Agave growing in Jalisco Mexico

Distilled Nature

Written by Christopher Menning

“The Plant Issue”, October-November 2023

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With this being “The Plant Issue” and my task to write on the subject of alcohol, one book sprang to mind: The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create The World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart. This book really is a historical and cultural deep dive into the phenomenon of human beings trying to ferment and transform every flower, herb, fungi, or tree we come across into alcohol. With the vast majority of alcoholic beverages derived from plants, alcohol truly is a gift from the plant kingdom.

The Role of Terroir

There is a captivating connection between plants and alcohol, one that has led to an exploration of how terroir influences the flavour of our favourite spirits. Terroir, a French term, is an expression we use in the alcohol world to note the unique combination of soil, climate, and geographical location. In essence, terroir is “a sense of place, through taste”. It’s a fundamental concept in alcohol production—how the soil composition, temperature, rainfall, and altitude of a region profoundly impact the plants grown there.

For a long time, only the wine industry truly understood that by knowing the terroir and the plant used, you can almost certainly know what to expect. Fortunately, the knowledge has spread to other alcohol productions. The chalky soil in Champagne, France contributes to the minerals and acids in the grapes that create the world’s most celebrated sparkling wine. In the wonderful world of whiskey, the peat-rich beaches of Islay, Scotland lend an unmistakable smokiness to the barley used in production. The Blue Weber agave plants grown in the highlands of Jalisco, Mexico offer sweeter and fruitier flavours, compared to those grown in the lowlands.

Going back to wine, grapes are perhaps the most iconic and versatile plants in alcohol production. You may be surprised to know there are over 10,000 grape varieties that can be used to make wine, Cognac, and a variety of fortified wines like port and sherry. The world’s renowned wine regions, such as Bordeaux, California, and Tuscany, each have their own unique grape varieties and terroirs, resulting in wines with distinct flavours and characteristics.

Agave growing in Jalisco Mexico

Gin: Capturing Nature’s Essence in a Bottle

Another interesting marriage of plant life and alcohol is that of infusions, the most classic example of this being gin. Gin starts its journey as a neutral grain spirit before coming to life through the addition of botanicals. These botanicals range from juniper berries, which provide gin with its distinct piney flavour, to coriander, citrus peels, and spices like cardamom and cinnamon. The art of crafting gin lies in the selection and balance of these botanicals. Each bottle will have its own recipe and combination of plants, herbs, and spices that are distilled with the grain spirit to produce what is now one of the most popular spirits in the world. Some gins focus on the classic juniper-forward profile, while others explore more exotic and unique botanical combinations.

Returning to Islay once again, we find a distillery that goes to the extent of having its own dedicated full-time forager on the island. James Donaldson, in this role, is responsible for both cultivating and meticulously hunting down the 22 distinctive Islay botanicals, including lady’s bedstraw, mugwort, creeping thistle, and tansy, all of which contribute to the unique character of the Botanist Islay Dry Gin.

Juniper berries

Syrups and Infusions

The world of mixology would be incomplete without the creative use of syrups and infusions. These homemade ingredients have acted as flavour enhancers, elevating cocktails to a whole new level and bringing a new wave of culinary bartenders. Syrups are certainly the most used item in a bartender’s arsenal. A simple syrup is a mix of usually equal parts sugar and water. Almond syrup, more commonly known as orgeat, is made by steeping raw chopped almonds in water overnight and is an integral part of a Mai Tai and many other tiki cocktails. Rhubarb is another ingredient commonly used in syrup. The malic acid found in rhubarb is actually more sour than citric, making it great for adding tartness as well as crispness to cocktails. Beyond these, flavoured syrups like grenadine and falernum bring unique taste profiles to classic and contemporary cocktails alike.

Infusions are another mixology tool. By steeping herbs, spices, or fruits in a base spirit, bartenders can infuse a wide range of flavours into their creations. For example, a rosemary-infused gin can lend a delightful herbal note to a cocktail, while a chilli-infused tequila can provide a spicy kick. The possibilities are endless, allowing mixologists to experiment and create bespoke flavour profiles.

As you can see, the world of alcohol production is a captivating blend of science, nature, and craftsmanship, with plant life being the very foundation of it all. They bring a remarkable array of flavours, aromas, and characteristics to our glasses, with terroir also playing a critical role in shaping the personality of spirits, rendering each drop a journey through the place of origin.

So as you sip your next cocktail or dram of whiskey, take a moment to appreciate that plants made it all possible. Distilled nature in a glass. 

More by this author: Serving Meaning

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