Geraldine Coates gets the lowdown on Bombay Sapphire’s botanicals from Ivano Tonutti, Master of Botanicals at Bacardi Limited.
The botanicals, that wonderful array of berries, barks, seeds, peels, roots and flowers, are what make gin gin. During distillation with neutral grain spirit they release their natural oils and flavours to transform what could have been bland, boring vodka into something quite different. It’s a craft process that can be traced in a direct line back to the early medieval monasteries of Europe where monks, having learned the secrets of distilling from the writings of Islamic scholars and ancient Greek texts, distilled what grew in their physic gardens to make cures for all manner of disease.
Gintime caught up with Ivano Tonutti, Master of Botanicals at Bacardi Limited, only to discover that, appropriately, he trained as a pharmacist before taking up his role as the final say on botanicals quality control for Bombay Sapphire, Bombay Dry Gin and Martini. And he’s Italian so even more of a connection to those proto chemists at the famous medical school of Salerno who were most likely the first to make a juniper flavoured distillate…ooh way back in the twelfth century.
Ivano’s job is to source and ensure the consistent quality of the more than 300 tonnes of botanicals used by the portfolio of brands owned by Bacardi every year. It is a task that involves finding the best and, equally, establishing close relationships with the growers in all the different corners of the world from which Bombay botanicals come.
We talk about the big four – juniper, coriander, orris and citrus. Take juniper, gin’s signature botanical, for example. As Ivano explains: “The best juniper grows wild in the Tuscan hills. Every year it is harvested with incredible care because both the ripe and unripe berries are on the bushes at the same time. The farmers gently beat the bushes with a stick so that the purple berries fall to their trays to be collected leaving the green ones to ripen for next year. Then the plucked berries are left to dry in naturally ventilated rooms as this will preserve the quality of their rich essential oil. It’s very labour intensive work that is not for everyone and the juniper growers tend to be small family businesses who carry the tradition down through generations”.
Coriander is the second most important botanical in gin as the gingery sage flavours of coriander seeds impart a citrusy freshness along with warm spicy flavours. Almost uniquely in the gin world Ivano sources his coriander from Morocco because there a fast growing cycle botanical under the hot North African sunshine produces bigger seeds with more complex and delicate sensory qualities.
There’s the same attention to detail with orris, the rhizome of the iris flower, which is grown near Florence in Tuscany. Orris contributes delicate violet and tea flavours to gin and is also much prized by perfumers. The plants can only be lifted after they have been in the ground for three years. Then they are manually dug up, washed, peeled and left to dry in the sun for precisely 15 days. Ivano again: “As the orris rhizomes dry naturally they release their particular aromas which are a crucial element of our gin. They are very sensitive to water so it’s really important that it doesn’t rain during this period. We work with the growers to plan ahead so when the mature plants are harvested the growers separate the smaller roots and carefully replant them to ensure future harvests. There’s no industrialisation at all, no pesticides, no harvesting machines, the whole process is done by hand. It’s a labour of love and passion”.
Lemon peel is an ingredient one finds in every gin recipe as it adds delicate citrus notes and zings up the other botanical flavours. The lemon in Bombay Sapphire comes from Murcia in Spain. Here a warm and sunny climate near the sea, sheltered from the cold winter winds by mountains, means that 80% of the region’s agriculture is devoted to citrus growing. Ivano is keen to stress the unique character of the Murcian producers: “We deal with literally hundreds of small farmers who have years of experience of producing top quality lemon fruits. Picking the lemons and drying their peel is highly skilled work. At harvest time you see entire family groups sitting outside after dinner, hand peeling each lemon in one long spiral and then hanging them outside to dry just as they have done for centuries.”
There are ten botanicals in Bombay Sapphire Gin: Chinese liquorice, Indonesian cubeb berries and cassia bark, Spanish almonds, West African grains of paradise as well as angelica from Saxony all play their own roles in creating its distinctively different taste. The distiller aims to recreate the recipe faithfully aiming for balance between the botanical flavours and that’s impossible to do without the highest possible quality raw materials.
So every year samples of every botanical are sent to Ivano’s laboratory where they undergo a series of physical tests, sensory and chemical analysis and different micro distillations to determine their suitability. The ultimate goal is ensure that all the botanicals remain with consistent parameters of flavour and organoleptic quality. Astonishingly Ivano rejects about half of each year’s proposed samples, but he is adamant that that is necessary. “It’s not about price with us, it’s simply about maintaining the standard of care behind our gin”.
Understandably Ivano is proud of what’s in every bottle of Bombay Sapphire. Cheekily we asked him what is his favourite cocktail: Bombay Sapphire and Martini Gold mixed half and half is the answer. Hmmm…Botanical Gold from the botanical prospector we think a new Gintime fave.
The Master’s Martini
- 1 part MARTINI Gold
- 1 part Bombay Sapphire
Stir all ingredients together gently in a mixing glass with ice and strain in a classic martini cocktail glass. Garnish with a black olive.