What’s In Your Glass?
Gin is as versatile as it is delicious. Whether as the base of a cocktail, in a simple Martini, or in a crisp G&T, gin’s distinctive and refreshing flavour is something you can depend on. As such, it’s a popular choice - some studies put the number of drinkers who’d consider gin as high as 77%!
Gin is of course distinguished from most other spirits by its long list of botanicals - these are the things that give the spirit its distinctive taste - herbal, medicinal, dry and citrusy. Not only this, different gin types and brands use different botanicals in differing quantities to get their signature blends.
To the uninitiated, who may or may not have ever thought about what goes into their favourite drink, the long list of ingredients in gin can seem baffling. It’s not helped by the fact that most distillers have a secret recipe that makes their gin unique either! We thought we’d give a quick explainer about some of the botanicals that are crucial to gin’s flavour profile, along with some of our favourite “special blend” ingredients that make Hidden Curiosities what it is. Read on for an explainer…
Juniper, as you probably know, is the absolute key ingredient in gin; simply put, if it doesn’t have juniper in it, it’s not gin that you’re drinking! Dutch Jenever, from which modern gins are derived, derives its name from the herb, which again is a key flavouring ingredient. Juniper’s herbaceous, resinous and medicinal qualities will be instantly recognisable to any gin drinker. It’s the only spice that comes from a conifer, and as such the green pine note is always present on the nose. Dried juniper “berries” that are used to give gin its intoxicating base note are actually a type of pine cone, botanically speaking.
As well as providing delicious green and bitter flavours, juniper has natural antibacterial and antioxidant properties, and provides the body with vitamin C as well as some hard-to-find essential minerals - copper, chromium and more, helping to regulate blood sugar and control free radicals in the body.
At Hidden Curiosities, we use Macedonian juniper. This region of south-eastern Europe has long produced outstanding crops of this tough plant, and the flavour of this particular varietal is our favourite. A word of caution - only the cultivated juniperus communis is edible; there are other wild varieties that will give you a nasty upset stomach if consumed raw!
Familiar to many home cooks, or anyone else who’s ever tried to rustle up some authentic Indian or Mexican food, coriander seed’s aromatic and citrusy flavour works in all kinds of dishes. Closer to home in Europe, it’s also used widely as pickling spice to add aromatic interest, or in certain types of charcuterie. When used in gin, the spice adds depth and fragrance to the citrus notes, with a perfumed and tingling aftertaste. It’s a crucial component. They are often used in wheat beer and Belgian-style beers as an aromatic too.
A note on coriander - the leaves and seeds are distinct from each other culinarily, with each one tasting different. Have you ever noticed coriander tasting of soap? A significant portion of us (up to 21%) have a genetic aversion to the flavour compounds in coriander, meaning that what tastes fresh and zesty to one, tastes soapy to another.
Citrus fruit is essential to the makeup of gin. Any gin you can buy usually contains some citrus peel of one sort or another, in varying quantities. Lime and grapefruit peel are popular, as are lemons and even bitter oranges. Bergamot, of Earl Grey tea fame, is also used as a delicious aromatic flavour, with incredible results.
Given the Japanese origins of our Aranami Strength gin, it’s appropriate that we make use of some of that country’s incredible citrus varieties. Yuzu, with its mandarin-meets-lemon flavour, and fragrant and sharp kabosu, give our navy strength gin a beautiful nose, and add a little mystique to the well-known citrus notes present in all gins.
Angelica grows wild in Northern Europe, especially Scandinavia, and has been cultivated since about the 10th century. The stems are used in many types of cuisine, in savoury dishes, as a herb, or candied and preserved - you remember candied angelica as a bright green cake topping from childhood!
In gin, angelica root is used to give bitterness and herbaceous, vegetal flavour. Its complex flavour is said to resemble grand wormwood, famously used in absinthe, and can also aid digestion. As with juniper and coriander, it’s an essential component of gin, and once detected in the blend, it can be a very addictive flavour.
Orris root, or Queen Elizabeth root as it is also called, is the root portion of the flowering Iris. a popular base note in perfumes and pot pourri. Also used in traditional herbal medicine, the drying and preparation of the root is done over a long period of time, and yields astonishing scent. In cuisine, it is often used in ras-el-hanout, the delicious and versatile Moroccan spice blend, and surprisingly as a sweet flavouring; when prepared a certain way, it is said to taste exactly like raspberries!
A little orris root goes a long way, giving our gin a floral and perfumed flavour. Perhaps one of the more unusual ingredients, but one that we think is essential to the botanical blend.
Peppercorns, native to the South-Western coast of India, are the world’s most traded spice, and have been used for thousands of years both as a flavouring and as a commodity. While this spice has incredibly complex and exotic flavour, it’s also utterly ubiquitous, and is as likely to be on the table at your local greasy spoon as it is on a triple Michelin-star steak. Black pepper is the whole dried fruit, whereas white pepper is the same fruit with the outer layers removed, giving different aromatic compounds when dehydrated..
We use several varieties of pepper in our gin, with each one adding different notes to the blend. For example, wild Voatsiperifery black pepper from Madagascar, spicy and fresh-tasting, gives warm and woody notes, whereas white Sarawak pepper is musky and pungent, with a faint anise flavour that works beautifully in distillation.
An important note about pepper - there are other plants that can play the same role, but are entirely unrelated to piper nigrum. For example, the delicious pink peppercorn is actually from a South American plant related to cashews, whereas grains of paradise may give off a peppery aroma, but are from a relative of ginger, native to West Africa. These ingredients are also wonderful when used as a botanical in gin, lending their incredible flavours to the still.
Liquorice root is well known throughout Europe as a flavouring for sweets and confectionery, often reinforced by aniseed or star anise. Native to the Middle East, North Africa and Southern Europe, it is most popular further north, especially in the Netherlands and throughout Scandinavia, where a unique salty-sweet version is preferred. In Italy, Spain and France, the root is often used in its natural form as a mouth freshener.
Often used in alcoholic drinks as flavouring; in ouzo, sambuca and raki for example, we use a judicious amount of the root in Hidden Curiosities gin too. One of our favourite flavours in its raw form, just a little really enhances the medicinal edge of our gin, and its woody freshness is unmatched.
Never has a graver insult been given than the one that made vanilla a synonym for “plain”. This incredible spice comes from a species of orchid, and is very labour intensive to grow, needing to be hand-pollinated within 12 hours of a flower opening. From there, the pods must be picked at just the right stage, then must undergo four stages of processing. Quite the feat!
For these reasons, vanilla is the second-most expensive spice in the world; only the famously expensive saffron beats it. The exquisite flavour and fragrance of vanilla is truly wonderful, and in our opinion worth the high cost. There are a few cultivars, all of exceptional high quality - we prefer Tahitian vanilla for our gin.
A note on vanilla’s high price - a lot of vanilla flavouring contains no vanilla whatsoever, and is rather produced chemically from wood pulp. While this may pass muster at certain times, there is absolutely nothing like the real thing.
We stress - this is a selective rundown of what you can expect to find in your gin. We said at the top that each distillery has a few secret ingredients up its sleeve, and ours is no exception! We use twenty botanicals in our gin, giving the perfect balance of pepper, herbs and citrus for an exceptional finish. The beautiful botanicals above are only a starting point.
Next time you savour your favourite gin, try focusing on each of the flavours above - you may be able to identify each one, either on the nose or on the palate. Indeed you may taste some unexpected things you didn’t think were in there! What makes gin special is this incredible blend, all adding up to something more than the sum of its parts.