Orris root is a botanical used in the manufacture of perfumes and potpourris. It is also used as a flavoring in gin, imparting the scent of sweet violets. More importantly, though, it binds the aromas of the other botanicals together, keeping them from dissipating too soon. Orris root was banned in parts of Europe; the sale of pure orris root was also banned in the US. The reason it was banned is because of its highly allergenic nature. It causes severe reactions such as hay fever, asthma and cold symptoms and even death. Cosmetics labeled hypoallergenic have to leave this ingredient out of their product.
Orris root is the root of an iris plant. The plants are dug up in late summer, the third year of the plant’s life and are dried for 2 years until they have a chalky appearance. They are ground up and the resulting powder is used as a base for products such as natural toothpastes or as a fixative in sachets or potpourris that enhances the other scents. It is also used as a stabilizer in cosmetics and is used in dry shampoo and in the rinse water for laundering bed linens. The makers of Plymouth Gin, Bombay Sapphire and Mercury Gin, as well as many others use orris root to harmonize their flavors and add a touch of violet.
The oil of orris has a constituent called Irone that is used to impart the scent of violets to many perfumes. This oil has a strong yet delicate scent of fresh violet. It is used by perfumeries to substitute for the more expense real violet oil and is used to strengthen other scents and fix them to keep them from evaporating or getting lost.
This botanical has some of the medicinal properties of gin’s other herbal infusions. It can be taken for colds and sore throats and as an anti-inflammatory. Historically it was used to cure bronchitis and chronic diarrhea. It is a diuretic and was also used as a cure for edema, also known as “dropsy.” Due to its high allergen content, it should be used only under the care of a professional.
Orris root oil has magical uses, also. It is used for rites of exorcism, love, protection, spell-breaking, to stop gossip and for commanding. It is used with rose oil for casting love spells. They say to put a tiny amount on your finger and touch the object of your desire. Adding a bit of cinnamon to the powder increases the strength.
Orris root powder was at one time used as snuff to cause exaggerated sneezing to clear a sinus headache. Pieces of the root were chewed, also, to cleanse the breath. The root had to be dried for this, when the root is fresh it causes the mouth to pucker up. The powdered root form is used in the kitchen to make Ras el Hanout, an exotic blend of up to 30 spices used in Middle Eastern cooking. The name translates to “top of the shop” and it is a point of pride among Moroccan spice sellers to have the best of each spice. Orris root adds the floral fragrance to this spicy mix.
Gins focused with a concentrated presence of Orris root are interesting in their variety. Some adhere to the London Dry style, tradition strong in their production and recipes. Others use both traditional botanicals but add innovations so as to push the standards. And there are those in between. Whether the focus is on the astringent, warm characteristics like the juniper berry or it’s more about the mellow, floral tones held together with the help of orris root, it doesn’t matter. Just keep experimenting and have another round.