Beautiful Botanicals

We explore some of the wonderfully unique, rare and beautiful botanicals in Scottish Gin.

Published: 14th November 2020

They come in all shapes, sizes, flavours. They can be found in almost every corner of the world. Some have been used for thousands of years to cure ailments. Some were even key to ancient civilisations and used in elaborate ceremonies. Without them gin wouldn’t be gin. We are of course talking about botanicals. Without juniper would gin be gin? No. Thanks to Mother Nature the range of botanicals available and opportunity to innovate are almost endless when you consider potential flavour combinations. 

We wanted to learn a bit more about some of the key botanicals (yes, juniper should be first on the list!) that Scottish Gin makers and brands consider to be one if not ‘the’ botanical that they feel makes their Scottish Gin shine. In this latest episode of Beautiful Botanicals, we talk Liquorice Root with The Borders Distillery, Pomelo with Pixel Spirits, Redcurrants with Colonsay Beverages and Tea Leaves with Tobermory Distillery.

Liquorice Root – William Kerr’s Borders Gin

One of the more classic gin botanicals, Liquorice Root is native to southern Europe and Western Asia and is derived from Glycyrrhiza Glabra, a flowering herbaceous perennial. Although the flavour profile could be compared to star anise, anise or fennel, the plant is in fact part of the bean family.

Liquorice gets its name from the old French translation of the Greek word γλυκόριζα (glykorrhiza), which means ‘sweet root’. Liquorice Root has been used been used throughout history as a remedy for all manner of health issues including heartburn, acid reflux, bacterial and viral infections, eczema and more. The medicinal use can actually be traced back as far as ancient Egypt where the root was used to create a sweet drink that was drank by the pharaohs.

More commonly today you’ll find liquorice in a variety of sweets, foods and beverages. Most of the sweetness found in the plant comes from the flavour compound glycyrrhizin, which has a sweet taste 30-50 times that of everyday sugar, although the sweetness is more tart and earthy, which tends to last longer on the palate.

“Liquorice Root – Glycyrrhiza Glabra – is one of the botanicals we gather from near and far to give Kerr’s Borders Gin its flavour. When we steam it in the vapours of our unique malted barley spirit base, the woody root imbues a sweet anise-like nose and flavour. Used in small quantities in the botanical mix, it provides a little light spiciness, and the oils released during re-distillation contribute viscosity and body to our spirit.

“The root brings a subtle liquorice note to the finish of Kerr’s Borders Gin – a flavour element which pairs nicely with sharper fruits like lemon, orange, grapefruit, rhubarb, and raspberry. Most liquorice root is grown in Southern Europe and around the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly in Greece and Turkey. The plants thrive in fertile well-drained soil. It is generally harvested after three or four years’ growth, meaning farmers have to make a long-term commitment to tending the crop before seeing a return.”

Tony Roberts, The Borders Distillery 

You can learn more about The Borders Distillery here.

Pomelo – Drookit Piper 

The Pomelo looks like a cross between a grapefruit, a lime and a pear except on a much larger scale varying in size between 15-25cm. It will come as no surprise that its botanical name is Citrus maxima, which means ‘biggest citrus’. Native to Southeast Asia, the Pomelo is found in a number of dishes including salads and deserts and can be enjoyed raw or cooked. In Sri-Lanka it’s often served raw or sprinkled with a salt mixture creating a sweet and sour desert.

Its flavour profile is similar to that of a grapefruit but less tart and bitter and more sweet citrus. The fruit can also be found on the river banks of Hawaii, Tonga and Fiji. It was introduced to the Caribbean, where it’s now grown, by captain Shaddock of the East India Company ship who originally introduced the fruit to Barbados around 1696. In this part of the world the fruit is commonly known as a shaddock, which takes its name from captain Shaddock.

