Which Botanicals Make the Best Gin?
Well, that's a little like asking which flavor makes the best ice cream? It's all a matter of personal preference...or is it?
Obviously, we're biased because we prefer a gin with more fruit and tropical character over floral, earthy, plant based botanical notes, or even juniper itself. But there are certain botanicals that work better in traditional gin than others. From the piney juniper berry to the black licorice of star anise, the fresh zest of lemon to the aromatic sprig of rosemary, gin is a fragrant garden party of herbs, spices and fruits.
It just isn't gin if there's no juniper in it. In fact, the TTB states that a spirit classified as gin must possess:
"a main characteristic flavor derived from juniper berries produced by distillation or mixing of spirits with juniper berries and other aromatics or extracts derived from these materials and bottled at not less than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof)."
Naturally, that's all but impossible to define and distillers worldwide have been pushing the boundaries of what constitutes gin for years. Gin is one of the most malleable of the spirit categories. If you think of juniper as sort of the base white background of a painter's canvas, then all the flavors of the world are the palette with which to paint on top of it.
There have been attempts over the years to put some structure on the gin making process and provide guidance to distillers and enthusiasts alike. The gin flavor wheel has existed in many forms, but in almost all of them, it is a colorful wheel of flavor and aroma classifications that lead outward to various botanicals. It's a good representation of the various botanicals commonly (or uncommonly) used to produce different characteristics. It is the gin distiller's paint palette.
A gin wheel offers some guidance based on what characteristics you want your gin to possess. Most gins pull botanical varieties from different sections of this and try to blend them together into a harmonious symphony of flavor and aromas. But there's more complexity as to how to achieve the desired result, because some flavors and aromas are more (like fruits and flowers), or less (such as juniper oil, nuts, etc.) water soluble than others. Distilling ethanol vapors through botanicals will produce mixed results depending on the method or how the botanicals are introduced, whether it's in a basket suspended over the boiling mash, infused in the mash prior to distillation (or during), or distilled separately in different ways and recombined at the end.
There are as many ways to do this as one can imagine. At Skeptic Distillery, we utilize a seldom used process in spirit distilling called cold vacuum distillation. Vacuum distillation has the benefit of preventing the thermal and chemical degradation of delicate botanicals. Heat of distillation is the enemy of certain botanicals, and a friend to others. Most distilleries operate at atmospheric pressure, meaning the alcohol and water in the mash boil off at anywhere between 180F to 200F or more. That's almost as hot as boiling water, and more than hot enough to cause severe burns. Certain gin botanicals tend to hold up to these temperatures better than others. Juniper takes the abuse in stride, as does cinnamon, star anise and many of the more commonly used botanicals. But floral notes and delicate fruit notes can get wiped out or turned to a cooked vegetable flavor. Some distilleries separately distill these in a vacuum rotary evaporator in water, then add the concentrates back to the proofed down gin near the end of the production process.
Cold distillation prevents the delicate notes from getting destroyed or chemically altered by the increased kinetics of chemical reactions occurring at higher temperatures. A general rule of thumb is that chemical reaction rates double for each 10 degrees Celsius increase in temperature. By this rule, it can be inferred that cold distillation at say, 16C (61F), occur as much as 128x SLOWER than at 86C (187F).
Besides reducing the reaction kinetics, reducing the amount of time spent enduring these temperatures can further limit them from occurring. In a pot still, everything is cooking at a high temperature the entire time, so plenty of reactions are occurring in the still. At Skeptic, we use a continuous column type of still, which means that we are constantly moving liquids and vapor in and out of the still. There is no "pot." Rather, we add clarified mash (i.e. beer) to the still steadily, while at the same time pumping out the bottoms (tails), tops (heads) and middles (hearts). The actual amount of time spent in the still (residence time) is vastly reduced in this distillation method.
Which botanicals make the best gin then? The answer is: It depends. It depends on the desired result, the distilling method used, the way it is blended, and more. But whatever flavor profile you're aiming for to separate your gin from the rest, it's definitely achievable. Although we can say with 100% certainty that some methods are more difficult and require more steps than others, the results are truly worth the effort!