When we think about the botanicals used in gin production, which range from spices to seeds, peels, roots, petals, berries, and bark, it’s easy to let our minds stray to the spice aisle of our local supermarket. In reality, however, we should be browsing the fresh produce section.
Like the grapes used to make wine, or the hops that flavor beer, all botanicals start life as fresh, seasonal ingredients. And, as with any agricultural product, botanicals are delicate and susceptible to disease and extreme weather conditions. Distillers have to overcome the fragility of their ingredients to provide a consistent product year in and year out. Exactly how they achieve this feat is an untold tale of ancient alchemy, scrupulous sourcing, and the kind of foraging that would make Michelin-starred, farm-to-table chefs proud.
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Of all the gin botanicals, juniper berries are the most important. Not only is their flavor synonymous with London Dry-style gin, they’re the only ingredient that’s legally required by international regulations.
Grown on juniperus communis bushes, the “berries” are actually fleshy cones that house seeds. Evolution caused this casing to resemble juicy berries, making the cones appetizing to birds, which in turn helped their advance across every region in the Northern Hemisphere, from the subarctic to the subtropic.
But not all juniper berries are created equal.
“If you want soft pine and sweet citrus flavors, you will only get that from juniper harvested in the North Mediterranean,” Jared Brown, founder and master distiller at British gin brand Sipsmith, says. Scottish Juniper, on the other hand, tastes like moss, while juniper from the American Rockies is so sweet and fruity it tastes like bubblegum, he explains.
An avid gardener, Brown tends a one-acre plot in the English Cotswolds, where he grows his own botanicals for research purposes and the occasional inclusion in his brand’s small-batch “Sipping Society” bottlings.
Unable to grow quality juniper in England, Brown decided to work a harvest in the mountains of southern Tuscany to better understand the ingredient. This experience exposed him to everything from the large, “shield-like” instruments used to remove ripe berries from bushes, to the sorting and drying processes that provide the finest berries, rich in flavor- and aroma-giving essential oils.
“The first thing that I’ve taught my team to do is when a sack of juniper arrives, roll up your sleeve and plunge your arm down into it. If it’s light, dry, and warm, that’s a bad batch of juniper,” he says. “You want to instantly feel cold, heavy, and damp; that tells you the juniper is filled with oils.”
Juniper berries are one of 10 botanicals in Sipsmith’s London Dry Gin, the recipe for which is deep-rooted in antiquity. “The preservation methods for these botanicals have been around since the Arabian alchemists,” Brown, who’s also a drinks historian, says.
By researching and implementing these techniques, Sipsmith can purchase fresh ingredients when they’re in season, and then dry them to distill year-round. But while Sipsmith toes the line of tradition and history, not all gin brands look to the past for inspiration.
Eighteen years ago, Bob and Carl Nolet Jr., the 11th generation of a Dutch distilling dynasty, were tasked by their father with launching a gin brand. In 1983, Carl Nolet Sr. had launched the hugely successful Ketel One Vodka, so the pair had sizable shoes to fill.
Bob and Carl Jr. devised a flavor profile that would reflect the “romance” of flower petals, the “succulence” of fruit, and the “tang” of berries, Carl Jr. explains. To convert these philosophies into a drinkable spirit, they placed three non-traditional ingredients front and center in the botanical bill: rose, peaches, and raspberries.
While rose petals are a somewhat contemporary gin botanical, flowers occupy an interesting place in Dutch history. During the early 17th century, prices of rare tulip bulbs reached six times that of the average person’s annual salary before they dramatically plummeted in February 1637. Economists regard this period as the first major financial bubble — and the first subsequent burst.
Nolet’s sources its (much more reasonably priced) rose petals and raspberries from eastern Europe, and its peaches from the western side of the continent. All are bought fresh and individually macerated and distilled in copper pot stills before being blended with a base gin and bottled at 47.6 percent ABV.
Nolet’s distillers collaborate with the company’s sales department to ensure they buy just enough ingredients to meet projected sales. Though it sounds somewhat less romantic than “capturing the essence of flower petals,” it’s a necessary part of working exclusively with fresh ingredients.
The same is true for Monkey 47, but on a much bigger scale. As the brand’s name suggests, the distillery uses a minimum of 47 different botanicals for each distillation. Harmonizing such an extensive list of ingredients is like composing a piece of classical music, founder Alexander Stein says, with lingonberry providing the base notes.
“Lingonberry has everything that we want,” he says. “It’s sour, bitter, sweet, and fruity and it’s super fundamental to [our gin].” Prior to distillation, the lingonberries macerate in a neutral molasses-based alcohol for about a week, with the remaining botanicals added 36 hours before distillation. For Stein, it is this process and the caliber of ingredients that determine the quality of his gin.
Stein has developed close relationships with many of his suppliers. Despite these connections, the whims of the weather and agricultural concerns mean the quality of sourced ingredients doesn’t always meet his exacting standards. At which point, he says, “we don’t distill.” (This typically happens two or three times per year, Stein says.)
Though it doesn’t quite match the 47 botanicals of its German counterpart, The Botanist, a craft gin produced by the Bruichladdich Distillery on the Scottish island of Islay, includes 31 botanicals. Impressively, 22 of those ingredients are hand-picked on the island by the brand’s full-time gin forager, James Donaldson (the only professional botanist to hold such a role in the world, according to the brand).
From the middle of March through the end of September, Donaldson roams the 15-by-25-mile island in an electric vehicle, aiming to pick just the right amount of the 22 items on his list, which include such evocatively named botanicals as Bog Myrtle, Mugwort, and Creeping Thistle.
“Everything needs to be picked in the very best condition,” he says, “and they generally need to come in bone dry, which can be an issue on an island where it sometimes rains 200 days out of the year.”
When he returns to his drying facility — a “few sheds” containing wooden racks built by local joiners — he lays out his bounty to dry. Some ingredients take longer than others, though all require a painstaking amount of time to process: “Half an hour’s picking can take four or five hours,” he says.
Donaldsons’s workload is dictated by the unpredictability of nature, meaning some periods are surprisingly sluggish, while others see him working 10-to-12-hour days. When VinePair spoke with him, the foraging season had finally ended and he was enjoying a brief respite from the arduous labor. But it won’t last long.
“Sitting here now, a week or so later,” he says, “I’m looking at my list of winter jobs thinking: How on earth will I get all of this done in the next few months?” It’s a question that transcends the seasons.