Aromatized gins and gin liqueurs are in demand. A top beverage scientist weighs in on the stringent regulations, temperamental botanicals and complex distillation process
KerryDigest Fast Facts:
- Gin is trending in Europe, especially in the UK, which reported £1.5B in gin sales in 2018.
- Contributing to those numbers are the growing categories of flavoured gins and gin liqueurs.
- Flavoured gins products are created through the careful use of ingredients such as botanical extracts, distillates and flavours.
- But the process isn’t straightforward, due to the instability of alcohol, gin’s already botanical-rich blend and strict regulations.
- A top beverage scientist shares what it takes to make a winning beverage that delights consumers while satisfying industry rules.
KerryDigest Full Scoop:
It’s #GinOClock somewhere. So goes the playful Instagram hashtag, which has been used in 317,000 posts and counting.
A safe bet is that “somewhere” is the UK. According to The Spirits Business July 2018 issue, gin sales there grew by 33% between March 2017 and 2018 to reach £1.5B. What’s more, the magazine reports there are now 315 gin distilleries in the UK, with 42 new ones opening in 2017 alone and around half opening in the last 5 years.
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As senior manager of beverage research, development and applications for Kerry Europe, I’ve had a front row seat for this growing trend. Although it may have gotten legs from mixologists inventing new gin drinks, a growing number of alcohol brands are launching flavoured gins—from unusual herbals and citrus to ginger-rhubarb combinations. Flavoured gin projects—during which my team works with Michel Aubanel and other flavour scientists to experiment with exotic extracts and popular flavours—have become a regular part of my workweek.
Over the last several months we’ve come up with some of the most amazing gin infusions, and we’ve also discovered good ways to navigate the challenges that can come while making flavoured gins. Here are some of our lessons learned for making standout products for the growing flavoured gin market in the UK, and beyond.
The Regulations are Stringent
There are strict legislative rules about the ingredients that can be used in gin, and these specifications influence what type of gin you eventually end up with: London dry, dry or just gin. For instance, the only thing you can use to sweeten gin is a bit of sugar, however gin with added sugar can’t be labeled as London dry. As a result, most aromatized or flavoured gins are of the dry or traditional gin variety.
Typically, aromatized gins are 75% proof and above, although there is no hard and fast regulation to the strength of the spirit. However, we’ve launched as many gin liqueurs as we have flavoured gins. In gin liqueurs, the product can be half strength—around 40% proof. With this new modern moderation of alcohol, liqueurs have become very popular. It's allowable to load liqueurs with flavour and sugar—by law in the EU, they need at least 100g of sugar to be called a liqueur. They are quite sweet and the flavours are fruity and in your face. Of course, when developing gin spirits in Europe it's recommended to avoid artificial sweeteners, as they are not on the "positive" ingredient lists. These are just some of the rules and preferences we work with when creating new formulations. Before embarking on a flavoured gin or gin liqueur, be sure to engage with regulatory and consumer insights to get a more complete picture.
The Process is Time Intense
When working with high proof spirits, the most difficult part is making the flavour work. If a customer wants our help making a flavoured gin, we first ask them for an around 190 proof spirit—the concentrated alcohol before its brought down to its standard proof. In our labs, we’ll work with this sample and add our aromatized fruit, herb and spice distillates and, if required, natural flavours, to the final spirit recipe.
Day one on the bench involves adding the proposed flavour. Then you wait a week or so for the flavours to "bed in". What you start with on day 1—a refreshing blood orange taste, for example—can by day nine turn too subtle, or you might begin to detect one flavour overpowering another.
Alcohol and flavours are both quite volatile when you mix them together. If a soda customer came to us and wanted samples in two days we could do it—it might alter slightly but it’s stable. But for alcohol, we need around two or three weeks for it to sit—there’s no such thing as a quick fix.
The good news is that the flavours that come through after two to three weeks will likely stay the same for the two or three year shelf life of the product. While the shelf life of a cola may be around six months, with spirits, this longer time is necessary due to exporting complications. If we’re exporting to the U.S. it can take up to 18 months just to get from the distiller to a bottle shop or store, and it still has to taste great. Luckily, we don’t have to monitor formulations that whole time. We have shelf life testing protocols that more efficiently test the stability of new recipes in the long term.
The Botanicals Require a Balancing Act
The above process describes a best case scenario, when the first flavour blend you try leaves nothing to be desired. This is rarely, if ever, the case. Making a flavoured gin is all about trying to balance the natural botanical notes from gin and putting your own sort of stamp on it—to make it blood orange, or hibiscus or fig, or some combination of such botanical or fruit extracts and flavours. In order to do so, the aromas you use have to work with the juniper character, which is itself a blend of botanical extracts. The goal is to create something that won’t mask the inherent gin qualities, but rather will work with them.
We’ve tried working with everything from grains of paradise and caraway seeds to dried Spanish lemon peels, French thyme, fresh English elderflower and African moringa. We have even travelled to remote parts of Asia to collect exotic fruits and florals such as yuzu, sudachi citrus and sakura (cherry blossom and leaf). Sometimes we do trials with our customers where everything must be put in the pot still at their plant, and we’ll work with them to add our ingredients to their ingredients, so everything is combined in the process.
The problem is, you can’t tell what blends will work, and you also can’t tell what will survive the distillation process. With gin you have to be careful.
After the distillation process, we need to be mindful of the materials we add to the final gin as over time, certain ingredients or blends can result in little bits of botanical matter falling out. That’s why it’s so important to have a rich trove of flavours and distillates to experiment with and an experienced flavourist to partner with. When I work with Michel, we each bring different insights to the table. Working together is key for us in making a winning product.