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On trend: Terroir in gin

Just like wine, gin can reflect the unique tastes and qualities of the places where its botanicals are grown. Jillian Dara investigates the growing trend for terroir gins in the US and recommends eight bottles to try. 

Terroir is often a term used in reference to wine. When a certain grape is grown close to the sea or in mineral-rich soils for example, imbibers are able to taste a hint of salinity or flint in the resulting wine.

In the same way terroir can also be used to describe certain gins. Distillers can source native, wild-grown botanicals to capture the essence of a certain part of the world in their spirits.

Although this has previously been more popular in the UK, now US producers are catching on. using niche ingredients from coast to coast, north to south, to craft gins that are completely distinct to their environment.

In Rhode Island, Rhodium Forager’s Gin uses red clover, sumac, autumn berries and aronia. In California, St George Spirits Terroir Gin relies on Douglas fir, coastal sage, wild fennel and California bay laurel. More broadly reflective of the US is the just-launched Four Corners Gin, made by sourcing indigenous ingredients from across the country. Think wild juniper from Oregon, yerba santa from the Mojave desert, cranberry from Maine and wild cherry bark from Florida.

Bottle of gin, limes and a glass on wooden boards

Four Corners American Gin

Going local

‘These locally picked botanicals give terroir gins a unique and distinctive flavour profile, setting them apart from mass produced, traditional gins,’ says Donal O’Gallachoir, co-founder of Four Corners Gin.

O’Gallachoir adds that until recently, most gins in America were made from overseas botanicals, either in part or entirely, but now consumer tastes are more discerning. ‘Gin enthusiasts increasingly love a compelling story that connects the gin to where it’s from. They really appreciate and enjoy the narrative behind the gin, being transported to a place with every sip.’

In general, contemporary consumers are increasingly curious about provenance – tracing a product back to its origins as a confirmation of its authenticity and quality. When it comes to terroir gin, this is especially relevant as the ingredients used in the spirit are often growing together.

Botanical tapestry

‘All of the botanicals work together,’ says Chris Garden, head of operations at Hepple Gin. The Hepple distillery is based within the eastern edge of England’s Northumberland National Park. Garden points out how the stream that feeds the estate’s green juniper plants also feeds the bog myrtle and Douglas fir used in the gin.

Juniper berries

Green juniper berries used in Hepple Gin Credit: Julie Sheppard

‘The influence of climate and geography have an integral role in the flavour of these ingredients,’ adds Adam Hannett, head distiller for The Botanist. Launched in 2011, this Scottish gin brand was a pioneer in terroir gin. ‘We wanted to capture the essence of what it feels like to be on Islay,’ says Hannett. The 22 hand-foraged botanicals include three different types of mint, flowers such as purple heather and earthy botanicals like wild thyme. All are sourced from the hills, meadows and moors of Islay, the southernmost Hebrides island, located off Scotland’s west coast.

Terroir gins tend to feature a handful of key ingredients, some of which you can taste more than others. Geraldine Kavanagh is a forager at Glendalough Distillery in Ireland, which produces Wild Botanical Gin. She notes that even botanicals used in lesser quantities are just as significant to the final liquid.

‘They affect the way the gin tastes and feels in your mouth, in the same way as herbs, salt and pepper are small but hugely important additions to a recipe when you are cooking at home,’ she explains. The 30 fresh, foraged botanicals used to make Wild Botanical Gin, include yarrow and sweet woodruff. Both are used in small quantities, but Kavanagh says the gin wouldn’t be as balanced without them.

Seasonal style

In addition to relaying a specific sense of place, gins produced from wild-grown botanicals reflect profound seasonality and freshness. Lantic Gin’s founder Alex Palmer-Samborne (below) picks botanicals and distils them within 24 hours. ‘Similar to cooking,’ he says, ‘you get a lot more of the true flavour from fresh produce.’

Lantic’s gin portfolio aims to capture the different seasons. Lantic Summer Foraged Gin and Morva are inspired by summer meadows, sourcing from wide-open spaces in bloom, using the likes of elderflower, wild strawberries, red clover, and honeysuckle. Lantic Winter Foraged Gin is designed for the colder and darker months, tapping into autumnal fruits and berries that are distilled and aged in an oak cask for warming notes.

A man kneeling in a field

Alex Palmer-Samborne of Lantic Gin

‘Using plants that grow locally and distilling them daily allows us to capture the changing flavours of an entire year,’ agrees Glendalough’s Kavanagh. ‘I like that you have to wait and that there is a sense of excitement with the coming of each botanical. We have lost this in the modern world where everything is available all year round, but things don’t necessarily taste as good.’

