By Ian Wisniewksi
We’ve all done it: choose a recipe from a cookery book, list the ingredients, but then not necessarily buy all of them. Particularly when they are expensive and added merely a pinch at a time. It’s too much outlay for too little input, and who will know anyway? A distiller’s shopping list has no such leeway. It can’t. Each botanical contributes to the final result, regardless of the quantity used and the prices charged.
The bill for different botanicals varies significantly, but then so can the price of the same botanical, depending on the origin, provenance, whether organic and so on (specific prices are not forthcoming when you ask, which is hardly surprising). One way of avoiding a purchase price is to cultivate your own botanicals. Grapes, figs, olives and sea buckthorn, for example, thrive within the grounds of Dunnet Bay distillery, which produces Rock Rose gin. But this was preceded by the cost of installing a dedicated geodome (8 meters in diameter) to create the right environment, and the on-going cost of a gardener to nourish and nurture the botanicals.
Similarly, there are no price tags tied to juniper bushes, which grow wild, but juniper berries need to be ‘wild harvested’ (a term which is replacing the more prosaic ‘foraged’). Chilgrove gin, for example, includes juniper hand-harvested on the Goodwood Estate in Sussex.
“It’s a labour of love. The key to harvesting juniper berries is planning ahead, though it depends on the weather. Juniper berries put up a fight to be harvested in a sustainable way, to extract ripe berries but leave the unripe berries,” says Christopher Beaumont-Hutchings, managing director at
Chilgrove Spirits which distills on behalf of the Goodwood Estate.
Two harvesters spend up to one week a year at Goodwood gathering berries. They have to be cleaned up, stripped of any leaves and dried to the right moisture level to enable storage without risk of deterioration, which incurs further time and expense.
And then there’s the question of juniper’s journey to the distillery, which may be short and local, or longer haul from Tuscany and Umbria. As so many botanicals are harvested globally, they all need travel itineraries. But transport costs are accelerating, which is one reason why all botanicals are becoming more expensive, with juniper showing the greatest hikes. As the botanical used in the largest quantities, juniper naturally accounts for the greatest expenditure, though it is not the most expensive botanical per kg.
Coriander is typically every distiller’s second choice, though it’s more accurate to call it every distiller’s first choice, as there is no choice with juniper. Coriander is a multi-tasker, renowned for adding fresh spice and dryness, underlining other flavours while also providing subtle citrus notes that differ from the contribution citrus botanicals make.
“Coriander is the most expensive of our core botanicals on a per kg basis. We were keen to source botanicals in the UK, and when trialing gin recipes in 2017, English coriander worked better, as it contributed to the savory, earthy style of gin we wanted, though it is more expensive than imported coriander,” says Max Vaughan, co-founder at White Peak Distillery.
Other botanicals such as vanilla, grains of Paradise, and orris root are also more expensive per kilogram than juniper but used in far smaller quantities. They do, however, have a significant impact.
“Grains of Paradise contribute citrus and pepper. You can try to replicate this with lemon and pepper, but it’s not the same,” says Martin Murray, founder of Dunnet Bay.
However, the characteristics of some expensive botanicals can be ‘reproduced.’
“Vanilla gives a sense of luxury and indulgence, but using vanilla pods is not always financially viable so it’s possible to use botanicals such as sarsaparilla to give a taste of vanilla ice-cream and sweetness. The mouthfeel vanilla contributes can also be supplemented by using liquorice root, which releases oiliness during distillation,” says Alice Pearson, Cotswold’s Distillery manager.
A botanical can also be more important for its influence rather than the flavour.
“Orris root has a violet flavour profile that doesn’t come through that much, and if you left it out of the recipe you wouldn’t notice the lack of violet. But orris root also enhances other flavours and without it, the other flavours aren’t as bright or as clear. Having distilled the same gin recipe with and without orris root, I know from personal experience the difference it makes,” says Martin Murray.
The bill for botanicals depends not only on which particular botanical is on the list, but also the quantity required. Minimum orders vary depending on each supplier, though it’s usually 15 grams. Juniper is available in 1kg bags but orders are typically placed for 25kg bags.
“Buying 1kg of a botanical can be very expensive, but the price is much better for 100 kgs of the same botanical. This poses a real challenge when ordering small amounts to develop new recipes for limited-edition gins. Ordering ad hoc rather than entering into a long-term contract can also increase the cost,” says Alice Pearson.
Another aspect of pricing is the quantities of each botanical available overall, and that is ultimately down to the climate.
“A poor harvest always pushes prices up. One way of dealing with this variability is to buy in larger quantities that can be stored for the full shelf life, which could be up to a year in the appropriate environment with decent ventilation. But then you also need a lot of additional storage to do this,” says Max Vaughan.
Botanicals are of course only one of the expenses incurred when producing gin, and actually quite a long way down the list.
“Botanicals represent around 10% of total production costs excluding duty, including duty it is 1% of total production costs,” says Martin Murray.
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