Botanical Bonanza: The aromatic additions that define our local gins

Gin & Botanicals // Photo by Kevin Kramer

Gin is by definition is a juniper-flavored spirit—but it’s also flavored with everything else.

It was born in Holland, where the Dutch East India Company once conglomerated all the world’s spices. Juniper had been soaked into medicinal spirits and tonics since the Middle Ages, and later, so was every exotic spice that was scurried back to Amsterdam. The first commercial genever (the Dutch word for juniper, later shortened by the English to gin) debuted there in the late 16th century.

Since those early days, every herb and plant, seed and root has found its way into a gin at some point. Sometimes in great quantities, other times as a supporting element, but always mingling with the unmistakable aura of juniper—that tangy, musky, citrus-meets-lumber taste that’s hard to balance and hard to forget when it’s done right.

The choices are endless—so how do Minnesota’s gin distillers go about crafting their blend of botanicals?  

Vikre Distillery: Flavors from the Boreal Forest

Before Emily and Joel Vikre started their distillery in Duluth, the only spirits Emily really “like-liked” were Campari and gin. “Because we were starting the distillery with the idea of exploring the concept of terroir and the inspiration of the Northwoods, gin was a no-brainer because, as many people are always saying, ‘It tastes like a pine tree,’ which we have a lot of around here,” she explains. She knew she wanted to use spruce tips in one of her gins, and decided that, given the myriad other local trees and plants available in the region, they should make multiple varieties and pull inspiration from their surroundings—“hence the whole boreal moniker, like the boreal forest.” With that, Boreal Cedar and Boreal Spruce were born. 

Boreal Spruce uses spruce tips, juniper berries, lavender, rosemary, and lemon to achieve its bright, citrus-forward flavor, while Boreal Cedar uses juniper berries, black currants, cinnamon, cardamom, grapefruit peel, and cedar wood to lock in its earthy, warming spice essence. Both gins required multiple months of recipe development (Cedar, in particular, was quite the headache, says Emily: “Oh my God, we had so many failed batches before we got anything close to the spicy earthy situation I was looking for.”) but eventually they were able to achieve the clean, smooth, well-balanced profiles Emily believes all gin should offer. “No single botanical sticks way out, but you can still taste and smell them kind of popping out in succession—that’s the kind of gin I try to make,” she says.

–Lauren Sauer

Recipe: Cedar Negroni

2 ounces Vikre Boreal Cedar Gin
1 ounce Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
1 ounce Campari

Stir with ice until chilled. Strain into a double rocks glass that has a single large ice cube in it. Express an orange coin over the drink, then discard the orange coin.

 

Isanti Spirits: Uncommon Juniper

Rick Schneider intended to only make whiskey, but he couldn’t ignore the serendipity. He established Isanti Spirits on a lot full of eastern redcedars—towering 50-year-old trees lining his driveway that were planted the same month Rick was born. 

These eastern redcedars are more precisely a member of the juniper family—Juniperus virginiana to be exact. The trees have a powerful musk like other cedars, their trunks are streaked with a beautiful purple color in the heartwood, and their berries produce a complex spice profile—something like a mix of toasted allspice with other earthy components (like arrowroot and angelica root) that gin distillers commonly employ. 

“Eastern redcedar juniper really does not smell and taste anything like gin,” says Scheider. “It’s very citrusy and earthy, so we added a certain amount of common juniper back into it, so it has the smell you’d expect.”

His plan was to use that mix of junipers as the base for a more complex botanical gin. But when Schneider was crowdsourcing opinions on his early batches, chefs, bartenders, and liquor buyers alike favored that simple base spirit he brought as a teaching example. 

“We just wanted to show them what the redcedar does, so you know what’s unique about that  before you taste this gin,” he explains, “and every single one of them said, ‘I just want that— everything else tastes like every other gin I’ve ever had. That is unique to me.’ So we just listened to what people wanted from what we were doing.”

In the final formula, Tilted Cedars Gin leans heavily on that spice profile, so you don’t need to overdo it with the aromatic bitters if you’re fixing a cocktail. Instead, let it shine through a little added citrus, like in a gimlet.

–John Garland

Recipe: Tilted Cedars Gimlet

2 ounces Tilted Cedars Gin
¾ ounce simple syrup (1:1)
¾ ounce fresh lime juice

Shake all ingredients with ice until well-chilled and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a lime wheel.

