Have strange botanicals taken gin too far?8th July, 2014 by Becky Paskin
Are gin producers risking distorting the perception customers have of the spirit by adding more and more extravagant botanicals? Becky Paskin investigates
“The strangest botanical I’ve seen listed on a bottle of gin is the ‘half smiles of a cat’. I can’t for a second believe there is actual cat in there, but it’s an example of brands trying to be so different, they’re often pale.”
So says Desmond Payne, master distiller at Beefeater. Cat gin may be a step too far for him, but the lengths gin producers are going to to ensure their product stands out from the crowd is escalating. “The rise in the amount of different flavours available is because we’re in a gin craze right now,” explains Payne. “It’s an attractive route into what’s a pretty crowded market.”
At the last count there were some 150 gins on the market, with everything from traditional London dry styles, to gins made using unfiltered Icelandic water and exotic botanicals, such as coconut, eucalyptus, baobab, pomegranate and arbequina olives. German brand Saars even blends Riesling with its gin in a cross-category hybrid.
Spain’s extravagant gin and tonic culture is the first place to point the blame. “The Spanish consumer doesn’t generally go for cocktails but longer mixed drinks, so gin and tonics have become more sophisticated, creating demand,” explains Ellie Baker, creator and founder at Ish Gin and owner of Bristol Bar in Madrid. “It was a category that hadn’t previously been exploited.”
A subjective definition
While the gin boom in Spain exploded around three years ago, markets including the US, Western Europe and Australia are only now beginning to see an influx of new brand launches on home soil, each flaunting a unique flavour or style. These new additions to the gin market helped boost global volumes up 1.7% in 2012 to 62.3 million cases, according to Euromonitor, but while the longevity of these extravagantly flavoured gins is in doubt, their long-term effect on the market is still debatable.
According to EU and US legislation, gin, distilled gin and London dry gin must be “predominantly juniper tasting”, but if taste is the only means of measuring juniper content, it is completely subjective. “It is extremely difficult to measure a gin’s juniper level,” Payne explains. “The trouble is a lot of brands are secretive over their ingredients and I don’t think anybody’s disclosed the quantity of each, even if they do say what’s in it. You can measure oil content, but once it’s distilled, it’s quite hard to do.”
Without a definitive way to test a gin’s juniper content, and with so many feisty-flavoured botanicals now in use, how far is too far when it comes to adding untraditional flavours and botanicals to gin? For most, it’s simply a question of balance and moderation.
“There’s no limit to what distillers can choose to incorporate, but too far is when juniper is no longer the predominant flavour,” says Martin Dawson, co-founder of Broker’s Gin, while Payne adds: “As long as there’s juniper there, which makes it gin, the thing that really matters is the balance. If the flavours work together and they’re balanced, you can use any botanical, so long as it’s decent, honest and legal.”