Aaron explores some costly gin botanicals
By Aaron Knoll
In 2018, British gin makers, Jam Jar Gin, released Morus LXIV. At its launch it was the most expensive gin in the world at retail, costing over £4,000 (~$5,000). Cambridge Distillery’s £2,000 Watenshi Gin held the top spot for a couple years before that, and Nolet Reserve who held the top spot before then seems relatively modest by comparison, at a mere £700! While the race to create the most expensive gin in the world seems to have only just begun, it’s the process that makes these spirits costly, not the botanicals themselves.
But that’s not to say that all botanicals are created equally. Some are quite expensive. For example, saffron on a per-kilo basis can cost the same price as a bottle of Morus LXIV! Despite the expense of many of these botanicals, many of us encounter these pricey botanicals everyday – both in our local grocers and in our gins.
There are two things the most expensive botanicals by weight have in common.
First, much of the work in growing, harvesting and preparing is still done manually. Second, both saffron and vanilla are found in quite a number of gins.
Crocus sativus blooms in the autumn, its purple flowers standing no more than 30cm high. Although beautiful on its own, it’s what’s inside. In a fully bloomed flower, three rubicund stigmas descend from the center. That’s it – only three. The whole plant produces only a few of these delicate strands.
It’s not just the paucity of stigmas that makes saffron expensive, it’s the process of collecting it. Each stigma must be harvested by hand and then dried. According to some sources it takes 175,000 flowers (525,000 stigmas) and nearly two weeks of labour to produce a single kilogram of saffron. That kilogram of high quality saffron could be valued upwards of £10,000 on the market.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take £10,000 worth of saffron to make a meal or a gin. Food writer Elizabeth David once said, “One grain or 1/437th of an ounce of these tiny fiery orange and red thread-like objects scarcely fills the smallest salt spoon but provides enough flavouring and colouring for a [dish] for four to six people.” A little indeed does goes a long way.
The primary aromatic constituent of saffron is called safranal. It makes up nearly 70 per cent of saffron’s aroma. On its own, safranal is described as somewhat leathery, herbaceous and floral with hints of tobacco; however, most will just simplify and say that, “It smells like saffron.” The molecule is also found in a host of other plants, including gin botanicals such as cumin seed and rooibos leaves. A 2000 study even found that elderflowers contained safranal.
Top 10 Most Expensive Spices (and a few gins that use them)
cost per kg.
|Gins featuring botanical|
|1||Saffron||£5000+||Cadenhead’s Old Raj Dry Gin, Gabriel Boudier Saffron Gin|
|2||Vanilla||£750||Hernö Gin, Oxley Gin|
|4||Long Pepper||£75||Onder de Boompjes Distillery’s Gastrogin, Copenhagen Distillery’s Orange Gin|
|5||Cardamom||£50||Spirit Hound Gin, Drumshanbo Gunpowder Gin, Sharish Blue
|6||Grains of Paradise||£40||Valentine Distilling Co.’s Liberator Gin, Monkey 47 Gin|
|7||Cloves||£20||Bobby’s Schiedam Dry Gin, Pickering’s Gin|
|8||Sri Lanka Cinnamon||£10||Rockland Distillery’s Colombo
No. 7, Darnley’s View Spiced Gin
|9||Turmeric||£5||Four Pillars Navy Strength Gin, Nao Spirits, Hapusa Dry Gin|
|10||Black Peppercorn||£5||St. George Botanivore, Opihr Oriental Spiced Gin|
Gin distillers who opt for saffron generally do so as a post distillation infusion. They’ll start with a previously distilled gin and add a few threads afterwards while resting. Doing so gives the spirit the delicate herbaceous warmth and preserves the distinctive golden hue.
Though it seems that these golden gins have only recently exploded onto the scene, saffron infused gin isn’t a modern invention. Gabriel Boudier’s Saffron Infused Gin traces its origins back to a colonial era Indian recipe from the 19th century.
Gins infused with saffron: Almighty Spirits’ Whippoorwill Western Style Gin, Southwestern Distillery’s Tarquin’s Cornish Crocus Gin, Cadenhead’s Old Raj Dry Gin, Gabriel Boudier Saffron Gin, Indian Summer Saffron Infused Gin, Grower’s Own Saffron Gin, Nolet Reserve.
Vanilla plants are vine-like orchids from which the world’s second most expensive spice originates. Similar to saffron, the reason for the cost is the manual labour-intensive practices necessary for the plant to produce pods.
Firstly, only mature vanilla plants are capable of producing fruit. This takes a minimum of three years. The orchid will then, but only briefly, flower. The blossom will only last a day! It must be pollinated that morning (by hand) or else it will drop from the tree and the chance to produce a fruit will have passed. The fruit takes nearly a year to ripen on the vine before it can be picked. At this point it looks absolutely nothing like what you buy at the shop – they look like skinny bananas or fat green beans.
The beans are then alternatingly left in the sun during the day and put in sweatboxes at night. After a week or so of that they are then left to dry. This turns the green bean into the skinny black vanilla pod we know and see in supermarkets and stores.
Though always expensive, it’s only in recent years that vanilla has shot upwards towards £1,000. Many consumer products, such as ice creams and vanilla extract use naturally produced vanillin that doesn’t come from beans. This molecule is the primary aromatic responsible for the flavour of vanilla and is identical to it as found in the plant.
Perhaps the most common source of vanillin in gin (and vanilla in gin tasting notes) comes from barrels, not beans. Before putting a spirit in a barrel, it is charred and toasted. Lignin, which makes oak tree trunks taut and rigid breaks down into vanillin. This is why many aged spirits – including aged gins – often have vanilla flavours to them.
Unlike saffron, distillers using vanilla beans will generally distil it. The beans must be cut open first (preferably lengthwise) for maximum aromatic effect. Vanilla is hardy and can be distilled in a number of ways. Oxley Gin is made by macerating vanilla beans before distilling; Highside Distilling puts their vanilla in a gin basket.
Gins distilled with vanilla: Sloane’s Dry Gin, Audemus Pink Pepper Gin, Buss No. 509 Raspberry Gin, Hernö’s near entire lineup including Juniper Cask Gin and Old Tom, Zuidam Dutch Courage Gin.
Gins infused with vanilla: Tru2 Organic Gin.