Do me a flavour
Juniper doesn’t have to be the dominant taste in today’s gins, which can be based on anything from Pinot Noir to parma violets. Nigel Huddleston takes a look at a category that can be hard to pin down
It’s a tricky one, fruit gin, or flavoured gin, or whatever you want to call it. There you go – just deciding what to name the sector is fraught with problems.
A lot of gins that operate outside the “fruit” description contain the peel of lemon, oranges, limes and grapefruit. And what do traditional botanicals angelica root, cassia bark, cinnamon, anise and coriander do if not contribute flavour?
That’s before we get on to juniper, whose cones are referred to as berries but are technically a spice, and which history, convention and a sense of doing things properly dictates should provide the backbone to gin which the other botanicals support.
Things have become complicated by the propensity of producers to assign a particular dominant flavour description to each product in their range, sending gin-ness to the back of the class. Take Halewood’s ubiquitous Whitley Neill, for example, whose Gooseberry gin has just joined a line-up of 10 other flavours and the original.
There’s a danger of market saturation, but there’s also risk for the trade in getting all sniffy about such products on the grounds that they’re “not proper gin”.
The balancing act hasn’t been helped by the popularity of gins claiming to contain unicorn tears or retro-confectionery such as parma violets. Whitley Neill is guilty of the latter, but novelties can sometimes hide the good stuff. Some of its flavours are lovely gins, its Blood Orange a good example that merely amplifies an authentic gin flavour component.
It’s easy, too, to get lost in the idea of gin purity and forget that lots of people love the accessibility and always-something-new-ness of flavours. Sticking “rhubarb” or “pink grapefruit” on the label cuts to the chase with that “demystifying” business that a lot of drinks experts often claim to be striving for.
Master of Malt buyer Guy Hodcroft says: “If you go into a pub where I live people are still super-excited to have 10 gins on the back bar.
“Gin growth is slowing but I don’t think it’s going to fall off a cliff overnight because there are so many consumers who in the last 18 months have only just got into gin and are discovering different varieties. They’ll be a very long tail there.”
Gin liqueurs, typically between 20% and 30% abv, are also going great guns.
“Our liqueur sales were up 31% last year and a lot of that is driven by gin liqueurs with the names of childhood sweets that we all loved, or mythical animals,” Hodcroft notes.
But for those seeking to weigh commerciality against credibility there are enough, for want of a better phrase, “more serious” options out there: fruit gins that eschew sugar sweetness in favour of pure fruit flavour that enhances the host gin rather than masks it.
Copper Rivet co-founder Stephen Russell describes the company’s Dockyard Kent Strawberry, made with hand-picked fruit, as “the most natural unmucked-about gin of its kind”.
Chapel Down’s Pinot Noir gin, available through Bibendum, is made by distilling grape skins and blending with wheat spirit, before introducing traditional gin botanicals, the process delivering a seductive savoury flavour. Sure, it’s pink, but it’s pink for a good reason.
Brewdog’s spirits operation is one to watch and head distiller Steven Kersley has created a Cloudy Lemon gin, inspired by limoncello and delivering a fresh, zesty lemon flavour, helped by his team peeling all the lemons by hand.
Brewdog Distilling managing director David Gates says: “We were quite nervous about doing a flavoured gin and whether there was anything authentic we could bring to the party.
“We kept the fruit steeping in the gin for 15 days to extract all the flavours, put it through a very mild filter to take any solids out, and bottled it.
“It’s not sweetened at all. This is a 40% abv gin with a juniper backbone with a load of lemon zest coming through.”
Keepr’s, the spirits offshoot of British Honey, has a big juniper gin flavoured with Elderberry, Mulberry & Honey.
Master distiller Jamie Baggott says: “Elderflower has become very popular but its berry counterpart has been left behind. Elderberries have a jammy tartness that’s somewhere between a damson and a blackberry.
“The mulberry’s perfumed aroma is not only the perfect foil for the richer elderberry but complements the botanicals in a traditional London dry gin.
“l love using British ingredients. We have a habit of falling in love with fruit from other countries and forgetting what we have on our doorstep.”