Ever taken a sip of gin to detect an elusive spicy, clove-like flavour hovering around at the finish?
Chances are you are enjoying the fragrant delights of Cinnamomum cassia. More commonly known as Chinese cinnamon.
Cassia bark is the big cousin of cinnamon: earthy and pungent compared to the lighter, brighter notes of cinnamon, stronger with a clove-like punch. Cassia comes in thick pieces of bark, difficult to grind into a powder. Cinnamon comes in delicate thin quills, easily ground down to a fine powder. You get the picture. It’s a bit of a bruiser.
All botanicals contain organic compounds that give them a unique flavour profile. Cassia bark (and cinnamon) contain the organic compound cinnemaldehyde which gives both of them that distinctive aroma and taste. Used as a flavouring in chewing gum, confectionery, baking and seasoning meat and fish, it is also known as an effective mosquito repellant.
Chinese cassia is an evergreen shrubby tree that grows to 10-15 metres tall. It thrives in South East Asia and China. Hence the name. There are several subspecies but Cinnamomum cassia or Cinnamomum aromaticum are the most commonly used.
It is a member of the plant family Lauraceae. Its leaves are long and pinnate like a laurel. The flowers are white with yellow stamens. But it is the bark we are interested in.
Cassia in Medicine
Mentioned as far back as 2,700BC in the agricultural and medicinal book Pen Ts’ao Ching, cassia was grouped as one of the ‘noble herbs’ in Chinese medicine, known for their stimulating properties.
In Ebers Papyrus, the Egyptian medical papyrus, dating to 1,550BC cassia also gets a mention.
Modern medicine doesn’t recognise any health benefits of taking cinnamon or cassia supplements. Ingested in large amounts cassia can actually be quite dangerous. It contains a substance called coumarin which can cause liver damage. But this would have to be taken in excessive amounts.
Cassia in Gin
Cassia is added to the still as crushed pieces, not a whacking great lump of bark.
It provides a nice spicy warming earthy finish to gin and when used adds complexity and dimension to the flavour profile. Cassia bark is quite a common botanical so it is hard to pick out any gin in particular and say that that is the definitive cassia gin.
No one gin springs to mind. In Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gincassia combines with other spices to provide a delicious and unusual gin. But I wouldn’t say it is the dominant botanical.
On the other hand, Eden Mill make a rather nice Pear & Cassia Gin Liquer.
Perhaps it is best just to enjoy the spicy hint of cassia when we find it hovering elusively around at the finish?