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Understanding flavours in Gin

13/06/2020
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It’s World Gin Day on Saturday (13 June). To celebrate, we asked our spirits educators to explain how the flavour of gin is affected by the way it’s produced. We also asked them to share the best way of tasting gin to appreciate these flavour differences.

Botanicals

The primary drivers of flavour in gin are botanicals or ‘nature-identical’ oils and essences. These are added according to many different recipes and in varying methods. Here are some of the most important, which are found in many gins on the market today.

Juniper is the only botanical that must be included in gin by law. Juniper berries give gin its characterful and invigorating pine-like quality.

Coriander seeds are present in most gins. They add spicy notes and, depending on their source, sometimes peppery ones – such as ginger or sage.

Angelica Root has a musky, earthy aroma - reminiscent of walking through a dry wood.

Citrus peels complement the other botanicals, adding a zesty complexity - whether lemon, lime, grapefruit, pomelo, bergamot, sweet orange or bitter orange.

Cinnamon, cassia bark and liquorice root are sweeter botanicals which balance out more bitter, floral or earthy botanicals.

The Recipe

Judging the exact proportions of each botanical is critical. Distillers measure out ingredients very precisely. Some botanicals produce so much flavour they can be overwhelming, so are used in very small quantities.

Whereas producers have traditionally distilled botanicals together in one pot still, it’s becoming increasingly common to distil botanicals separately and then blend them together. Some argue that distilling in one pot can produce a ‘muddied’ result, whereas distilling separately or as groups of ‘top notes’ and ‘base notes’ can provide a greater clarity of flavour from each botanical. Yet, when distilled together, botanical compounds can combine to produce distinct aromas.

Location in the Still

The location of botanicals in the still - as well as the still type, size and shape - can have an important bearing on the type of spirit and intensity of flavour produced. Botanicals can sit loose in the spirit or in semi-porous bags. Some producers even choose to let the botanicals steep or macerate for some time before distillation, believing that it fixes aromas more effectively. Others decide to keep the botanicals in a tray above the distilling liquid, simply allowing the vapours to pass through, which produces a much lighter style of gin.

Cut Points

The volatility of each aromatic substance in botanicals is different. As a result, they come off the still in a sequence rather than all at once. Distillers choose when to start and end the collection of liquid for bottling, allowing them to collect and concentrate different parts of the distilling liquid. The first compounds to come across are those from citrus peels. As these start to fade, juniper comes to the fore, followed by the spicy notes of coriander and finally the rooty notes of angelica and liquorice.

Tasting Gin with WSET’s Systematic Approach to Tasting

There are now hundreds of gins available on the market. How can we logically assess them to establish which are the best or, more importantly, which we personally prefer? WSET’s Systematic Approach to Tasting Spirits guides you on how to taste in a logical and professional manner. It is designed to build your skills at identifying key aromas and flavours, complementing the knowledge learnt through WSET qualifications.

There are three key steps. We recommend that you write notes at each stage.

1/ Appearance

Assess how the spirit appears in the glass. Is it clear or a bit hazy? What colour is it? As we’re looking at gin, we want it to be clear and water-white. If there is any dullness, it could be faulty. Some unfiltered gins may go a little hazy when you add water. This is okay. If there is a slight lemon tone, this could be the result of ageing. While this is rare in gin, wood ageing is becoming more popular and can be detected by colour and taste.

2/ Nose

When nosing a spirit there is no need to swirl the glass vigorously. This will release a lot of alcohol and could give you quite an unpleasant shock. Sniff gently and gradually try to build up a picture of the aromas - you won’t pick up everything in one go. How intense are the aromas? As gin is fundamentally flavoured vodka, we would expect it to be quite light and delicate. To be classified as a gin there must be distinct aromas of juniper, but the distiller is trying to create a balance of different aromas. A classic recipe for a London dry gin includes coriander seeds, citrus peel, angelica root and orris root. The coriander and citrus are spicy and bright, sitting ‘above’ the juniper. The roots are rich and savoury and appear ‘below’ the juniper.

Tip: Add a drop of water to the glass before you nose it to help release the aromas and soften the alcohol

3/ Palate

Take a sip and let the gin coat your mouth. While it’s in your mouth, it’s important to consider two factors - how does it taste and how does it feel? Most gins are dry. However, if the gin is labelled Old Tom, you can expect it to have been sweetened. The flavours, and their intensity, should be similar in your mouth as on the nose. But how does the gin feel? Ideally it will be slightly warming, smooth and mouth-coating. If it feels slightly burning or coarse, that’s not normally a good sign.

Finally, assess the nature and length of the finish. How many flavours can you taste? How did they develop in the mouth? Did they linger after the first sip or disappear quickly? Gin complexity can vary but the very best gins have long, complex finishes.

Finally, look back at your notes and rate each gin you have tasted. Then use your notes to compare and decide on your personal favourites.

The best way to find your favourite gin is to try lots of varieties! Or, if you’d like to learn more about the impact of production on flavour, why not take a WSET spirits course online or in the classroom? Visit our “Where to Study” page to find the right course provider for you.

Written by Nicholas King, WSET Head of Product Development - Spirits, and Liam Scandrett, WSET Spirits Educator