In Food + Drink

Is Hemp Gin The Big Drink Trend Of 2019?

Like many distillers, Rex Burdon is always on the lookout for new botanicals that can add a distinctive flavour to his gin. He just didn’t expect his light bulb moment to come via the Country Women’s Association.

When Food Standards Australia approved protein-rich hemp seeds for consumption and sale in November 2017, there were already plenty of farmers with crops in the ground. They just needed a market, so the Tasmanian Country Women’s Association began using it in their products as a way to support local farmers.

“They were using it in place of flour, coarse grinding it in place of sesame seeds and putting it on top of buns,” says Burdon, who now runs distillery Nonesuch just outside of Hobart.

After getting over his surprise, he started looking at what flavours he could extract from these little seeds. What he discovered was “just amazing”.

“It’s buttery, it’s oily, it’s nutty,” he says of the hemp seeds.

Why hemp works so well as a gin

Cannabis-Co-Farm hemp gin

Hemp seeds are buttery, oily and nutty, says Rex Burdon. Image:The Cannabis Company

Seeing the potential for an interesting new product, he began to look at the best way to utilise hemp seeds.

“When you’re making gin, it’s a bit like cooking,” he says. “Quite often you can extract flavour not by adding more of what you want flavour from but by enhancing it.”

After a number of experiments, he found that juniper had a tendency to overpower the hemp so “our thoughts went back to the good old Country Women’s Association – everything that they did had a grain involved.”

His solution was to make a jenever – the forerunner to gin – which starts with a base of distilled beer and is far more accommodating to the rich, creamy nature of the hemp.

The result, he says, makes “one of the world’s best dirty martinis”.

“It’s that underlying maltiness plus the creaminess that comes through from the hemp and it just seems that when the olive brine hits it, it gets a little more greenness.”

Will hemp gin get you high?

Cannabis Co Farm hemp gin

Though hemp and marijuana are from the cannabis family, hemp won’t get you high. Image: The Cannabis Company

While hemp and marijuana are both members of the cannabis family, hemp has low levels of THC (the psychoactive element of marijuana). It won’t get you high, and for Burdon, it is solely a flavouring agent.

“To me, referring to it as cannabis is gimmicky,” he says. “I see no reason whatsoever to pretend that it’s got some quirkiness relating to marijuana – it should be standing by itself as a flavour compound.”

Nevertheless, he’s run into a number of problems since releasing his hemp gin. When he tried to advertise it, Facebook pulled all of his ads. He’s sent the company a link to the relevant legislation proving the legality of hemp in Australia but remains barred from advertising any of his products on the platform.

Unsurprisingly given their name, The Cannabis Company has run into similar difficulties from their base in Melbourne. Co-owner Cormac Sheehan says that Facebook “won’t touch us” but the similarities between the two companies end there.

While Burdon (who makes a number of other gins and a whisky) views hemp as an interesting flavour to play with, the ingredient is a core element of The Cannabis Company’s brand.

“The simplest way to explain this is that other companies approach hemp as a potential botanical to be added to their gin,” says Sheehan. “First and foremost, we’re a cannabis company.”

A hint of just how seriously he takes that mission is that he refers to the plant as “the tree of life”.

So rather than searching for a way to add hemp to gin, he began by looking for a drink that could be a vehicle for hemp and settled on gin primarily because “it’s a wonderful host for other flavours”.

So, what does hemp gin taste like?

Ginversity hemp gin

Western Australia’s Giniversity offers a Smoked Hemp Gin with notes of toasted sesame and sweet orange. Image: Giniversity

Though there are a number of hemp gins currently on the market, no two are alike. Burdon’s gin emphasises the creaminess and nuttiness of the hemp seeds. Western Australia’s Giniversity tweaks that approach for their Smoked Hemp Gin, which imparts notes of toasted sesame and sweet orange through the smoking process (they also recommend it in a dirty martini).

These stand in direct contrast to The Cannabis Company’s two gins. Each derives flavour from hemp seeds and stalks as well as a third element.

Sheehan and his partners have isolated individual terpenes (the organic compounds that give plants their distinctive aroma and flavour) and based each gin around one – Myrcene is named after the terpene that is most abundant in hemp while Jilungin Dreaming foregrounds limonene, a terpene common to both juniper and cannabis.

These elements give each product a resinous, piney oiliness and medicinal flavour that is much lighter than their competitors.

What’s next for hemp gin?

Cannabis-Co hemp gin

There’s still a lot of room to experiment and innovate, predicts Cormac Sheehan. Image: The Cannabis Company

Hemp gin is still very much a niche product, as are all hemp products.

It’s unsurprising given the stigma attached to the plant and after almost a century of prohibition. But this is also what makes it ripe for rediscovery.

Sheehan sees the prohibition of cannabis as “a boon for creative individuals”. He says broader understanding of the plant is still stuck in the 1920s, and that there’s a lot of room to experiment and innovate.

But one thing is for sure – you can expect to see plenty more cropping up in the near future.

(Lead image: The Cannabis Company) 

Published 02 April, 2019