Gin is juniper. Without juniper, gin simply is not gin. That’s why juniper is so important. But what is it, where does it come from and why is it found in gin (but not in vodka or rum)? Well, read on as we lift the curtain on this fabulous berry which plays a vital part in our lives.
A tiny pine cone that conquered the world
So, here’s interesting fact number one!
The juniper berry isn’t actually a berry at all. In fact, it’s a tiny pine cone. These little cones can be found on a small, wild shrub called juniperus communis which primarily grows wild in the northern hemisphere. Juniper bushes are, in fact, closely related to the cypress family. These amazing plants can live for as long as 100 years and they can reach a height of 10m.
But that’s not all. Juniper is a hardy plant, with one of the widest geographical reaches of any tree in the world. You can find juniper bushes thriving across different landscapes and climates and a range of countries from Canada to the USA, from Iceland to Greenland, from Europe to North Africa and from Asia to Japan.
No hurry, juniper takes its time!
But juniper is not in a big hurry to flavour your G&T. In fact it takes each juniper bush around 10 years to actually bear fruit. But enough about the mother ship, what about the berry?
Well, this is a weird one. Juniper berries start off green and then, after around 18 months, they start to ripen into a dark purple colour. And they’re quite small – most juniper berries are less than 1cm in diameter. Intriguingly, each berry contains between 3 and 6 rectangular seeds, which birds kindly eat and distribute on juniper’s behalf.
So, where’s the best juniper to be found?
Well, we already know that juniper’s influence spreads far and wide. You can still find it growing in the UK and Spain, but the best stuff comes from Macedonia. And here’s another interesting fact. Juniper is generally harvested directly from the wild, meaning that it is more like foraging than farming. There’s a particular technique for getting the best crop from your tree.
According to long tradition, juniper pickers will circle the tree, beating the branches as they walk around it. They then catch the falling berries in a round, flat basket, often collecting their own body weight of juniper in a single day.
What does it actually taste like?
This complex botanical (with as many as 70 constituent elements) is most prized for its juniper oil, which represents as little as 3% of the cone. This means you have to squeeze an awful lot of juniper berries to get a decent amount of oil. And just like everything else, juniper has its own unique flavour profile.
Think pine notes, heather and lavender, sitting alongside grassy pepperiness and citrus. These are the dominant flavours that give it such a distinctive, bitter taste. They are also the same notes that make it into your gin once the distillation process is under way. All this work comes at a cost and the average price for juniper right now is around £7 per kg.
How did juniper end up as gin’s main ingredient?
Well, after a long and distinguished career in medieval medicine, in the 16th century, juniper switched seamlessly into gin. It had already been used in health remedies since the Egyptians started using it to make drinks and to embalm their dead pharaohs, so its health benefits had been known for millennia.
By the 1660s, as Amsterdam became the centre of world trade, the Dutch army and navy took to the habit of drinking a daily ration of genever. Then, in a bid to appeal to the growing middle classes, Dutch distillers began to flavour their malt wine with juniper and other spices from the Dutch East India company.
And the news spread, so before long, genever became popular in other European countries including France.
Ready for lift off
By the end of the 19th century, it was being sold in England at half the price of brandy, so its popularity took off rapidly. The rest is history.
The English embraced the idea and adapted it to their tastes and by 1621, there were more than 200 registered gin distillers in London alone.
Since then, it has gone on a journey from the devil’s drink, blighting the social fabric of 17th century London through to the drink of choice in 18th century drinking clubs. Eventually, this spirit became engrained in the history and psychology of England and by the time the G&T took hold in the 19th century there was no stopping it.
Gin goes global!
By the 20th century, this beautiful “juniper juice” had become a cocktail staple and the drink of choice for movie stars, writers, film stars and royalty. But production was still dominated by a few powerful brands such as Gordons and Tanqueray, who did nothing imaginative to this most versatile of all drinks. And then the craft gin revolution arrived in the early 21st century giving birth to a mind-boggling array of flavours and styles that we could only have dreamed of 20 years ago.
So, there it is. This little berry (that isn’t a berry) has taken on the world and won.
Every gin you drink, no matter where you are, will always have one thing in common – the juniper berry. Where would we be without you!