, backed by the might of Gallo, has been the biggest story in gin in years, although its high citrus, low juniper appeal seems to have peaked in the past few years.

Fifty Pounds, launched a few years ago here, appeals to the classic London Dry drinker with its fancy package and a higher price point. Like it, Fords, Portobello Road, Langley’s, No. 3 and London Number One, all gins launched in the U.S. in the past few years, aim for the higher-end, classic London Dry gin customer.

Styling, Old & New

Some of these new gins straddle the border of new and old. Consider The Botanist, made at the Islay distillery home to Bruichladdich single malt Scotch, where years of experimentation and the help of a local botanist couple created a mix of 22 hand-gathered local botanicals including Islay juniper, lady’s bedstraw, meadow sweet and mugwort, combined with nine classic botanicals.

“Even though there are all these different botanicals, it’s a big gin, on the other end of the spectrum of Hendrick’s, with big powerful flavors, but somewhere in the middle between traditional and the new,” says Carl Reavey, director of content for Bruichladdich.

For some gin makers, perfecting the botanical mix has been all about balance and harmony rather than creating a “salad of flavors,” as Citadelle Gin owner Alexandre Gabriel puts it. “With botanicals in a gin, many are there not to be tasted but to support juniper to give that great fresh taste of gin,” he says, comparing these supporting roles to the way the inclusion of some pears in making Calvados brings out more apple flavors. “With all these natural ingredients, creating consistency is a real challenge.”

Consider the products from Square One, for instance: Basil, Cucumber, Bergamot and their own basket of flowers and roots called Botanical Spirit.

“Consumers still scratch their heads about Botanical Spirit,” says Square One president Allison Evanow. It’s not gin which they can get their head around and it’s not just flavored vodka, so it requires a lot more hand holding.” Bartenders have embraced the brand—made with pear, rose, chamomile, lemon verbena, lavender, rosemary, coriander and citrus—but her other spirits, loaded with botanicals but technically vodka, run up against a “No Flavored Vodka” policy in some craft bars. Meanwhile, some retailers place her wares on both the gin and vodka shelves.

Hophead Vodka, like Square One Botanical, does most of its business on-premise, a sign that bartenders are still interested in incorporating new flavors no matter what a product is called, even if retailers are a bit confused.

For Evanow, it’s all about the new. “I love gin and would love to make one but I’m trying to bring more complex multi-botanical spirits to the market that don’t hang their hat on juniper,” she says.


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