Rich in vitamin C, the Pomelo comes in a number of different variants including a version that’s more tart and bitter. In South East Asia, where different types are available, the bitter Pomelo which has pinkish flesh, rather than the white found on the sweet Pomelo, is used in ceremonies rather than eaten.

“We originally purchased pomelo as we were looking to add to our range of citrus based botanicals for our gin school at the distillery. We thought the peels of the pomelo fruit would add a nice zesty but slightly sweeter alternative to say grapefruit peels. As with all citrus we use at the distillery, we buy the fruit in whole and then hand peel the oily skins to separate them from the bitter white pith and dehydrate on site to keep for distillations, while the flesh of the fruit is either dehydrated to make interesting garnishes for drinks or we can juice for refreshing drinks for us and the team! 

“We are constantly looking to develop new recipe ideas and with Pomelo on site, we noticed that when distilled it carried a long and lasting citrus character, not as acidic or sour as lemon or lime, commonly found in gin, nor as zesty as say orange. We identified most importantly that it did not carry over the bitter element, which can be associated with most citrus so it would most definitely be a core botanical in our lighter more citrus style gin known as Drookit Piper. 

“Unlike the more common citrus botanicals found in gin, that can be found virtually year round from one region or another, the Pomelo is harvested almost exclusively in South East Asia. This means that it is only available as a ripe fruit during a somewhat limited time frame. Because of this, to ensure the quality of our Drookit Piper Gin, we have to work hard to buy in as much as we can, dehydrate the peels for our year’s worth of distillations and store in a cool, dry, air tight and dark location on site to ensure we have them for each and every distillation.”

Craig Innes, Pixel Spirits

You can learn more about Pixel Spirits here.

Redcurrants – Wild Island Distiller’s Cut

A cousin of the gooseberry, Redcurrants can be identified by their bright red, almost translucent appearance. Native to northern and eastern Europe, over the years thanks to cultivation, the plants are now widespread across Europe and some parts of Asia having taken root in the wild.

Redcurrants can be enjoyed raw or are often used in jams, preserves, deserts, drinks or made into sauces, which can be served as an accompaniment. In Russia, Redcurrants are used to make Kissel, a sweet health drink. In Germany, the berries are processed to create a syrup which is mixed with soda water to create a fresh berry fizz known as Johannisbeerschorle.

“When we made our first foray into the gin world, we knew we wanted to create a spirit that was based around the native botanicals of our wild island. Colonsay is an incredibly special place with a huge variety of plants and trees, it really is a botanist’s dream. We created our original spirit with the help of Rob Dorset of Langley Distillery, who is a master of the gin world, and after studying what botanicals we had available to us, he helped to create a gin we are really proud of. We knew when creating more gin products we wanted to add to that original recipe and create variants around it. Not long after we purchased our first mini-still, our island distiller Chris came across a few redcurrant bushes, while out tending to his sheep. Keen to start experimenting, he gathered a few punnets and got to work.

“Our original recipe is very citrusy, using lemon balm and wild water mint to give it a fresh smooth flavour, while the meadowsweet and heather flowers add a gentle sweetness. We found that the addition of redcurrants added a tart, sparkling quality that really lifted the spirit and added another layer of interest. Chris and Sheena have added some redcurrant bushes to their Croft so we can cultivate them in a sustainable way for use in the long term. Originally this was a limited edition product but it quickly went on to outsell all of our other small batch experimental gins so we felt it deserved a permanent place in the family. We now have a 250 litre still and the redcurrant recipe has only improved in the scaling up.

“The berries are harvested in the summer when they are firm and juicy and then frozen to be used throughout the year, whenever a new batch of Distiller’s Cut is required. This gin recently won a Silver Medal at the International Spirits Challenge so to say we are pleased with how our redcurrant recipe turned out would be an understatement!”

Hannah MacAllister, Colonsay Beverages 

You can learn more about Colonsay Beverages here.

