The Thistles and Fairies of The Botanist Gin, a review

I’ll admit upfront that I loved The Botanist before I ever tasted it. When my boyfriend told me about a gin, which , in addition to nine traditional botanicals, features 22 others that grow wild on the Scottish island of Islay, I was immediately smitten. I asked him to nab the last bottle in the shop where he works and hide it till payday. Meanwhile, I would look into these botanicals…

 

The Botanist’s website is a rabbit hole for those who like to geek out on plants and booze and legend. Take, for instance, this little tidbit from #3 of the 22 native botanicals, creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense): “The thistle is of course the symbol of Scotland and is believed to derive from the battle of Largs in 1263 when a barefoot soldier of the Norse king Haakon IV inadvertently trod on the thistle while advancing in stealth on the Scottish encampment. His cry of pain was heard by the Scots and the attack repelled.”

 

And this from number 6, gorse (Ulex europaeus): “In the Scottish region of Argyll, home of The Botanist, gorse is closely associated with the Cailleach (Divine Hag), or the spirit of winter. The Cailleach is credited with forming the landscape of Argyll with her hammer as she strode across it creating mountains as stepping stones, and perhaps leaving a trail of hardy gorse in her wake.”

 

But if this whole botany & gin romance is new to you, may I refer you to The Drunken Botanist–or The Bible, as we lovingly call it chez nous! In her introduction, Amy Stewart describes how the idea for her book was born. She was hanging with a fun bunch of garden writers, and found that one of her companions, an Agave (Tequila) expert, expressed his disinclination for gin. En route to convincing him with a cocktail, she subjects him to her “rant on the many virtues of gin”:

 

“How can anyone with even a passing interest in botany not be fascinated by this stuff?” I said. “Look at the ingredients. Juniper! That’s a conifer. Coriander, which is, of course, the fruit of a cilantro plant. All gins have citrus peel in them… Gin is nothing but an alcohol extraction of all these crazy plants from around the world—tree bark and leaves and seeds and flowers and fruit.”

 

In fact, gin would basically be vodka–a neutral spirit–if not for the botanicals. As The Botanist says on their website, “Botanicals are the very essence of gin; its raison d’etre.”

 

Strange to say, my love of gin all started with Dry January. Perhaps because I am a masochist, I found that during a month-long abstinence from drinking alcohol, I derived great pleasure from reading books about alcohol. One of my favorites was Craft Distilling by Victoria Redhed Miller, who is, by the way, a badass–not only does she make her own booze, but she built her own still! Anyway, it was during one dark and dry January that I learned about the botanicals in gin.

 

Of course I’d always heard that juniper was the thing that made gin gin, but I did not know why or how that was, and, due to some unfortunate youthful encounters with cheap gin and tonics, I did not drink the stuff for many years–the very smell made me gag. But when I read in Miller’s book that “Top-quality gins are distilled at least three times” and that “during distillation, the vapors rise through a special basket that holds the botanicals, picking up the flavors and resulting in a subtle and complex gin,” I was intrigued. The process of making gin sounded a lot like the process of making the essential oils and hydrosols I’d been pleasuring my nose with in recent years. So my intellect turned to gin and my palette had no choice but to follow!

 

It turns out that there is quite a bit of research out there that suggests that our enjoyment of wine and spirits does require a mental grasp on the thing in question to appreciate it. As Adam Rogers writes in Proof‘s chapter on “Smell and Taste, “People who teach wine-tasting classes often tell funny stories about how their students, even with training, prefer box wine in a blind test. And research shows that people say they enjoy a wine more if they know it’s more expensive. Sure, that bottle of red from the little village you found when you and your first love got lost in Tuscany on that rainy night was the best bottle of wine the world has ever made. Just don’t try the same bottle again alone, sitting in front of a Star Trek rerun.” In other words, the intellectual or emotional situation shapes our taste enjoyment.

 

Rogers quotes Tim Gaiser (one of only about 200 “master sommeliers in the world) as calling wine a “shared hallucination”. This suggests that what we really like about this wine or that does not, in the usual sense, exist, which is cool.

