What Botanicals Are Used to Make Gin (and Why)?
Our recent martini taste test has lit a juniper-scented fire under us here at Drinkhacker HQ, so we’ve decided to once again explore gin, the most aromatic of spirits. Today we’ll be giving an overview of the different botanicals that go into your favorite gin; unlike wine, which can have aromas and flavors of a variety of different fruits and minerals but only really contains grapes, gin can contain essences of potentially dozens of different botanicals added in during production. While you’ve no doubt heard of some of these, others can be pretty obscure, as distillers search for the perfect blend to make their product stand out from the pack. This won’t be an exhaustive overview of the botanicals used in gin, because you could fill a book with that information. Instead, let’s explore some of the more common seeds, oils, and berries found in gin.
We have to start somewhere, and no botanical is more deserving than juniper berries; without them, you’re really not making gin but rather just flavoring vodka. The word “gin” is actually derived from the Dutch jenever and the French genièvre, both of which come from the Latin juniperus, which means juniper, and when most people think of gin they think of the flavor of juniper. Commonly found in Tuscany in Italy, as well as Macedonia near Greece, the juniper plant is actually a relative of the spruce or fir trees that people use as Christmas trees, a relationship that’s borne out by the scents and flavors of pine, lavender, and camphor. The true value in juniper isn’t actually in the flesh of the fruit themselves (which aren’t even really berries, but little fleshy pine cones), but in the essential oils found in the seeds, which give gin its most recognizable flavors and aromas.
The second most important botanical used in gin are coriander seeds. Found in regions as disparate as Morocco and Bulgaria, coriander seeds come from a plant that fans of Indian food might recognize better as cilantro, and in gin coriander imparts a similar profile of tastes and aromas to those found in Indian cuisine: notes of citrus peel, ginger, and sage are all found within the essential oils of the seed, as well as notes of pine and camphor similar to juniper berries. If you’re a fan of curry, keep those in the back of your mind next time you have some gin, and see all of the flavor connections you can make!
The Angelica plant is grown throughout Northern Europe, and its root compliments the flavors found in the previous two botanicals: like those, it gives the gin a piney character. Being a root, angelica also imparts a bitter, herbal, musky scent, like sitting among the fallen leaves in a vast forest. Angelica is also used in vermouth, which explains why gin and vermouth complement each other so well in martinis. Juniper, angelica, and coriander are probably the most essential botanicals used to make gin, and the tastes and scents of all three blending together make gin what we know it.
Coming from Florence in Italy, the root of the iris flower, known as orris root, is outside of gin mostly used in perfumes. One whiff will tell you why: the root is very bitter and very floral, and serves mostly to fix and enhance the scents of the other botanicals in the gin. The root itself mostly imparts aromas of flowers, but it is ground into such a dense powder that within the context of gin it mostly holds on to the notes and flavors of the other botanicals, and keeps your drink rich and fragrant for longer.
The last botanical we’ll examine in detail today are the seeds of the cardamom plant. Native to India, cardamom seeds are similar to coriander seeds in their aromatic capacity: citrusy lemon peel and medicinal eucalyptus come to the fore from the oils found in the seeds. Like coriander, cardamom is used to add rich aromas to food from India and Southeast Asia, and its musky tang will be recognizable to fans of those cuisines.
As you’ve no doubt noticed, the two main aromas and flavors that you get from a typical gin are evergreen pine and tart citrus. As you can probably guess, the final botanical we’ll cover today gives a big boost to the latter. Grated peel from lemons and/or oranges enhance the bitter citrus bite of the coriander and cardamom seeds, and helps to prevent the gin from just tasting like you’re drinking a pine tree.
This is far from an exhaustive list of the botanicals used in gin: the combinations can be almost endless, and many more herbs, fruits, roots, or peels are used to try and find that perfect balance. In some gins you can also find almonds, licorice, ginger, nutmeg, and many, many others. Nearly anything that can impart a strong aroma can be used to enhance the blend that these essential botanicals offer.