Tea Leaves – Tobermory Hebridean Gin

Camellia Sinensis or the Tea Plant, to use its common name, is a species of evergreen shrub used to produce tea. Native to East Asia, tea plants have been cultivated in China for more than 2,700 years. The leaves were first and foremost used for medicinal purposes, long before tea was used as a beverage. In fact, the tea plant has been used in medicines, elixirs and even currency. In China the leaves were dried and crushed to create a fine powder, which was then placed in moulds to create bricks. These bricks were traded between Mongolia and Tibet and to this day the tea brick is recognised as one of the world’s oldest forms of currency.

Legend tells that in 2737 BCE, the Emperor at the time was sitting in his garden boiling water when a leaf from an overhanging Camellia Sinensis tree fell and landed in his pot of boiling water. It was only upon tasting the water that the Emperor discovered the leaf, and tea was born. The leaves of Camellia Sinensis are green and waxy in appearance with serrated edges. The leaves are traditionally picked and dried before being packaged.

“Tobermory Gin is inspired by the expressive nature of Mull – distilled on the island with a rich palate of hand-selected botanicals including juniper, tea, heather, elderflower, sweet orange peel, and just a little bit of knowledge from our 220 years of history. 

“We add a splash of spirit from the Tobermory whisky stills to create a unique character for our award-winning gin, but the most unique botanical is our locally sourced Tea (camellia sinensis), which is grown on Mull by Liz, a Vicar on the island. 

“Tobermory Gin’s journey began when we took foraging students to Mull to see which island botanicals we could add to our gin, giving us the inspiration for some of our botanicals, such as heather. However, when we were introduced to Liz and visited her croft and mini tea plantation, we knew that this would be our star botanical. 

“Liz grows a wide range of vegetables, fruit and herbs, as well as the tea, both on the croft and in unused and underused ground around the island. Once the tea is ready, Liz picks what we need and delivers it fresh to the distillery where we add it to our other botanicals and steep it in our copper still for a minimum of 24 hours. The tea adds a unique herbal note to the gin, on the nose it comes across as a beautiful earthy astringency and on the palate the oil from the tea helps add to the smoothness of our gin.”

Julieann Fernandez, Tobermory Distillery

You can learn more about Tobermory Distillery here.

Scots Pine Needles, Snawstorm Scottish Gin

Native to Europe, Scots Pine is an evergreen conifer that can grow up to 35m in height and live to be over 700 years old. The tree arrived in Scotland approximately 7000 BC after the last ice age and flourished up until around 2000 BC. Known as the Caledonian Forest, millions of trees were slowly lost as the temperature and climate changed along with a growing population, which resulted in more trees being cut down and used for various purposes including building materials, fuel and to make way for crops and livestock.

The Scots Pine is monoecious, which means both male and female flowers grow on the same tree with the green needles on the branches producing a piney, resinous aroma. The trees produce cones which contain seeds and provide a natural habitat and source of food for great spotted woodpeckers, tree creepers and crossbills who feast on the pine cones.

“From the offset, we knew that we wanted to create a gin with an abundance of juniper and citrus, making a clean, balanced and refreshing spirit.

“There are thousands of Scots pine trees located around our home and surrounding countryside and we actually have several in our own garden, which I recently employed a tree surgeon to tidy up a little. The freshly sawn branches containing thousands of needles were fed through a chipping machine for composting/disposal and the smell of fresh piney citrus filling the garden was unbelievable so when it came to our recipe development, they seemed like an obvious choice and a great starting point.

“Scottish Pine trees are the only native pine tree in the UK with species in Scotland having pollen records dating back thousands of years. The trees became extinct in most parts of the British Isles apart from Scotland. They deliver sweet and citrus notes to perfectly compliment the juniper, fresh lime peel, and dried orange.”

Leon Chessor, Snawstorm Scottish Spirits 

You can learn more about Snawstorm Scottish Spirits here.

Read the last instalment of Beautiful Botanicals here.

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