Weird gin flavours are trending – beef, oyster or elephant dung, anyone?
- Gin has come a long way from the London gins of old, and distillers are adding all kinds of strange flavours to stand out from the crowd
- Traditionalists want the classic juniper to remain, but new gin makers are putting everything from truffle to dry-aged beef in their spirits
All rules are off when it comes to gin these days.
Green ants, dry-aged beef, elephant dung and truffles – these are a few of my favourite … weird gin botanicals!
So how did we get here – from the humble London Dry gins such as Beefeater that our grandfathers used to drink, to this Harry Potter every-flavour-bean assortment of ingredients?
Let’s start at the very beginning.
What is gin exactly? By definition in European Union and United States law, it is a spirit that “must derive its main characteristic flavour from juniper berries”. For those unfamiliar with it, juniper has a distinct piny and resinous aroma.
As far as legalese goes, you can see where the problem arises. That juniper main-character-energy can be very subjective and open to interpretation.
To give this context, many other spirits are defined by laws and are given specific metrics to meet. Cognac, for example, can be made only with six approved grape varietals, distilled in copper pot stills and matured for a minimum of two years in oak barrels.
Gin’s definition is loose in comparison. A bit of juniper is the only thing that stands between it being a gin or a flavoured vodka (which, as a category, has fallen out of style so no one wants that label). This fluidity has given distillers the creative licence to push boundaries within the category.
And why have we, in recent years, seen so many new gin brands, clambering over one another to differentiate themselves with exotic botanicals? I’ll let you in on a little secret.
It’s partly because the barrier to entry for creating a gin is extremely low. You don’t need to own a distillery or obtain a special licence. It can be as easy as picking up the phone and contacting a contract distiller (these are companies who you can simply pay to customise and bottle your own brand).
Of course, not all gins go this route, nor is it necessarily inferior, but it’s a readily available one. The process is quick because no fermentation is required – the base spirit is typically bought from large distilleries, the botanicals only need to soak in it for hours before being redistilled (sometimes neither is done – flavours can be added via essences as well).
This differs drastically from creating something like tequila and mescal, where the raw material takes years to grow and fermentation can take anywhere from days to months.
There is also no ageing requirement for the distilled product, unlike scotch and bourbon whiskies. All this makes for a lightning-fast way to jump on the bandwagon when it comes to keeping up with the spirit trend, and fun botanicals are a way to stand out among the newcomers.
This new diversity in gin “flavours” has been aggravating for some in the industry who want to keep the label strictly reserved for those who adhere to a traditional botanical profile – namely focused on juniper complemented by citrus, coriander and rooty botanicals such as angelica.
Others celebrate how the range has brought drinkers into the category who previously would have turned their nose up at “their grandfathers’ stuff”. For me, I say, the world is your oyster when it comes to finding a gin that speaks to you – and yes, there’s an oyster gin out there, too.