The Estonian town of Kuressaare, capital of Saaremaa island, will fully recycle its 55-feet tall Christmas tree this year. Ater the spruce tree has served its 2-month duty in the town's central square, its needles and branches will be used for local Lahhentagge tonic water.
Old Tjikko, whose name could well belong to an ancient Viking Warrior, is a small tree in Western Sweden. At a mere 4 metres, it’s tiny compared to most trees in the Nordic forests.
However, Old Tjikko hides a big story in its small body. It was born soon after the ice melted in Scandinavia, at the end of last Ice Age. It’s the oldest spruce tree, with roots that are almost 10,000 years old. And Tjikko is not a lone warrior from the prehistoric age – in these same mountains, there are 20 trees over 8,000 years old.
No wonder that in Nordic cultures the spruce is a symbol of life and strength. Needles of spruce have been used by shamans to make the magic potions throughout the centuries.
The spruce had a key role in celebrating the winter solstice, long before the first ever decorated spruce tree was put up to celebrate Christmas in 1441. And yes, of course, that happened in Estonia.
Looking out at the world from this island and village of famous captains, it’s worth mentioning that Captain Cook, who founded Australia, was the first captain to save all of his crew from scurvy by using alcoholic sugar-based spruce beer.
The tips from the needles are quite commonly used in Nordic kitchens to make spruce syrup, and even survival tips suggest that spruce needles can be directly ingested or boiled into a tea to replace large amounts of vitamin C.
The needles of spruce absorb vast amounts of sunshine and, importantly for the Nordic region, not only sunshine but light in general, making the tree stand out in many ways.
It carries dozens of times more Vitamin C than citrus fruits, 40-100 times more chlorophyll than any other plant, and it is more vitamin- and mineral-rich than noni fruits, which have been tagged as the Elixir of Life.
Yet Vitamin C is just one key ingredient in spruce needles: fresh needles carry also Vitamins E and K, carotene, manganese, copper, zink, cobalt.
Throughout history, the spruce has been used to treat a vast array of health problems related to heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, stomach, bladder, breathing, eyes and ears. It is antibacterial, and improves metabolism and blood circulation.
Chlorophyll is important for plants, but what about for humans? One may ask.
It has been found to be an important factor offering protection against cancer. Chlorophyll also helps your body cleanse elimination systems, such as the bowel, liver and blood, and improving the transport of oxygen throughout your body, among other things.
We have bottled the first batch of Sake Gin in Saaremaa. The bottles will reach stores by the end of the year.
The new Sake Gin uses local rice-like juniper berries, a new juniper species that is yet to be officially named. The locals in Saaremaa have called the species Rice Juniper for centuries, but it is not known outside the island. It has been a well-kept secret of the island’s inland areas.
Here is an old photograph from the local museum.
The official naming of the juniper species is due to happen in 2023, at the next International Botanical Congress. While classical juniper trees crave dry soil, the so-called rice juniper is extremely sensitive to water shortages. To ensure sufficient water, most rice juniper fields need mechanical watering to maintain flooded conditions in the field during the few weeks of Estonian summer.
“The island gets a lot of low-intensity sunlight throughout the year, and with the increasingly rainy weather – the region’s weather could be easily compared to the legendary English weather – it is a perfect habitat for the so-called rice juniper,” said professor Peter O'Kenowefa from Rice J University.
“We are trying to jump-start the old distilling industry on the island. Finding these juniper fields in some little-visited areas in the centre of the island was like finding that X mark on old treasure maps,” said Maarit Pöör, co-founder of Lahhentagge. “We are getting sake’s rice effect without growing rice separately – with rice juniper it’s like a 2-in-1.”
The health effects of rice juniper are currently being investigated in joint studies by Rice J University and the University of Sigulda in Latvia. The latter’s recent study on gin’s effects on metabolism, suggesting that gin could help your body burn calories faster, put the little-known university on the world map.
Whether sake gin has similar, or even larger positive impacts on your health, than just gin requires further study.
On July 7, we will hold the first ever gin festival in Estonia, in Saaremaa. Not a Lahhentagge gin festival, but a more general gin festival – we are involved in organising it, but we invite all gin makers to attend.
“The first? Really?” you may ask. Yes, some bars have organised gin tastings in Estonia and have called them festivals, but we will be taking part in organising the first-ever event with actual gin producers attending and bringing their own products with them.
