Holy Wood, Misunderstood: The Real Story of Palo Santo and Holy Wood & Cask

Palo Santo — which means “holy stick,” or, perhaps more elegantly, “holy wood” — is becoming a thing these days. You’ll find it in soaps, candles, incense, personal care products and yoga studios. And Etsy. And there’s a reason: its aroma is huge, distinctive, and indescribably divine.

Palo Santo is a uniquely aromatic wood that comes from a tree that grows in Central and South America. It’s related to the trees that produce the fragrant resins frankincense and myrrh. In our case, suppliers source the wood from fallen trees in either Ecuador or Peru.

It’s important to get one thing straight though: there are two “Palo Santos” you may hear about. One is an endangered species — Bulnesia sarmientoi— which is broadly prohibited from being harvested, and should absolutely be off limits to everyone, although sadly an illicit trade continues. 

The other Palo Santo — Bursera graveolens — is NOT endangered. Confusing, no doubt. But to make Farallon Holy Wood & Cask, we use ONLY the non-endangered B. graveolens. And we work only with suppliers committed to selling woodthat is sustainably harvested.

The aroma of Palo Santo can only be described approximately — layers of cinnamon, with heavy spearmint, roasted nuts and resinous piney notes, for a start perhaps. But you have to experience it for yourself. Order some, and you can smell it through the packaging when it arrives. The first time I experienced it, at a small apothecary in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, I immediately knew I wanted to find a way to make gin with it.

And it turns out I was the first to achieve that. When I applied for approval of my new formula, I quickly realized that the regulators in charge of approving new spirits recipes had never heard of Palo Santo. That became a saga unto itself. But finally, after a half a year of back and forth, I got the go-ahead.

Two years later, Gin Farallon’s Holy Wood & Cask makes its debut. But, despite having the rough recipe outline approved, turning that into a worthy production recipe was by no means easy. Because the wood is so incredibly pungent and aromatic, finding the right concentration would be key. It also became clear early on that Palo Santo alone in a gin recipe wouldn’t give the right flavor balance, not by a long shot. The formula needed something else, to add more depth, to fully showcase the wood’s unique flavors and aroma.

So, I turned to another wood used in making spirits: virgin American oak barrels. With a heavy char inside. The same barrels used for aging new bourbon. 

I first rested the spirit for several months in the oak barrels, and then experimented for several more months to find the right combination of flavors. The result is an incredible match between the two woods, almost lyrically in balance with the botanicals. The sweet vanilla and oaky-smoke notes from the barrel blend perfectly against the strong, resinous aromas from the Palo Santo. And both play perfectly against the juniper-forward gin botanicals that are the foundation of this unique spirit.

There’s plenty more to the story of Palo Santo and how it’s harvested, and what it means to the communities that cultivate it. It’s a fascinating plant, even aside from being a fascinating ingredient. Perhaps more on that topic in subsequent posts.

But as we continue to experiment with Holy Wood & Cask behind our test bar, one thing is clear: This is a cask-finished gin unlike any other. It works amazingly well in a Negroni, or in place of whiskey in cocktails like a Manhattan or Old Fashioned, or even as a garnish in specialty cocktails to add a one-of-a-kind complexity and finish. Enjoy and experiment! And let us know what you come up with!

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