 

I can relate.

 

Thanks to a strange phenomenon called Charles Bonnet Syndrome, which sometimes affects people who lose their sight later in life, I experience almost constant hallucinations. Basically, having felt rather proud and useful–happily processing stuff sent to it via the retina–and now deprived, my visual cortex gets bored and manufactures visual hallucinations.

 

On hangover days these hallucinations can be quite manic: parades of lurid faces and multitudes of jugglers and circus horses all surrounded by complimentary pulsating breathing designs. In other words, my hallucinations have generally got the humdrum visible world beat, which is precisely the point of this detour: Latin binomials and Celtic Mythology can provide structure and play to our appreciation, and appreciation of booze (or music or art or food…) can be learned precisely because it is tied not only to the acuteness of our sense organs, but also to our intellects and imaginations.

 

I should say though that today’s hallucinations are quite pleasant–reminiscent of a kelpie paradise with shimmering fish and gently undulating flora–perhaps because last night I sipped my first bit of Botanist!

 

If I had not been predisposed to loving The Botanist before getting a hold of the bottle, I would have fallen for it the moment I touched it because, printed in raised letters are the 22 Islay botanicals! I’m not going to say that they are easy to read–raise Latin characters are not so legible as braille, particularly when they are justified, but this blind drinker enjoyed the hell out of first picking out Juniperus communis, juniper, which is of course the only botanical absolutely required to get the label gin slapped on your bottle.

 

Next, I found Sambucus nigra, elderflower, which is a force to be reckoned with. “Elder is one of the most powerful trees in mythology. Judas is said to have hanged himself from an elder tree … As a consequence elder has traditionally become associated with ill-fortune and bad spirits – to cut down elder is to be plagued by the demons that live in the tree and many woodcutters would refuse to chop the tree.”

 

In The Big, Bad Book of Botany, Michael Largo puts it like this, “People have long loved the elder for its beauty and host of benefits. Naturally, superstitions grew around the plant; for example, if someone dared to kill one of the stouter varieties to make furniture, the chair or table fashioned from its timber would seek revenge. A chair might fling itself across the room or move about on its own and haunt the home’s residents for abetting the plant’s destruction.”

 

Hurrah for the magical Elder! I LOVE elderflower! Elderflower tastes like chocolate, if chocolate were indigo velvet.

 

Here beginneth my (extremely idiosyncratic) tasting notes: I take a sip of The Botanist, and the first thing to fill my mouth is a violet icing of soft flowers spiked with juniper’s pinecone. Then there is a complicated herbal intensity, which gives rise to a lingering tingling, as if my tongue were dusted with iridescent fairy dust.

 

This last makes sense because number 7 of the 22 Islay botanicals is Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), which marks the entrance to the otherworld and is therefore closely associated with the world of spirits and fairies.

 

In the entry on ghosts in The Encyclopedia of Spirits, Judika Illes writes, “Hawthorn allegedly repels evil ghosts, while permitting the entry of helpful souls. Maintain a barrier of living hawthorn bushes and trees outside the home or bring branches within.” But she warns, “hawthorn is among the plants most associated with Fairies. Do not break off a branch without first seeking permission from the Fairies, lest ghosts become the least of your problems.”

 

If I’ve not yet convinced you that you will find spirits–other than alcoholic ones–in a bottle of Botanist, then allow me one more go…

 

Number 15, Red Clover (Trifolium pratense), is “the species of the legendary four-leaf clover… Many of the Celtic races revered the clover, believing that if one carried a (three-leaf) clover it would give advance warning of evil spirits ahead, and a four-leaf clover would provide active protection. Similarly medieval children were told that a four-leaf clover would allow the bearer to see faeries where they were hidden.”

 

Apparently the chances of “finding a four-leaf clover are estimated at 10,000-1,” so “there has to be at least one in a bottle of Botanist somewhere…”

 

*Originally published at Quail Bell Magazine for Distill My Heart, a column about all things alcoholic and aromatic!*

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