Botanicals: Where next?

From botanical beers, to vodkas, wines and now rums, drinks makers currently can’t get enough of botanicals. Educated and enthused by gin, and encouraged by non-alcoholic spirits to perceive them as a natural, better-for-you alternative, it seems neither can consumers.

Quickly becoming one of the buzz words for new launches, botanicals have truly moved beyond gin. Of course, botanicals have long been used in spirits production. Think pastis, ouzo, absinthe, and aquavit, not to mention flavoured vodka. But what makes their current trajectory notable is that they’re popping up in unexpected, or previously unexplored places.

In particular, summer 2020 saw botanicals dominate new rum launches; from launches by industry mavericks, BrewDog with its Five Hundred Cuts Botanical Rum, Distiller’s Cut, to Foxhole Spirits‘ new botanical white rum, Mad City in the UK. Globally, drinks giant Pernod Ricard has got in on the action, with a Germany-specific launch of a botanical-infused version of its Havana Club rum. Again, a white rum, it uses oregano, thyme and rosemary, refined with Cuban honey. And aside from their growing appeal among imbibers, there’s good reason.  

Practical motivations

Firstly, for rum especially, much of the motivation to use botanicals is practical. Notably, botanicals offer a more sophisticated direction for spiced rum to pursue. And with many new ‘craft’ rum brands now coming to market, this is particularly helpful. Without the need to barrel-age for as long, spice is often seen as a useful way of imparting flavour. Essentially, it’s a quick way to broaden a portfolio beyond white gin, and get a product out there. And with most rum being distilled in a few specific global hotspots, or at least ingredients sourced from them for obvious reasons, the use of locally-sourced botanicals help to add regional credibility and relevance to products from new brands in non-traditional rum regions, such as the UK.

However, with many overly sweet, caramel-laden products on the market, and an overall lack of robust regulation for the category, spiced has often lacked credibility. And in a market increasingly driven by moderation and wellness, or at least the perception of it, overly sweetened products are growing less and less appealing to key consumer groups, notably the lucrative and powerful Millennials and Generation Z.

Which leads us to the second reason; perception. There is power in a word. And the choice to use the term ‘botanical’, takes a notable step away from additive and sugar-laden spiced brands, and towards the natural, the clean. The celebration of the all-natural, and health-boosting benefits of botanicals by the no/low category can be argued to have added to positive perceptions of the term.

Three Spirit is perhaps the brand that has made the most notable play to leverage the health-giving halo and functional benefits of botanicals. Described as “a plant-based, non-alcoholic ‘social elixir’ for happier, healthier, more connected nights out”, the brand claims its botanicals have been selected for their effect on dopamine, seratonin, and neurotransmitter GABA, which can be linked to anxiety and mood disorders. Meanwhile soft-drink brand No.1 Botanicals promotes its products on their ability to “capture the power of herbs” and “bring their incredible health benefits seamlessly into our everyday lives”.

Perceived benefits

The growing power of the word ‘botanical’ – and by power, we mean positive consumer perception, as well as the term’s neat ability to knit several key trends together at once –  is evident in the treatment of such products from producers. It’s notable that brands have chosen to lead on the term on their packs and in their brand names, rather than simply refer to their products as flavoured; look to soft drink brand No.1 Botanicals, Echo Falls Botanical Fusion wine, and the Ketel One Botanicals range, and as of August, its brand new Ketel One Botanical Vodka Spritz RTD range, for examples.

Scotland’s Isle of Arran Gin Company believes in the power of the word so much it has just renamed itself Arran Botanical Drinks. Speaking to the local paper, the Arran Banner, owner Stuart Fraser said: “With Cassis added to our range and work beginning on new drinks from foraged island plants, we thought it was time to change the name to reflect the new recipes being developed. We are still really proud of the big flavours of our flagship product – we just want to bring in more variety from our island’s botanical larder.”

A flavourful playground

And while there is no doubt that botanicals offer a creative playground for distillers, for brands, botanicals are far from just a method of imparting flavour. They’re a convenient way to straddle categories, pulling potential consumers from a wider catchment area, and from other categories.

Binary Botanical (a hop leaf-infused beer) is described as a “wine lovers’ beer”. Though gin has been a standout mainstream success, the category excludes those who simply don’t enjoy the bitter taste of juniper. New Cornish distillery Penryn Spirits’ Bora Botanical Rum (a white rum infused with locally-soured nettles and quince) has launched a “rum for gin lovers”. Upon its Havana Club Verde launch, Pernod Ricard Germany said the product was intended to blur the aromatic boundaries between spirits categories. And BrewDog stated its new launch is an “interesting bridge” between rum and gin. 

For bartenders, botanical products that offer something truly new, such as those by Copenhagen’s Empirical Spirits (The Plum, I Suppose uses plum stone kernels as a base) offer the versatility of liqueurs, but in most cases, without the sweetness, and in some cases, with the benefit of earthy, truer-to-life flavours.

Will botanical fatigue set in? Will the term lose its power from over-use in the same was a ‘craft’, ‘local’, and ‘handmade’ have before it? Possibly. But that question will ultimately decided by producers, and the launch of products that offer integrity and something new, rather than those that simply want to bask in the positive association the term offers.