Gin is a spirit defined by, and famous for, its botanicals. To be classified as gin, it must have some level of juniper, which is where the pine taste comes from, but other than that, gin distillers are free to choose their botanicals at will.
That freedom makes gin one of the most diverse liquors on the market. Distillers distinguish themselves by using varying levels of one botanical or another, as well as by adding plants and herbs taken from the local vegetation around the distillery. In that sense, gin often speaks to a certain place.
There are a few botanicals, however, that nearly all gin producers use — and have been for decades. Gin historian Aaron Knoll’s website The Gin is In, the largest website devoted solely to gin, examined the site’s vast database of every disclosed botanical and ranked them by popularity.
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Here are the most common botanicals used in gin that you should know.
Juniper is to gin what hops are to IPAs: It’s not gin without it. The word gin is derived from juniper, whether the French genièvre or the Dutch jenever. Juniper is grown around the world and has dozens of different varieties. In ancient times, juniper was used as a spice and for medicinal purposes. Taste-wise, it’s dominantly pine-flavored and is responsible for the Christmas tree notes most commonly associated with gin.
Coriander is the dried seed of the cilantro plant and originally hails from southern Europe, north Africa, and southwest Asia. It has a complex taste that’s a little spicy and citrusy, and nutty when crushed. It’s an easy complement to the flavors of juniper.
Lemon is used throughout the culinary world to brighten food and drink. Gin cocktails often have a lemon twist as well, accentuating the citrus flavors. In gin, lemon notes come across primarily as zesty and sweet lemon peel.
As with lemon, orange peels are the most common part of the fruit used in gin production — and dried orange peel in particular. Depending on the type of orange used, the oils in the skin can provide bitter citrus or sweet and gentle notes.
Orris root comes from the iris flower and looks similar to ginger. It has a floral and sweet aroma that’s common in perfume as well as gin. It also adds an earthy and woody flavor.
Cardamom is a spice that’s difficult to describe other than it smells and tastes like cardamom. It’s common in food from southern India and is related to ginger. Cardamom pods added to food and gin are bright green, have a somewhat numbing and medicinal taste, and are highly aromatic with a powerful flavor.
Licorice root is originally from southern Europe and India and is sugary sweet that’s similar to anise. The flavor in licorice used by gin producers is far from the candy taste and can give gin a more viscous texture.
The cassia tree is a relative of cinnamon and is originally from southern China. The bark is harvested and dried and strongly resembles the spicy hot bite of cinnamon and cinnamon-flavored products. Cassia is, however, just a little sweeter than cinnamon with a licorice-like flavor.
Cinnamon plays a complementary role to the sweeter notes in gin by adding a fiery spicy tone.