Cocktails: Spicy Gins Flavored with Juniper, But Also Grains of Paradise, Violets and Fennel

Juniper berries give gin its distinctively refreshing aroma--but Magellan is also infused with cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, grains of paradise, licorice, cinnamon, coriander, orange peel, cassia and iris--hence the heavenly blue tint.

Juniper berries give gin its distinctively refreshing aroma–but Magellan is also infused with cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, grains of paradise, licorice, cinnamon, coriander, orange peel, cassia and iris–hence the heavenly blue tint.

While sipping a dry martini and nibbling on vodka-soaked Pickled Green Cherry Tomatoes, I got to thinking about the affinity between spirits and spices. Gin came to mind since juniper berries are the magical ingredient that transforms neutral alcohol into the crisply aromatic liquor that, to paraphrase Noel Coward, fueled a generation of flaming youth—and gave oceans of solace to John Cheever’s lonely suburbanites.

For me, though, gin has always had a vaguely antiseptic flavor. I was not surprised to learn that it may have been a Dutch physician, Franciscus Sylvius, who first steeped juniper and other botanicals in distilled spirits for medicinal purposes. (The English discovered that it also created a pretty good buzz. After that, It was a short step down the slippery slope to the gin mills of the 19th century). The word “gin” derives from the Dutch “genever” for juniper, so the two are inextricably entwined.

I learned all this and more in “Flowering of Cool New Gins,” an article by Charles Perry which appeared in the July 12 L.A. Times. Perry and a panel of tasters sampled 16 “boutique gins” which are the crest of a new wave of juniper-scented spirits that are being distilled in places as far flung as the Bay area, England, Scotland and France. The big surprise is how many spices go into the making of gin.

Gin must be flavored with juniper in order to be itself—otherwise, Perry says, it would be vodka, or plain grain spirit—and it is always infused with citrus flavors, such as lemon or bitter orange. But that’s just a jumping off point. Many are flavored with coriander and anise, as well as angelica for astringency and orris root which preserves volatile aromas that might otherwise escape. After that, almost anything goes, from rose petals to black pepper and almonds.

The spiciest gin on the list is Citadelle, made in France by Cognac Ferrand. It is said to have been invented in 1771 by a distillery in Dunkirk, an early port of call for sea captains returning from spice runs to the Orient, and it includes no less than 19 exotic spices and botanicals which are individually steeped in triple distilled spirits made from wheat and spring water. The L.A. Times panel gave it a thumbs up, for its “smoothness, complexity, rich juniper aroma and intriguing note of pepper.”

Here’s a complete list of Citadelle’s flavoring ingredients:

Juniper (France)
Coriander (Morocco)
Orange Peel (Mexico)
Cardamom (India)
Licorice (China)
Cubeb pepper (Java)
Savory (France)
Fennel (Mediterranean)
Iris (Italy)
Cinnamon (Sri Lanka)
Violets (France)
Almonds (Spain)
Cassia (Indochine)
Angelica (Germany)
Grains of paradise (West Africa)
Cumin (Holland)
Nutmeg (India)
Lemon rind (Spain)
Star Anise (France)

The panel did not care for Magellan, another spicy French gin, calling it “wimpy on the nose, blunt in the mouth.” And alas, Magellan’s heavenly blue tint is apparently a thing of the past. To appeal to a wider audience, the makers have ordained that it will be clear forevermore. I personally think Magellan is a lovely sipping gin–there’s only a cerulean splash left in the bottle, but I’ll enjoy it, and soon.

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