Gin Botanical: Juniper Berries.
Juniper is the one botanical that all gins have in common; without juniper, it just isn’t gin.
Juniper really is the foundation of gin, it’s the canvass onto which you paint. If you were making a blade, the juniper is the steel that you shape, and the other botanicals are the details and embellishments. If you were building furniture, it would be the wood you choose; it defines the base character of the gin and distilleries go to great lengths to source good quality juniper berries (or so they keep telling us).
- Juniper berries aren’t actual berries, rather cones from a coniferous tree (Juniperus communis). These cones are small and round, and their scales are merged giving them a berry-like appearance.
- Juniper berries start off green and “ripen” to a purple/black colour. This ripening takes around 18 months. This time varies by species.
- In Roman times, expensive black pepper, imported from India, was sometimes cut with juniper berries to bulk it out with a cheaper, domestic adulterant.
- Juniper berries are used in cookery, often to flavour game such as venison, rabbit and pheasant.
- The medicinal uses of juniper berries are wide and varied. Used as both an appetite stimulant and suppressant, a contraceptive, diuretic, anti-inflammatory and as a general tonic.
I could go on for hours about juniper, but these posts are meant to be short, so I will stop there.
Juniper invariably smells rather like pine with varying levels of earthiness, vegetative green scents, resinous richness and even sometimes citrus or peppery hints.
As I discovered when I sampled some of the Master of Malt Origin Series, different juniper berries from different parts of the world have very different qualities.
The Ginvent juniper had a slight vanilla-toffee odour to it, which was a pleasant addition to the usual pine notes.
The first flavour that juniper bestows upon the mouth is a sweet creamy taste, which I have always found both odd fun.
The mainstay flavour is usually a rich pine-like flavour which is rather aromatic and warming. Sometimes is can be very rounded and gentle, sometimes it can be quite harsh and turpentine-like.
The after-taste can be incredibly variable, ranging from a sweet-warmth to a biting, peppery tingling sensation. The overall experience can be woody, earthy, green and fresh or just flat pine-like.
The Ginvent juniper, as promised by the nose, had a moderately strong toffee flavour, which I usually associate with gins that have added vanilla. All-in-all, a complex and mellow juniper but with a slight citrus-burn in the after-taste.
I’ve been astonished at the levels of variance in the humble juniper berry.