We have found the perfect location for the event – it will take place on the main street of Kuressaare, in the grounds of the hotel Arensburg. During July 7, some 5,000 to 10,000 tourists will pass the venue. We hope that many of them will also step in for a gin or two.
Why in Kuressaare, Saaremaa? It is a 4-hour drive from Tallinn, or a 30-minute flight.
The answer is obvious – and it is partly the same as why we are building Lahhentagge. The massive island is covered with juniper trees.
It is the natural resource of the island and use of them has been very limited so far. Yes, we pick the berries and a few other people seem to be picking them too, but that is pretty much it.
Arensburg is a good venue. It has the capability of hosting big concerts on its grounds and has a large parking area just next to it. We will take over the summer stage of its terrace to hold masterclasses.
We are not planning the largest summer festival in Estonia – rather, a meetup for Friends of Gin. There will be a number of Estonian gin producers attending, but the real treat will be gins that are not on sale in Estonia. Hopefully, there will also be some new products that producers will bring out for the first time.
Some friends have asked us if it is silly to invite all our competitors to attend. Surely, they are rivals in some situations? However, artisan producers control just a fraction of the gin market in the region. Raising awareness together of these unique spirits will enable us to multiply the market, not battle over selling a bottle or two of gin.
How to ...
We talked with our founder Maarit about some of the initial questions that arise when you start to think about gin – either drinking it or thinking about how to make it.
How is gin made?
Gin is made through a distilling process, where neutral spirit is flavoured with special botanicals and then distilled into some of the most magical drinks.
Some botanicals are very common in gin. By definition, gin has to contain a juniper flavour, but often there is also coriander or orris root.
What is gin made from?
The key ingredient is juniper berry, but I have tasted a gin with only 3 botanicals and one with more than 40 botanicals. Our first gin contains ten different botanicals.
These days most gin producers use a neutral base spirit from one of the bigger spirit manufacturers, and then distil it further with their selection of botanicals.
What grain is used to make gin?
The base alcohol for making gin can be made of several grains – like wheat, barley or rye. In some countries corn, potatoes and even sugar beet are in active use.
For our Ösel Dry Gin we use rye as it has deep historical roots in the food culture of the island and it gives the gin its crisp and fresh taste.
Can you make gin from vodka?
You can use vodka to make gin. In theory, a gin producer could have a supply agreement with a vodka producer. Gin producers use base spirit, which is a vodka-like spirit product.
To make your personal “gin” the easiest option is to use vodka – just mash and soak juniper berries and other botanicals whose taste you think you might like in your gin, in the vodka and voila, you have a gin-like drink. It’s not a distilled gin and can easily become unpleasant (believe me, I have tried).
It is easier to take a gin you like and make your own flavoured version of it. This is the most common technique that is used to make sloe gins. You can turn any regular gin into a sloe gin by just adding sloe berries and sugar.
Sugar? But most gins are called dry. Even Lahhentagge’s first product is called Ösel Dry Gin. What makes gin dry?
Similar to wines, gin can be dry or sweetened. Both compound and distilled gin can be labelled as Dry Gin or London Dry Gin if they do not contain sugar or any other sweetening agents.
How do you make a gin distillery?
A gin distillery can be set up like any other distillery. In principle, all you need to have is the necessary equipment and proper licenses.
Explorer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen was born in our village in 1778, in the distillery of Lahhentagge Manor. He wrote himself into the history books when he discovered the last continent to be found: Antarctica. We re-founded Lahhentagge Distillery 238 years later and are following in Bellingshausen's footsteps to take on the world.
In the beginning, there is always a woman. In the winter of 2016, Maarit came home with the clear idea to turn her passion for herbs and flavours into a gin – the first artisan gin in Estonia.
Most of 2016 was spent building on this idea. Partly finding the right herbs from the meadows of Saaremaa; but first and foremost, on finding the right people –friends who were passionate about gin and who were ready to drop everything they had been doing to make some amazing drinks together.
To create something special, Maarit (and the rest of us) spent weeks in nature, looking for something that could give the product a distinctive taste. Something totally local, but which could travel afar. When barmen in different countries are saying, “This is unique,” as their first comment, we are clearly onto something.
The uniqueness of the gin clearly gives an extra kick to some of the most classic cocktails. For example, Lahhentagge has been turned into a stunning Dry Martini in Moscow and an amazing Negroni in Helsinki.
Now in December 2017, we have moved on from the beginning – we have been on the market in Estonia for a few months. We are working on our next products, opening new markets, investments… our hands are full!
We could not do it without enjoying the ride though :)
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