The marriage of gin and botanicals is a new chapter in cocktail history
- Today's craft botanical gins are world removed from the old moonshine spirit
- Bartenders and distillers are making gins which are geo-specific in their flavour profile and ethos
It takes some creative licence to imagine quintessential Goan ingredients like chorizo, briny baby octopus, morel mushrooms, champa flowers, fragrant allspice and wild chrysanthemum flowers as garnishes, tinctures and shrubs. And yet, these formed the base for some of the edgy gin cocktails presented at a recent three-day event in Goa organized by the Scottish gin brand The Botanist. Centred on foraged ingredients, the event brought together 20 of India’s best bartenders, introducing the “farm-to-glass" trend to mixologists. The Botanist is distilled in the Hebridean island of Islay, with 22 foraged herbs and flowers that lend a specific flavour profile to the spirit. Launched in India last year, it is among the brands that reinforce the popularity of gin as the new cocktail favourite. Gin-forward cocktail menus in bars across the country, as well as the rise of home-grown craft gins like Greater Than and Hapusa, are another indication of the rising popularity of this spirit.
Gin represents a historical continuum—from its inception to its evolution into a hipster emblem—even as it makes a niche for itself. In the 16th century, the Dutch combined alcohol and juniper berries to come up with the medicinal drink genever (Dutch for juniper). The spirit received monikers like “mother’s ruin" as cheap moonshine versions flooded England in the 18th century. Gin was regarded as the liquor that led people to poverty, disease and death. As better distillation methods came into existence in the 19th century, gin travelled with British sailors and civil servants to the colonies as a tonic against tropical diseases like malaria. In the mid-20th century, James Bond’s Vesper martini (a mix of vodka and gin) gave the drink a stylish twist. The late 2000s saw gin reinvented as a modern-day craft cocktail and appropriated by millennials around the world.
At last count, Ginventory, an app dedicated to all things gin, listed a total of 5,500 gins and over 500 tonics. This comprehensive app claims to find the perfect serve for every gin in the world. And this is a tall order, for the tribe of craft gin makers is growing rapidly and distillers around the world are pushing the envelope as they experiment with native botanicals and other ingredients drawn from very specific geographies.
In India, gin was a direct inheritance of the British Raj. For the post-independence baby boomers, a G&T typically meant a dry London-style gin, an oversweet tonic and a twist of lime. A perfect afternoon drink for our tropical climes, it also fit in with the still thriving gymkhana lifestyle.
An entire generation later, every component of the traditional G&T has been reinvented—from the gin to the tonic and garnish. Gins are infused with botanicals as diverse as mugwort, bog myrtle, baobab fruit, seaweed and Japanese yuzu plums. Both tonics and garnishes feature exotic botanicals like sea buckthorn, barberries or perennial favourites like citrus, grapefruit, rosemary and thyme.
Gin enthusiast Keshav Prakash describes botanicals as the key ingredient distinguishing one gin from the next. His company, The Vault, imports and creates awareness about artisanal spirits in India. Currently, it has 12 craft gins in its portfolio across categories and flavour profiles.
According to him, it was the search among millennials for a more casual drink as an alternative to vodka and whisky that led to a resurgence of gin. “Gin has exploded in the global scenario in the last three-five years. Before that, gins were associated with the colonial gymkhana era. Thereafter, an entire generation skipped drinking gin and now it is back again as a cool drink that is ever evolving," says Prakash.
“Gins today have gone way beyond having juniper as a primary botanical. Experimentation is the only constant with contemporary gins and producers are trying all kinds of geo-specific botanical ingredients like a yuzu gin from Japan or a sloe gin from England. It is really the addition of botanicals that separates one gin from the next because there are only so many varieties of London dry gin that one can have," says Prakash.
It is the flexibility of the liquor that allows bartenders to scale new heights. Caitlin Hill, brand ambassador of The Botanist, says the marriage between botanicals and gins was orchestrated by bartenders, with major alcohol brands following. Hill, who started her career as a waitress and went on to helm a popular Cape Town gin bar—Mother’s Ruin—is part of a group of bartenders who believe in the future potential of gin.
“What is really interesting about gin is that it can be made anywhere in the world according to different processes, and it really is a versatile spirit category. There is a gin that speaks to everybody—and a gin cocktail for everyone based on whether one wants a sweet, savoury, dry or sour flavour profile and the combinations are endless," says Hill.
This is why, when asked about food pairings, she says that unlike a whisky or a wine, the versatility of the spirit and the way it is handled and mixed can transform the drink and make it work with all foods, flavour profiles and times of day.
For her, the best craft gin cocktails make use of wild ingredients and are designed keeping in mind the mood and occasion. “Buy a bottle of gin and discover what’s there in your backyard—and more often than not you will find a garnish that works really well. It’s a far more sustainable practice than shopping at a supermarket," she says.