Few spirits present an opportunity for specific, regional marketing quite the way that gin does, thanks to the nature of gin botanicals. Those “botanicals,” of course, are the term we use to describe all the herbs, spices, fruits and flavorings that distillers use to turn neutral grain spirits into the elixir known as gin—the paints applied to the neutral canvas of ethanol that makes gin what it is. The botanical side of gin has always offered opportunities to differentiate your product, whether by embracing unusual flavors or by rooting your gin in a sense of place, by using botanicals from a single point of origin. There’s a great degree of freedom to be had, because beyond the omnipresent nature of juniper (the one “necessary” botanical), the rest of the formula is entirely up to you.
This freedom has allowed for the emergence of gin cultures in a number of different countries, with Scotland eventually emerging as its own gin undercurrent in the U.K. Whereas British gin is classically defined by juniper-heavy London Dry Gins, Scottish gin has often had more of a free-wheeling demeanor. Brands like Hendrick’s, The Botanist and Isle of Harris have placed more of a premium on stand-out signature botanicals, often foraged from the Scottish countryside itself. And to that group, you must also add Caorunn, a gin that splits the difference by marketing itself as a “London dry” style that also makes use of five locally foraged Celtic botanicals.
Caorunn is produced at Speyside’s Balmenach distillery, using “the world’s only working Copper Berry Chamber,” originally built in the 1920s to extract essential oils for perfume. Its signature “Scottish botanicals” include the following:
Rowan Berry (Gaelic: Caorunn): Thrives on hills and rocky, peaty soil and adds notes of bitterness.
Dandelion: Contributes herbal notes with a hint of sharpness.
Coul Blush Apple: A dessert apple unique to northern Scotland, which brings a crisp acidity and a clean, sweet taste.
Bog Myrtle (Sweet Gale): Infuses a soft, sweet aroma and notes of spice.
Scottish Heather: An integral botanical of the Highland landscape that allows subtle perfumed undertones with a nuance of honey.
These are combined six “traditional” gin botanicals, which obviously includes juniper, to give the full profile of Caorunn. The gin is bottled at an oddly specific 41.8% ABV (83.6 proof), and has an MSRP around $35.
So with all that said, let’s get to tasting.
On the nose, the first thing that strikes you on Caorunn is that this is indeed still a London dry gin at heart. The juniper is aggressive and resinous, eventually giving way to hints of crushed red berries, florals and something more warm like chamomile. I would be lying if I said I was getting anything I recognized more specifically among the Scottish botanicals here—it has a familiar profile that classic gin lovers would likely enjoy, but perhaps not the exotic uniqueness that the marketers would have hoped.
On the palate, however, things get a bit more interesting. The juniper is again quite strong here, giving an initial blast of punchy resin and dark fruit/blueberry, but it then transitions into pepper and bright, pithy citrus. At this point, I actually do pick up on something like apple on the back end, but it’s more like a floral apple flavor, and this becomes a theme. Honeycomb presents also, but in a very floral way—the essence of honey without the sweetness. I’m also getting rosemary and sage-like herbaceousness within the resin. The apple is an intriguing signature flavor, but it may be too subtle for some drinkers. Caorunn also strikes me as surprisingly aggressive in the ethanol department for the relatively low proof, but perhaps that’s just the bitterness of the juniper continuing to make itself felt.
All in all, one gets the sense that the people selling Caorunn would probably like to run with the apple marketing—the back of the bottle suggests literally pairing it with “red apple,” which is the first time I’ve seen that—and one can easily imagine a PR person sticking a wedge of apple on a G&T, hoping that it could gain the same branding potency as a wheel of cucumber did for Hendrick’s. I’m not sure, though, that the final product delivers a distinct enough profile for those unique elements to be the initial takeaway. Rather, Caorunn primarily does come off as a classic London Dry Gin with only a modest twist. If that’s your favorite gin style, then by all means check it out.
Distillery: Balmenach distillery
Region: Speyside, Scotland
ABV: 41.8% (83.6 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $35 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.