DI’s Hamish Smith trundles around Murcia to determine whether spirits have ‘terroir’

on 09 August, 2011

Consider terroir. I have. It’s a rather haughty unit of French vernacular (which is a haughty way of saying ‘word’) that describes the characteristics geography, soil and climate can bestow upon crops – usually vines. Of course, the word has reach and relevance beyond wine... 

Take scotch. A palate-pounder from Islay represents every bit of the island’s peat-laden landscape, seaweed-scented air and local spring water. So if scotch can have terroir, what of the rest of the spirits gang? 

How about gin? England is certainly gin country but there’s the small matter of those exotic, patently non-indigenous botanicals that are synonymous with its taste. OK, with multiple ingredients sourced from all around the world, we can’t be talking terroir. But surely the story of gin’s botanicals and their individual provenance is a worthy topic of investigation.

What’s this? (Picture a scroll unravelling.) Bombay Sapphire invites Drinks International to see how two of its botanicals are cultivated in Murcia, Spain. What luck! But no surprise – those boys (and girls) from Bombay have been banging on about their botanicals for donkeys.

Let’s set the scene. For centuries gin producers have kept their recipes a secret, but not Bombay Sapphire. Back in ’59, in an act of flagrant nonconformity, the then Bombay Dry pulled its trousers down to the world, revealing its botanicals. Fast forward to 2011 and Bombay’s trouser trick has been ratcheted up a notch. The brand’s now flying people out to visit the very farms, groves and orchards where its botanicals are born.

Meet Ivano Tonutti. He’s Bacardi’s master of botanicals, and he knows his onions, or at least his lemons, almonds, juniper, coriander, angelica, cubeb berries, orris, liquorice, cassia bark and grains of paradise. It’s his job to see that Bombay Sapphire gets the best botanicals and, as I found out, Ivano may cut down cubeb berries, but he doesn’t cut corners.

In Murcia, it is lemon peel and almonds Ivano’s after. During the visit it wasn’t almond season, but the lemons... well, dismiss what you know of lemons. The gargantuan grenades of citrus hanging from these trees were something quite different. And the people who cultivate them? Traditional, family famers. Yep, Bombay Sapphire likes the little guys and the little guys like Bombay Sapphire (no doubt helped by the brand’s “price as an irrelevance” policy).

Seeing how Bombay Sapphire’s lemons are grown, peeled and dried with such care and precision makes it clear that it takes the business of botanicals seriously.So perhaps gin doesn’t have terroir and perhaps it doesn’t need it. For Bombay Sapphire the quality and provenance of its botanicals is enough to make its gin, its gin.

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