Reviews

Much more than juniper – the botany of gin

Cover of The Botany of Gin

The Botany of Gin, by Chris Thorogood and Simon Hiscock 2020. Bodleian Library.

As one who ‘appreciates’ a well-proportioned gin & tonic, and having previously read Just the Tonic by Kim Walker & Mark Nesbitt, I was keen to obtain a review copy of The Botany of Gin by Chris Thorogood & Simon Hiscock. The good people of the Bodleian Library, the book’s publisher, duly obliged and delivered, so here’s my appraisal.

The Botany of Gin is the obvious companion to Just the Tonic. As you might expect, the former focuses on the alcoholic portion of the well-known beverage pairing of gin and tonic, the gin. And, why not? Gin and its consumption has undergone a renaissance from being a much-mocked malady that marred many among the UK’s working classes – as famously depicted by satirical artist William Hogarth in his mid-18th century cartoon ‘Gin Lane’ – to the spirited artisanal revival of the beverage in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Appropriately, a potted history of gin occupies the first 20 of the book’s 90 or so pages of main text, and it is a fascinating history. For example, we learn that gin’s origins can ultimately be traced to ancient Greece and the Mediterranean practice of flavouring alcoholic drinks with wild herbs and other aromatic plants. Skip forward several centuries and we have the production of recognisably modern-day gin in Holland since the 17th century, and its use by Dutch colonists as an antidote to fever in the West Indies. From the Low Countries the beverage came to England where it was enthusiastically taken up – and drunk down – by the lower echelons of society. Unfortunately, what began as an affordable, if rather potent, drink – whose production and sale was seen as a good thing because it encouraged use of surplus grain and therefore supported the farmers – soon developed into the Gin Craze. This ‘alcomania’ risked political instability throughout the kingdom, and was consequently curbed by legislation*.

Back to the botany and we also learn that fine gin may contain 10 or more different botanicals. Accordingly, the bulk of the book – more than five-sixths of the pages – is devoted to those botanicals, which are grouped in 5 categories: Fruits and berries; Tropical fruits; Dried fruits, seeds and spices; Leaves and stems; Roots, rhizomes and bark. Amongst the 36 botanics included are 7 Citrus spp., baobab, coconut, saffron, and sacred lotus, which together are presented as a charming collection of well-illustrated ‘vignettes’ of the numerous botanicals used to add something a little bit different to gins. Appropriately enough the catalogue of botanics begins with juniper – the sine qua non of any drink that aspires to be called a gin. However, and somewhat intriguingly, the Index listing for juniper does not show page 25 (which is the main entry for that botanic…)**. The format for that entry establishes the pattern for all that follow: two pages per botanic – a whole page illustration, and one of text, which supplies Common name, Scientific name, Family, Description, Distribution, and notes on the plant part’s Use in gin. However, whilst the paintings *** illustrate the plant part used in gin, the reader must rely on the description to gain an appreciation of the form of the whole plant. There’s also no indication of scale for the illustrations.

From an educational point of view – which consideration is always important in non-fiction books on matters of plant biology, it’s good to note that there are references for some of the statements in the Introduction. Cited in-text as super-scripted numbers, the eight references relate to seven unique sources, whose details are listed at the end of the book in a References and further reading section. Although no references are cited for the individual botanicals themselves, the authors recommend Mabberley’s Plant Book 2008 (the 2017 edition is presumably as good) as “an excellent guide to many of the plants featured here” (p. 105). On a related pedagogic note, the botanical credentials of the book’s authors are impressive – Chris Thorogood is Deputy Director and Head of Science of Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum (OBGHA), and Simon Hiscock is the OBGHA’s Director. And, 25 of that venerable botanical institution’s unique specimens are used in the manufacture of Physic Gin by the Oxford Artisan Distillery.

Summary

The Botany of Gin is a simple idea that’s well executed, and should appeal to all those who’ve ever wondered what the various botanicals add to their favourite gin – the authors do name brands of gin associated with the various flavourings. After all, as Thorogood and Hiscock rightly say, “To appreciate the complexity of gin, it is important to have an understanding of the botanicals that define the drink” (p. 19). However, that appreciation – and understanding – can only really come from tasting the beverage. So, with The Botany of Gin in one hand, and your favourite juniper-based tipple in the other, it only remains to say: Cheers!


* For more on the history of gin, I recommend Gin: A Global History by Lesley Jacobs Solomon.

** As Botanists, the authors acknowledge that it is the cones of juniper which provide the defining dominant flavour for a beverage to be called gin – but bow to convention in referring to these structures as ‘berries’ throughout the book.

*** Given the awesome artistic talents of co-author Thorogood, I was pleased to note that he was responsible for the book’s illustrations. But, why is that important piece of information ‘hidden’ on page 7 in the Introduction, and not stated more prominently elsewhere?

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