WHAT IS A BOTANICAL SPIRIT?
Search “what is a botanical spirit?” and you’ll find several articles attempting to define a category that, while currently on the rise, has in fact been around for much longer. Products such as gin, flavoured vodka, akvavit and absinthe are technically all botanical spirits but each have specific rules and regulations that govern their classification.
MODERN BOTANICAL SPIRITS
When we speak of modern botanical spirits, we’re talking about products that have been made in similar way to gin but without the use of juniper as the lead botanical. Removing juniper from the process allows distillers to be more creative in forming new flavour profiles that would otherwise be muted by juniper’s prominence. It’s a space for the unclassified, which is where we at Sweetdram always like to sit.
In the early 2000s, before distillers started removing juniper altogether, there was a growing category of gin dubbed the ‘New Western’ style, focusing attention on the non-juniper botanicals. As exciting as it was to watch gin being liberated with a vast diversification of flavours, these companies could still call it gin, which made it SOOOOO much easier to sell. I can’t help but think if we’d added some juniper and sold Escubac as a gin, Sweetdram would be swimming in gold like Scrooge McDuck in the 80’s by now.
One of the many reasons we didn’t was because the category was saturated by a handful of super distilleries who made the liquid under contract for the majority of brands you see in the market today. Yes, that means different brands have the same recipe of gin selected from these super distilleries! Beyond that, styles like ‘New Western’ gin - a botanical spirit in all but name - felt muddled and confusing as a consumer, more like a marketing exercise than a real desire for creativity or experimentation. For many other distillers, including us, there was a desire to focus on flavour first, not categorisation.
The real modern botanical spirits trail was initially blazed in 2006 by Allison Evanow - Founder and CEO of Square One - with the release of her Botanical Vodka. I remember when she first introduced her line of spirits to myself and our purchasing team at Astor Wines & Spirits in NYC. At the time, the flavoured vodka category was overwhelmed by products filled with artificial flavours, colour and sweeteners. Allison wanted to create a new category where she could innovate with flavour, without the use of chemical additives. The primary issue she had, and we still have to a large extent, is that governing bodies for spirits around the world need a box to put products in. For Allison and Square One, it was the ‘flavoured vodka’ box. You can imagine the groundwork required to convince drinkers that her botanical spirit was separate and distinctive to all other flavoured vodkas.
Here in the UK, we do have a classification for botanical spirits - it’s called ‘spirit drink.’ I couldn’t think of a more narrow, uninspiring way to label such an extensive, unique and bourgeoning range of distillates that are now on the rise, especially here in Scotland. Brands like Lindores Abbey and Nc’Nean - female founded, owned and led - draw from a broad palette of styles, much like we have done in our own take on a botanical spirit, Escubac.
Escubac in flavour and style sits somewhere between gin, aquavit, and a herbal liqueur. It’s inspired by an old Tudor recipe we found for an elixir called Royal Usquebaugh, which originated in England but was later adopted by the French, who renamed it Escubac. During the same historical period in Scotland, an Abbey in Fife called Lindores was making another spirit, recently revived by Lindores Abbey Distillery as Aqua Vitae. Both spirits have similarities; their traditional names - ours Gaelic, theirs Arabic - translate to ‘water of life’ and both are historical recipes rooted in tradition. Where Lindores Abbey have aimed to recreate the original recipe, we have reimagined ours to create an unmistakably modern version.
SCOTTISH BOTANICAL SPIRITS
You’ll find a similar innovative ambition in Nc’Nean’s Organic Botanical Spirit. They use barley spirit made at their distillery in the west of Scotland, re-distilling the liquid with local ingredients like wild bog myrtle, sorrel and heather. Interestingly, they have also used some typical gin botanicals - angelica, coriander and of course, juniper. Their clear botanical drink is an elegant balance of flavour, where no one ingredient feels dominant. It’s deep in flavour, with aromatic overtones that are both floral and herbal. A refined and unsweetened spirit, it mixes well with tonic as an exciting alternative to the G&T, much like our Escubac. Given its similar production process and ingredients, Nc’Nean could probably get away with calling this gin, even though juniper is not technically the lead botanical. But they don’t. By not trading off the gin label, they share with us the principle that flavour is more important than category.
Until now, companies like Sweetdram, Lindores Abbey and Nc’Nean have lived in a space for the unclassified, while companies like Square One have been pigeonholed into categories they don’t accurately reflect their creations.
Thankfully, the number of innovative producers is growing, alongside discerning drinkers who aren’t scared of change; ones who value flavour first and category second. There’s still a long way to go, and the broader market continues to require a label for us. For now, we’ve found our home with these other distillers under the umbrella of botanical spirits, a space with fewer constraints than more conventional styles. We hope over time more producers will join us, exploring more diverse and exciting flavour profiles in their spirits.
To purchase Escubac, click here.