The Weird World of Australian Botanicals
Illiwara Plum! Pig Face! Emu Berry! Before you lash out, let us explain: no, we aren’t insulting you, we’re merely reeling off the names of some of the very many strange botanicals flooding that great big rock we call Australia. Their titles may be ridiculous, but the flavours are anything but. From lilly pilly to snotty gobbles (native equivalents to cranberries and apricots, seeing as you asked so nicely), there is a mammoth amount of madness going on down under.
Here, we’ve rounded up some of the most commonly used native botanicals in Australian gins and some of the ones we are hearing a lot about, which you can expect to be on a label or two soon. Let the oddities commence…
Lemon myrtle used to be something of a joke in the Gin Foundry office (admittedly it wasn’t very funny, but…). It was the go to botanical for almost all Australian gins for such a long time that when we received a fresh bottle through the post we’d start reeling off tasting notes before we’d even opened the lid. Common and predictable it is, but there’s good reason.
Sweet and lemony but far from caustic, this is a botanical with something of a multiple personality disorder. Depending on its dosage it can bring either a light lemon touch to the nose or a flush of clean citrus that lingers right past the finish. Also known as sweet verbena, lemon myrtle – for those who haven’t yet had a chance to taste it – is probably most similar to lemon verbena or lemon thyme.
Some (namely those who live deep in the bush and wield machete’s out of necessity) know these little bad boys as murunga. They’re grape sized and pear shaped, firm to the touch and strangely endearing. The plums are having their moment in the spotlight as the health and beauty industry positively screeches about their vitamin content and antioxidant qualities. For us Gin folk, though, it’s the sweet and sour combination that makes this funny little fella stand out. The quince-like qualities are certainly a reason to keep an eye out for this in 2019 – as it’s only a matter of time before Australian distillers turn to one of the country’s trendiest foods.
Fruit gin fiends really ought to keep an eye out for this strain of eucalyptus, whose intensely aromatic leaves bring that bubble gum pink strawberry pick & mix sensation. That all heads into the stratosphere when combined with the real fruit, enhancing the juicy sweetness like a squeeze of lemon. It’s a common ingredient in cooked fruit dishes, desserts and herbal teas, and the closest you’ll come to it here is with raspberry leaf – although that’s like comparing a vivid red with a pastel rose in terms of intensity.
Tasmanian pepper berry
One of the first well-known Aussie botanicals (and not the preserve of native gin makers – the team at Big Gin use it in Seattle use it, and we’ve seen it pop-up in a few recipes around the world), pepperberry can be used in the same way as conventional pepper, but it brings an added herbal dimension, particularly towards the end of the palate. If you’ve ever had cubeb and noticed how the spice goes into a floral violet tone, you’ll recognise the similar effects of this little chap which drives the palate towards something uniquely verdant, making it an ideal partner to juniper.
It’s amazing to think just how overlooked wattleseed is, especially when one considers that the wattle flower is a well known emblem in Australia. Wattleseed is the seed of the Acacias, which have brutally hard husks that last decades in their natural environment, usually only germinating after bushfires. Because of this ability to endure prolonged time on the ground, wattleseed has provided indigenous Australians with a source of protein in times of drought. The seed was crushed into flour between flat grinding stones and cooked into cakes or damper.
Distilled, it has an amazing flavour, like nutmeg, macadamia and almonds all wrapped in one. It can bring an incredible textural depth to a spirit’s profile – almost as if it thickens it out and provides some weight to the mouthfeel.
An upmarket version of spearmint with an almost dizzying potency, river mint is a botanical that needs to be used sparingly by gin makers. Sadly, it never is, so most of the examples of gin with this in it are almost chewy with the stuff. It’s evocative and fresh though, and while we’re yet to be convinced by its use in gin, we do love it as a G&T garnish.
This is one to keep in mind for G&T time, as a fresh spring can bring in great star anise qualities. While the tree can reach up to 45-metres in a rainforest, we’d recommend keeping the garnish short as its an overpowering monster (and that’s putting in politely). It’s a botanical that needs to be used with incredibly sensitivity – it can overwhelm very quickly, but the heady warmth it brings makes it well worth the risk.
The world went nuts for “citrus caviar” once Nigella posted about it on Insta, but the reality is that’s it’s been a big part of the landscape for years. Once distilled, it takes on a real zesty lime peel quality, but as a G&T garnish it’s a striking addition that will add some zing and plenty of chat – especially if you split them open and dollop the pearls in.
You would expect, given the sheer deliciousness with which the trailblazing Melbourne Gin Company use Sandalwood, that it would have become something of a staple botanical for Aus makers, but sadly for our tastebuds its an ingredient that has been far too overlooked. It’s a strange one to forget, as well, as it’s such a ubiquitous base in perfumes, candles and that ultimate hipster fuel, beard oil.
We’re shocked and more than a little hurt that it hasn’t come to more prominence; with an aroma and taste that falls somewhere between deep, nutty hazel, warming cassia and bright, woody cedar it’s a genuinely spectacular flavour boost that we want, nay demand, more of!
Have we missed out on any of your favourite Aussie botanicals? Let us u know over on Twitter: @GinFoundry
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