Words by Simon Difford
Gins are basically neutral spirit flavoured, either by compounding or distillation, with juniper and various other seeds, berries, roots, fruits and herbs. These are known as botanicals. In distilled gins the aromatic compounds (usually oils) found in the botanicals are absorbed by the spirit in which the botanicals are steeped, or by the vapour as it passes through, so flavouring the distillate.
There are hundreds of botanicals used to flavour gin but the following are the most commonly used...
Juniper berries (Juniperus communis)
The main flavouring in all gins, juniper is a member of the cypress family and the berries used in gin production usually comes from Italy, Serbia, Macedonia and India. The best juniper berries are generally considered to be from mountain slopes in Tuscany and Macedonia. The European berries tend to be darker than the cheaper and much larger Asian ones.
These bluish berries are handpicked from October to February, but the main flavour comes from the essential oils within the three seeds inside each berry: alpha-Pinene (α-Pinene), p-terpineol and camphor (not a major component). Distillers buy juniper by weight. It is not uncommon for distillers to store juniper berries for two years before using them and during this time the berries lose some of their moisture but the oil content remains constant.
Juniper berries are fragrant and spicy with a bittersweet taste and overtones of pine, lavender, camphor and overripe banana topped by a peppery finish: Hugh Williams (then master distiller of Gordon's) once described juniper to me as having an "oily flavour with a sweet back taste". In short, juniper is pine-like but fruitier.
The second most important flavouring in most gins, Coriander seeds come from Morocco, Romania, Moldavia, Bulgaria and Russia. They vary tremendously by region: for example the Bulgarian seeds are much more pungent than Moroccan seeds.
The essential oil in coriander is linalool and this is mellow, spicy, fragrant and aromatic with a candied ginger, lemon and sage taste. Joanne Simcock, the Master Distiller at J&G Greenall, says the smell of coriander always reminds her of naan bread. It provides a complex citrus top note to gin, although some distillers accuse their counterparts of using citrus peel as a cheap alternative to coriander.
Angelica is a key ingredient as it holds the volatile flavours of other botanicals and marries them together giving length and substance to gin. Angelica has a musky, nutty, damp woody/rooty (forest floor), sweet flavour with a piney, dry edge and I find it generally reminiscent of mushrooms. Most distillers think the smoothest and mellowest angelica comes from the Saxony region of Germany and prefer this to the more pungent angelica from Flanders in Belgium.
Not nearly as widely used as angelica root, angelica seeds impart hop-like/celery-like fragrant, slightly floral notes to a gin.
Lemon peel is used to flavour gin instead of the flesh because the skin contains a high proportion of the fruit's flavoursome oils. Most distillers source their lemons from Andalucia in Southern Spain where fruit is still hand-peeled and hung out to dry in the sun. Lemon peel adds fresh, citrusy, juicy, lemony flavours.
Orange peel tends to come from Spain, often Seville, where it is harvested in March. As with lemons, the peel rather than the flesh of oranges is used, and this is usually cut off in one continuous strip by hand.
Different distillers choose different types of orange, some preferring bitter and others sweet. Orange peel adds fresh, citrus, juicy orange flavours to a gin.
The bulb of the iris plant, orris root has a very perfumed character and, like angelica root, can help fix aromas and flavours within a gin. Three to four year old plants are harvested then stored for two to three years before use to allow the flavour to develop: the finished botanical is very hard and requires grinding into a powder before use. Mainly sourced from Florence in Italy, orris root is very bitter and tastes of parma violets, earth and cold stewed tea, and to my mind has an earthy smell reminiscent of clean stables or a hamster cage. Distillers praise orris for its ability to hold and fix other botanical flavours and adding perfumed floral notes to gin.
A member of the cinnamon family, cassia is sometimes referred to as Chinese cinnamon. It is the bark of a tree which grows in Vietnam, China and Madagascar, removed from the trunk and rolled into quills. Cassia adds a taste similar to chewing gum (Dentine) and cinnamon to a gin - somewhat reminiscent to mulled wine.
From Sri Lanka, cinnamon is commonly used to give a spicy edge to gin. Like cassia, it is tree bark rolled into quills.
The almond tree is closely related to the peach tree and native to South-West Asia. Two types of almond - sweet and bitter, are used in gin - both are hard and must be ground before use. Almonds have a high essential oil content and give gin an almond/marzipan, nutty, soapy and spicy flavour. Almond also adds to the overall mouth feel of gin. Almond contains trace amounts of cyanide, which along with nut protein does not come over during distillation so gin is not hazardous for people with nut allergies.
These pods come from an aromatic plant which grows in the Malabar region of south-western India and contains numerous tiny black seeds. Of the two varieties, green and black, the green are most widely used as they are considered more delicate. Cardamom adds a spicy, citrusy, almost eucalyptus flavour to gin.
A member of the pepper family, these small, red-brown berries are grown in Java, Indonesia. They add a spicy, peppery, lemony, pine/eucalyptus flavour to the gin. I liken their flavour to a spicy alpine mint.
Grains of paradise
These dark brown berries are also related to the pepper family and add a hot, spicy, peppery flavour plus hints of lavender, elderflower and menthol.
The aromatic rhizome (underground stem) of a plant from South-east Asia. Ginger's distinctive scent and hot flavour means it must be used sparingly in gin.
Liquorice comes from Indo-China and the hard fibrous root of the liquorice plant is ground into a powder for gin distilling. It gives gin an obvious liquorice flavour but also a light, fresh, bittersweet, woody-earthy taste. It adds base and length as well as sweetening, softening and rounding-off a gin. Liquorice is unusual in that its flavour is carried by glyciric acid rather than essential oils of which it is low in content.
The nutmeg tree is native to Indonesia but widely cultivated in tropical Asia and America. Its light-brown, oval, rounded seeds are ground to add a warming, aromatic, sweet spice to gin.