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How science could disrupt the gin industry
Apr 18, 2024

How science could disrupt the gin industry

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Reporter Eve Thomas explains how breakthroughs in nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy could bring definition and regulation to an unbridled spirit.

When you think about gin, what tastes comes to mind? Pine? Maybe citrus or coriander?

It can vary quite a bit because unlike some spirits, gin is very lightly regulated. Distillers can throw in all kinds of flavors and call the result “gin” as long it has some minimum requirements. In the U.S., gin is gin as long as the flavor is derived from juniper berries and alcohol by volume is at least 40%. In the European Union, the minimum ABV is 37.5%

But researchers in Edinburgh, Scotland, recently identified the exact elements that define gin using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscropy. Think of it as something like an MRI scan that lets scientists create a flavor “fingerprint.” The new technique could have big implications for this very old industry.

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke with Eve Thomas, who wrote about it for Wired. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Eve Thomas: The point of the research was to decide if you can analyze gin through NMR spectroscopy and whether the results of the research would actually be meaningful. Because the answer was yes, it means that in theory, it could be adopted by distillers in the industry. In reality, the equipment is really expensive, so it’s probably not going to be rolled out widely just yet. But that doesn’t make the research insignificant. It’s a sector which has got a few big problems at the moment that it needs to adapt to. In particular, one of its big problems is climate change, which is impacting the quality and the quantity of available juniper berries. There are also questions about how to protect the industry’s heritage. It’s got a really rich history. But at the moment, because it’s really unregulated, there are a lot of products which call themselves a gin but don’t really meet the requirements.

Lily Jamali: It’s not regulated. So what does that mean for the variation among different types of gin that you could buy at a store?

Thomas: Yeah, so it’s a bit of a Wild West at the moment. You could get almost anything which calls itself a gin. Technically, there are some rules. In the EU, the main requirement is that a gin must have a 37.5% ABV, which is alcohol by volume. And the second rule really is that it should taste predominantly of juniper. But other than that, you can kind of do anything. It’s really good for creativity, you can do loads with it. It’s why we get really interesting fruit gins. But it is quite different to some other sectors. For example, Scotch whisky is really, really tightly regulated. If Scotch whisky is going to be called that, it has to be produced in Scotland and matured in Scotland for at least three years. And it has to come from a specific permitted area. Actually, I don’t think that gin distillers really want to see the same type rules and regulations because no one wants to have to navigate that. But having spoken to some distillers, everyone would like to see counterfeits off the market because the premium sector in particular would like that heritage preserved.

Jamali: And why do you think there is such a loose definition right now of what makes gin, gin?

Thomas: I think it’s because consumers are really enjoying these innovative products. And we see it more and more in the alcohol sector generally, and especially in the premium sector. If you look at beer at the moment, there are so many different flavors which have been developed. And I was reading recently, actually, about some new research into breeding hops so that the little hops themselves taste different. So NMR spectroscopy, if it did result in tighter regulation, it could be a bit of a shame for the industry, and I don’t think consumers want to see it. So I think if NMR spectroscopy can be a tool for innovation, that would be brilliant. But regulation itself can stifle innovation.

Jamali: Let’s talk about climate change, which is affecting all kinds of things that are grown and end up in the foods that we eat and as well as the drinks that we consume, and juniper is no exception to that. How is climate change affecting the gin industry right now?

Thomas: Yeah, absolutely. You’re right, juniper is no exception. So as the climate changes, so do the berries. They’re really vulnerable to changes in climate, the flavors are so easily impacted. And that’s what we see in variety from batch to batch in gin production as well. Also, it will be reflected in the availability of juniper berries. It’s not just the actual flavors of the berries, but whether distilleries can access the supplies. They’re having to look for new suppliers which are in new areas, and naturally, the gin and the berries taste different because they’re grown in different soil in different environments. So as the climate change impacts the berries, we’re going to get different levels of quality and also different quantities of berries.

More on this from Lily Jamali

On a previous episode of our show, my colleague Meghan McCarty Carino used the power of artificial intelligence and asked ChatGPT to design a “Marketplace Tech” cocktail. The bot called it the tech innovation fizz, a variation on the gin fizz!

I figured I’d give this a shot by asking ChatGPT to specifically make a “Marketplace Tech” gin cocktail, and what we got was the Tech Tonic — a mix of gin, elderflower liqueur, fresh lime juice and tonic water.

If you want to try it, the recipe is below. I confess, though, that I am not a fan of gin myself, so I might swap in some vodka for my Tech Tonic.

The Tech Tonic

Ingredients:

  • 1½ ounce gin
  • ½ ounce elderflower liqueur
  • ¾ ounce fresh lime juice
  • 2 ounces tonic water
  • Lime wedge for garnish

Instructions:

  1. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice.
  2. Add the gin, elderflower liqueur and lime juice to the shaker.
  3. Shake well until chilled, about 15 seconds.
  4. Strain the mixture into a highball glass filled with ice.
  5. Top with tonic water and gently stir to combine.
  6. Garnish with a lime wedge.

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The team

Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer
Rosie Hughes Assistant Producer