Botanical name: Syzygium aromaticum
Plant family: Myrtle
Range: Asia, South America, Middle East, Africa
Parts used: Flower buds
Cloves are the ultimate Christmas spice. Whether spiking a mandarin pomander or spicing up a mince pie, this dried flower bud punches above its weight with its distinctive aroma and unmistakable flavour.
Who would think that something so small could have such a culinary impact? Or that they could be used as a botanical in gin?
Native to the Maluku Islands (Moluccas) in Indonesia the clove tree is now widespread, a testament to its usefulness in cooking, particularly Indian food. A large evergreen tree, growing up to 12m in height, it prefers tropical climates and produces attractive bright red flowers.
The buds of these flowers are harvested before they are completely open and then dried in the sun. Resembling a small rusty nail they are aptly named after the French word for nail: “clou”.
The antiseptic properties of cloves have been utilised for centuries. As long ago as the 3rd century BC they were used by Chinese emperors to freshen the breath of their courtiers. Since the 16th century, they have been a valuable part of the spice trade and were coveted by the Dutch East India Company, even triggering a spice war between the Dutch and the local Molucca island population.
Oil of cloves is commonly believed to relieve toothache but there is no scientific proof of this. It is also variously used as an insect repellant, to stabilize blood sugar levels, a liver tonic and to prevent premature ejaculation. Although I hasten to add, none of this is proven.
Eugenol is the compound responsible for the familiar clove aroma and taste. An antioxidant, it constitutes up to 90% of the essential oil extracted from cloves.
Cloves in Gin
Clove is such a pungent spice that it is used sparingly as a botanical in gin. Yet it does feature in quite a few well-known gins.
Ableforth’s Sloe Gin uses clove as a botanical. The gin is a beautiful rich deep ruby russet colour and with the clove is reminiscent of gluhwein with a hint of ginger marmalade.
Pickering’s Gin is a Scottish gin based on a family recipe dating back to 1947 from India and includes clove as one of its nine botanicals.
Amazzoni Gin from Brazil uses the clove vine as one of the botanicals. Not strictly cloves, the clove vine has a strikingly similar aroma and flavour.