Flying Dutchman Spirits: Italian Herbs, English Heart 

“Savory” isn’t a word often associated with gin, but it suits Flying Dutchman’s Mediterraneo Gin. Herbal in an Italian red sauce kind of way, with rosemary, thyme, basil, and olives striding alongside the London Dry staples of juniper, coriander, and cardamom, the spirit is founder Scott Kaldenberg’s recreation of a Spanish gin he had while on a business trip to London.

Kaldenberg says it took about four runs at the mason jar level and one on their 20-gallon pilot still to get the recipe for Mediterraneo exactly right. While he won’t disclose the methods with which they make the gin, he does share that they take “extremely tight cuts” for it, meaning they aim to use only the middle, highest-quality part of the distillate, which makes it much smoother than the cheap stuff you learned to hate in college. The main way Mediterraneo stands out from other local gins though, according to Kaldenberg, is because so much of what’s being made in Minnesota is floral or citrus-forward.

Regardless of a gin’s specific style, Kaldenberg says you should always look for a nice balance of juniper and cardamom. “You don’t overpower it with other botanicals; you want the juniper and cardamom to play together, but the definition of a gin is juniper-forward.”

–Ellen Burkhardt

Recipe: Proper Gin Martini

3 ounces Mediterraneo gin
Rinse of dry vermouth
1 blue cheese olive
1 cocktail onion

Rinse a martini glass with dry vermouth, dump it out, and fill it with extremely cold Mediterraneo gin. Garnish with a blue cheese olive and cocktail onion, or your favorite martini garnish.

Far North Spirits: The Rain on the Plains

As a child of the northwestern Minnesota prairie, Far North Spirits co-owner and distiller Michael Swanson wanted to make a gin that was evocative of his homeland, but not in a general sense. He was after something more specific. 

“In the case of Solveig, it was the way the prairie smells after a rain in early June. Seriously. I’ve always loved that scent,” Swanson says. “One of the things that I liked about the combination of grapefruit and thyme was how they helped mimic some of those scents that come up,” he continues. “You’ve got some earthy scents, you’ve got grassy notes, you’ve got ozone—all these things that come out after a rain.”

Swanson discovered the key ingredients for that unmistakable aroma in his kitchen when a dish he had prepared using fresh thyme landed on the table next to a salad with grapefruit and avocado. From there, it took months of painstaking R&D to get the recipe dialed in.

“When I started, I distilled each botanical separately,” Swanson says. “Then I knew where the sweet spot was, and where the off-flavors started to appear for each botanical.”

Swanson’s dedication has paid dividends in the form of a sublimely balanced, citrus-forward gin that disarms drinkers with its pastoral freshness and clean versatility. Solveig is a joyful collaborator in cocktails, particularly when there’s a lemon around.

“When I’m putting together a gin, I don’t want a soloist, I want a choir,” Swanson says. “I don’t want one botanical to stand out too much over the rest.”

–Zach McCormick

Recipe: Basil Smash 

2½ ounces Solveig
½ ounce fresh lemon juice
½ ounce simple syrup
3–4 fresh basil leaves

Combine the gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, and basil leaves over ice into a cocktail shaker and shake vigorously. Strain into a lowball glass over a large cube. Garnish with a small basil leaf.

Twin Spirits Distilling: Tom, Yum

When Michelle Winchester opened Twin Spirits Distilling, she didn’t like gin—or so she thought. 

“I honestly was a little concerned about how I could make a gin as I thought I didn’t like gin. In the process of learning how to make gin, I learned that I do like gin but have had gin cocktails with tonic and that is the taste that I wasn’t liking,” Winchester explains.

It took four months of experimentation to home in on the blend and amount of each botanical that would serve as the basis for M Gin. Her recipe employs just four botanicals: common juniper, coriander seeds, cardamom pods, and sarsaparilla root. “I started with cardamom seeds and found them to bring a bitter taste. When I switched to the pods it sweetened up, which I liked better,” Winchester says. 

While she didn’t aim to make an Old Tom style gin, M Gin ended up fitting squarely in that category. As opposed to the assertive, dry, and piney character of London Dry gins, Old Tom gins are more akin to Dutch genever, which are maltier, sweeter, and less resinous. 

For its part, M Gin is full-bodied and rich on the palate, sipping cool with a vanilla sweetness at the fore and a light pine note in the background. 

–Brian Kaufenberg

Recipe: Gin Old Fashioned

2 ounces M Gin
½ ounce lemon verbena syrup
1 drop orange bitters
1 drop Trinity bitters

Mix gin, lemon verbena syrup, orange bitters, and Trinity bitters in a mixing glass over ice. Stir until chilled, then pour over a large ice cube in a rock glass. Garnish with a lemon verbena leaf.