What you see: Snowy white particles in your gin
What it is: Flavor compounds like esters and waxes that have formed clumps
Drink or toss? Drink! Nothing harmful here
Gin tastes wonderfully herbal because it’s been infused with a tea-like bundle of things like seeds, berries, peels, roots and other fragrant plant parts. Together, this bundle is referred to as the “botanicals.”
When making gin, those botanicals might be directly submerged in the alcohol, or they could be positioned so that, during the distillation process, the alcohol vapors pass through the fragrant bundle. In either case, the alcohol picks up complex flavors, in the form of organic compounds, from the botanicals.
Which brings us to this bottle, purchased a couple years ago from a new, boutique distillery. What’s up with the snow globe look?
Just some excess organic compounds
“That’s just a sign that the distilling process isn’t refined yet,” says Darcy S. O’Neil, a chemist and self-described drink explorer who writes at Art Of Drink. Noting that it’s impossible to know for sure without doing chemical analysis, he says the distillers could be letting things get too hot in their still (the vessel where the botanicals impart their flavor before the alcohol evaporates into the next step of the distillation process). If the still gets too hot, excess organic compounds in the botanicals can vaporize and make their way into the final product. A vigorous boil can also accidentally splash extra organic compounds into the next stage of production.
The greater the volume of botanicals, and the more diverse they are, the greater the risk of snowy flakes like these. More varied botanicals will have more varied chemical makeups and boiling points, which means that some compounds might vaporize excessively, while others barely get hot enough to impart their flavor to the gin.
Waxes, esters, oils
So what exactly are the white flakes? They're basically the core units of flavor extracted from the many botanicals. In lay terms, you can think of them as things like waxes, esters and essential oils, though their actual chemical identities are a bit more complicated than that. In any event, because you're seeing the organic compounds themselves, and not, say, a bit of errant orange peel from the botanical bundle, the flakes have this more uniform white look.
O’Neil says such compounds might not be visible in the alcohol for months, so gin makers are unlikely to see them and they won’t be apparent until long after they’ve sat in a consumer’s liquor cabinet. By then, enough time will have passed for the compounds to find each other and tangle up into what O’Neil calls “really big hairballs of molecules.”
So, the flakes are just bundles of potential flavor compounds; could that be a good thing? Could that mean a more flavorful product?
Not necessarily, says O’Neil. If the flavors settle into flakes on the bottom of the bottle, you won’t get them in your glass. If you do shake it up, whether you get any extra flavor would be entirely dependent on exactly what compound it was. And, when it comes to the compounds that can be extracted from botanicals, O'Neil offers these numbers for perspective: Each botanical ingredient might have hundreds of different flavor compounds, but only a dozen or so are abundant enough for us to taste.
Now that we've settled that, how about a Fallen Angel Cocktail? Key ingredient: gin.
Darcy S. O’Neil. Chemist. Bartender. Writer at Art of Drink
The Chemistry of Gin. Compound Interest.
Characterization of Volatiles in Different Dry Gins. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 2005, 53. Stefania Vichi, Montserrat Rui-Aumatell, Mercea Mora-Pons, Susana Buxaderas and Elvira Lao Pez-Tamames. (Universistat de Barcelona)
The process: Crafting Our Gin. The Cotswolds Distillery.
How We Make Our Gin. Hooting Owl Distillery.
It’s be-gin-ing to look a lot like . . . excess organic compounds