Botanicals embark on various journeys before distillation
Like frequent flyers travelling the world, various botanicals take off from their country of origin, disembark at key hubs, and proceed to warehouse accommodation provided by specialist suppliers.
“Botanicals arrive virtually every day at our warehouse, where we keep large stocks of some 600 products. We supply around 100 of these botanicals to gin distillers on six continents, including the UK, Australasia, Far East, North and South America and Africa,” says Anthony Benton, managing director, Joseph Flach & Sons.
Distillers have both the options of contractual agreements or placing ‘ad hoc’ orders with suppliers.
“Our role is to provide a consistent supply and maintain quality at an agreeable price for all parties. Apart from adverse weather that can affect a harvest, juniper for example has its own cycle and every so often plants have a bad year. Most recently 2016 was the most difficult year and there are early indications that the 2019 juniper harvest across Italy and the Balkans could be a bit challenging. We highlight this to customers as soon as we know. There won’t be a lack of juniper berries in total, it’s a price, planning and choice issue and our role is to help our distilling customers maintain their consistent house style by finding the right junipers for their product until the next harvest,” says Jim Long, managing director, Starspice Ingredients.
The harvest will vary from year-to-year, while the distillers’ criteria for their botanicals will remain constant.
“We work very closely with a number of suppliers; as such, both trust and experience is vital and it’s important that we know and understand the supply chain all the way through. Therefore, our suppliers having BRC (British Retail Consortium) accreditation is vital – this ensures complete traceability and transparency throughout the supply chain,” says Joanne Moore, master distiller, Quintessential Brands.
The supply chain begins with farmers cultivating botanicals such as coriander, liquorice root and orris root. Juniper berries are either cultivated or gathered in the wild by farmers.
“It really is a lovely idea to work directly with individual farmers. However, due to the large quantities that we supply, along with economies of scale and quality control, we will work mostly through established, quality-assured distributors, and whatever the source of the botanicals, as an ISO 22000 and Kosher certified business, we can batch track everything,” says Anthony Benton.
“Harvest will vary year-to-year, while the distillers’ criteria for their botanicals will remain constant”
Botanicals including liquorice root are supplied in powdered form, though most botanicals (including juniper berries) arrive dried. This simplifies storage as cool, dry conditions that avoid light are all that’s required.
“Having a wide array of recipes to cater for, we will keep roughly 120 botanicals in stock, although both juniper berries and coriander seeds account for the greatest volume, with the amount of other botanicals being relatively small. We keep one month’s supply of key botanicals and have deliveries once a month from a supplier. An order can
usually be delivered within 24-48 hours,” says Charles Maxwell, master distiller, Thames Distillers.
Before reaching a pot still, botanicals are directed towards the lab.
“A supplier might hold, for example, 1,000kg of juniper berries, delivered to us in smaller batches, with each having a batch code for full traceability. At Eight Lands we will also request a sample of each batch, so that our in-house lab can check the quality of the berries. If a supplier is unable to source a particular type of juniper that we’ve ordered, we will get an analysis done at the beginning of a recipe. We also run a trial maceration to compare aromas and flavours to check each batch of botanicals, and we will then use our tasting panel to compare to the previous batch, in order to confirm consistency,” says Meeghan Murdoch, operations manager, Eight Lands Organic Speyside Spirits.
In addition to the usual shopping list of botanicals, NPD (new product development) often involves innovation.
“My suppliers are so patient with me, I’m often asking for something unusual. To get an idea of how a botanical could work in a recipe, I need to order at least 300-400 grams for initial evaluation, and up to 2kg to do lab scale distilling trials. Some things I ask for may not appear in a product for a few years, or even at all, as I’m constantly experimenting with new recipes. Even now, I currently have around 50 sample bottles on my desk,” says Joanne Moore.
Whether ordering ‘new’ botanicals or the usual selection, price is a factor. “There can be fairly significant fluctuations in the price of botanicals, though cost implications on the resulting gin are relatively small. What pushes the price of coriander up is the cost of the seed. If there’s a short supply the price can go up, then farmers plant more which results in an oversupply, then the price falls and farmers plant less and there is an undersupply,” says Charles Maxwell.
While distillers rarely deal directly with farmers, it’s happening in Japan.
“Most of our botanicals, including ginger and yuzu, are sourced from farmers in the Kyoto prefecture where the distillery is,” says Alex Davies, head distiller, Kyoto Distillery. This includes a sole supplier of ginger, cultivated in two fields exclusively for Kyoto. Following the harvest the farmer matures the ginger for three months in a mountain cave, where earthen clay walls promote ideal levels of humidity and stable temperatures.
“Ginger is stored in the cave which means we can order it fresh all year round. We had tried freezing ginger, but it doesn’t taste the same,” says Alex Davies. There’s no problem freezing yuzu peel, stored in a dedicated, walk-in freezer at the distillery, having been washed, hand-peeled, the pith removed and vacuum-packed.
“Yuzu is an incredible citrus fruit, slightly lemon, mandarin and grapefruit. We are supplied by six local farmers within the Kyoto prefecture, and one beyond. The farms span north-east to north-west, and because of this longitude the yuzu season lasts five weeks instead of the usual one-two weeks. Some of our team work with the farmers to hand-pick the fruit at its peak, and bring it to the distillery on our truck. A year’s harvest yields a few thousand kilos,” says Alex Davies.
An even more immediate source of botanicals is a distillery garden.
“We grow botanicals such as grapes, figs, olives and lemon verbena in a geodome with a diameter around eight meters. We built this four years ago using recycled plastic, with windows that can open. Our gardener ensures everything is grown correctly, and when we harvest our own botanicals it’s all hands on deck for a few days,” says Martin Murray, founder, Dunnet Bay Distillers.