Kavanagh explains that during August in the Wicklow Mountains, she’s smelling herbal and honey notes in the air from heather in bloom. In April, it’s pine and tropical coconut notes from the new shoots of the pine trees and gorse in bloom. ‘In order to capture that terroir in a bottle, the botanicals have to be of excellent quality. The flowers have to be picked on a dry day when they have pollen; the leaves need to be fresh and green and at their prime in terms of flavour; fruit has to be perfectly ripe.’

Freshness is also a result of limited production and using small batch stills. ‘It is the attention to detail in the production process that makes these gins so good,’ shares O’Gallachoir. ‘Each [ingredient] needs to be treated differently and macerated slowly to tease out their unique flavours,’ he says. At Four Corners, the team uses a 1,500-litre pot still with a shallow swan’s neck to deliver low reflux, which results in capture of more congeners and oils for a rich and textural profile.

Environmental benefits

It’s also interesting to consider the environmental role of foraged botanicals. In some instances their use is helping to scale down issues they might previously have contributed to their natural habitats. In Providence, Cathy Plourde, co-owner of Rhode Island Spirits, who distils Rhodium Forager’s Gin, sources botanicals in great quantities that are considered invasive species such as autumn berry, weeds like clover or sumac, or even a nuisance, like black walnuts.

two bottles of gin with clover

Red clover, considered a weed, is a botanical in Rhodium Forager’s Gin

Lance Winters, Master Distiller for St George’s Terroir Gin gathers Douglas fir from a ranch near Ukiah in California, which is home to a forest of old-growth redwoods. According to Winters, clearing out the Douglas fir helps to reduce fuel load for forest fires.

As the popularity of terroir products continues to trend, it’s opening a new world of how gin can and should taste. ‘The myth that all gin tastes like a Christmas tree is eroding, as people realise that craft gin strives to bring unique flavours that use specific, local ingredients,’ says Plourde.

Designed to be tasted neat so that you can appreciate the nuances in terroir, the following eight terroir-drive gins add a unique layer of complexity to classic cocktails.

Eight terroir gins to try

Four Corners American Gin

Crafted exclusively with all American botanicals, the nose is balanced with hints of floral and slight juniper. The palate is clean and smooth with notable wood spices, tropical citrus and a hint of vanilla bean. A Gin & Tonic garnished with grapefruit accentuates the floral and citrus notes. Alcohol 41%

Glendalough Wild Botanical Gin

Juniper and pine blend with elderflower and wet earth for a silky and harmonious palate. Glendalough works with a local forager who cuts every ingredient according to freshness, informed by smell and taste. A delightful addition to a White Negroni. Alc 41%

Hepple Gin

Hepple Spirits recommends serving its bold gin with a splash of tonic and wedge of lemon – it’s obvious why. Their garnish of choice coerces the bright citrus in harmony with the green juniper, savoury bog myrtle and elegant peppered finish. Alc 45%

Lantic Summer Gin

Savour the fleeting season along the Cornish coastline year round with this fresh and floral gin that infuses 21 botanicals, including elderflower, honeysuckle and Malwina strawberry. Mint and honey aromas tantalise, opening to citrus and clover upon first sip. Marry the season’s bright flavours in a crisp Tom Collins. Alc 41.5%

Procera Blue Dot Gin

Seventy kilometres from Procera’s Nairobi distillery grows the eponymous African juniper that Procera was the first to use in a gin. This combined with indigenous ingredients from throughout Africa – Moroccan orris root, Swahili lime – presents a bright palate meshed with savoury qualities of dried earth and an expertly smooth finish. There’s no better way to enjoy it than an ice cold Martini. Alc 44%

Rhodium Forager’s Gin

Cathy Plourde and her partner Kara Larson combined their love of foraging and passion for home brewing, respectively, to create a gin unique to Rhode Island. The nose offers dried mint and wormwood that’s furthered on the palate with wet earth, slight anise and a minty finish. Try it neat as a digestif. Alc 42%

St George Spirits Terroir Gin

Meant to evoke ‘a walk in the forest’, fresh pine consumes the aromas but isn’t overwhelming on the palate. The finish is herbal with lingering sage notes. Enjoy in a classic Martini swapping a lemon twist for two drops of orange bitters. Alc 45% 

The Botanist Gin

As an early adopter of terroir-driven gin, The Botanist still sets the bar high with 22 of 31 botanicals sourced from the distillery’s native Islay. The aromas are more classic, yet clean, with juniper, citrus and eucalyptus notes punctuated by black pepper spice. The palate is smooth and juniper-forward, making for an excellent Dry Martini. Alc 46%

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