Many of the botanicals that are used in the flavouring of gin are well known to most of us: coriander, lemon and orange peel, cinnamon and of course the ubiquitous juniper berry. Many distillers also employ a wide range of more obscure herbs and spices and perhaps none is more utilized than the root of the Angelica plant.
Angelica archangelica, or Garden Angelica is a member of the Apiacea family of plants which numbers carrots, parsnips and parsley among its ranks. Some botanists believe the species originated in the hills of Syria and then spread into north and northeastern Europe, and into cooler climates of Central Asia all the way to the Himalayas. As a plant it prefers cold wet climates and grows well in places like Scandinavia where it has been used in medicines going back to the age of the Vikings. Indeed, even today the Sami People of the sub-Arctic use the root to flavour reindeer milk; which isn’t surprising considering reindeer milk is definitely an acquired taste. It is also commercially cultivated in France, Germany and the Low Countries: Brockmans sources its angelica root from Belgium.
The plant takes its name from a rather bizarre story in which the Archangel Michael descends from the clouds and appears before the Italian botanist Mattheus Sylvaticus somewhere in the middle of the 14th century and begins to tell him of its health giving properties. Thanks to this heavenly wisdom it was named Angelica after the Angel himself. Sylvaticus wrote a book around the same time, known in English as the Encyclopedia of Medicines, explaining in detail what each plant and herb offered in the way of remedies and preparations. Angelica got some of the top billing in this widely published chronicle; and as the Black Death ravaged Europe it was seen as this new God-sent miracle cure and the name stuck. The reality, angelica, or whatever it was called before divine intervention, was well known to the ancients for its medical value: but, it’s a good story.
If you’ve never come across angelica – it’s a big plant: in some cases reaching six feet in height with its flowering parts blooming over a span of up to four feet. The stem was the inspiration for the Doric columns of ancient Greece and hollowed out it even makes a half-decent musical instrument. No part of the plant went unused to alleviate a myriad of medical complaints; but it’s the root that interests us here.
Like its cousin the carrot, the roots of the angelica plant are long, thick and fleshy; but, they’re also very musky, full of essential oils and aromatic hydrocarbons. These elements have been since time immemorial used to flavour beverages and preserved fruit (the seeds, which possess similar traits are still used to flavour vermouths and liqueurs such as Chartreuse). The tubers can grow to quite a size too – some in excess of three pound in weight: that would make one hell of a big carrot by comparison.
Our ancestors had little knowledge of how ailments occurred, and absolutely no knowledge of what disease was, even if certain parts of the pathology were self-evident: bacteria and viruses were beyond the imagination. In most cases two and two were put together to get five. Still, for all that observation and trial and error were well practiced and in truth certain elements found in certain plants will cure or at least alleviate symptoms. Angelica root, properly prepared (often as a tea) will help with conditions affecting the respiratory and nervous systems, reduce fevers and even relieve the worst excesses of influenza. It may not have been gifted to Mattheus Sylvaticus by the archangel, but it does have the medicinal qualities ascribed to the myth.
In gin making however, we’re after those aromatics and oils. It conveys an earthiness which marries well with, certainly in Brockmans, floral and citrus notes. It’s like a subtle undercurrent that along with the juniper underpins any good gin. Perhaps as he sits upon his cloud, Michael is raising his glass to that.