Hi folks, and welcome to a new series on the blog – our profiles of the main Gin Botanicals! And of course there’s only one contender for our first entry: Juniper! These dark, bitter berries are the essence of Gin, contributing the spirit’s dominant flavour and even giving gin its name – the word gin is derived from the Dutch Jenever or French Genièvre, which was anglicised to Genever and then shortened to Gin! There you are, you’ve learned something already! Thank me later. On with the profile!

Name: Juniper

Species: Juniperus, generally Juniperus Communis for gin purposes.

Geography: According to Wikipedia (yes, we know), ‘between 50 and 67 species of juniper are widely distributed throughout the Northern Hemisphere, from the Arctic, south to tropical Africa, from Ziarat, Pakistan east to eastern Tibet in the Old World, and in the mountains of Central America.’ Much of the juniper used for gin is grown in Italy, particularly in Tuscany and Umbria.

Characteristics: Juniperus is an evergreen tree or shrub of the Cypress family with foliage varying from pine-like needles to scaly Leylandii-like leaves. Juniperus Communis is of the spreading shrub type with needle-like leaves. The berries take about 18 months to mature, beginning as green but maturing into a dark bluish or purple colour.

Other Uses: As well as gin, juniper is also used as the primary flavouring agent in Dutch jenever and Eastern European juniper brandies, which are distilled from a wine made with fermented juniper berries.  In Finland, juniper is used to flavour a dark rye beer called sahti which is frequently drunk during or after a sauna. The berries are used instead of hops, and the mash is filtered through a bed of intertwined juniper branches.

Leaving alcoholic drinks aside for a moment, juniper has a variety of other uses, primarily as a spice, where the berries are dried and crushed. As a spice, juniper is particularly associated with game dishes – it is widely used to flavour rabbit, venison, veal, pheasant and quail.  In Scotland, juniper wood was used by illegal distillers as it gives off very little smoke, making the stills harder for customs officials to detect. Burning juniper wood, however, is highly aromatic and has been used since time immemorial in purification and blessing rituals.

Juniper oil is used in aromatherapy and perfumery. It is also commonly used to relieve flatulence, one of a variety of medical uses – many dubious – which have been ascribed to juniper. The berries have been recommended over the ages for complaints as diverse as diabetes, sciatica, bronchitis, asthma, arthritis and epilepsy. Their efficacy for most of these conditions is unproven, however eating juniper berries is known to stimulate contractions in pregnant women and was used in earlier times to induce miscarriage.

Associated Brands: All of them. By EU law, all the various types of gin must have juniper as the predominant flavour. However, for a particularly junipery hit, try Tanqueray, Junipero or, for the truly hardcore, Sipsmith’s VJOP (Very Junipery Over Proof).

Fun Facts:

  • Juniper berries are not actually berries! They’re actually technically cones with tightly packed intersecting leaves. A round cone, that’s a new one on us. Science, eh?!
  • Juniper berries were found in multiple Egyptian burial sites, with Juniperus Oxycedrus and Juniperus Excelsa both being found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, despite neither variety being native to Egypt.
  • Ancient Romans used juniper as a cheaper alternative to the more expensive black peppercorn, with Pliny the Elder declaiming in his Natural History: “Pepper is adulterated with juniper berries, which have the property, to a marvellous degree, of assuming the pungency of pepper“.
  • Juniper ash is the main source of calcium for the Navajo native Americans, who do not drink milk. The ash is added to flour produced from blue maize and used to make pancakes and dumplings, with the added advantage of making them taste deliciously junipery!

Right, that’s enough for now – more Gin Botanicals profiles soon!