With so many types of gins available today, there’s a lot of variety on the market. But there’s one thing that unifies all of us gin distillers, whether our gin is made in a small family-run distillery in the Yorkshire Dales or a mammoth factory in the USA. That’s the fact that all gin must contain juniper – though whether the juniper is a whisper or a whoop in the end flavour is down to each individual distillery.
There are plenty of other variances between different gins – some may have a higher or lower ABV, some gins are made from grain while others, like ours, is made from grapes. Many distillers use different methods to make gin, but despite all of our differences, we all have one thing in common: the famous juniper berry.
Juniper is a botanical that’s used in gin. It’s misleading to call juniper a berry – it’s actually a seed cone with lots of flesh that makes it look a lot like a fruit. A member of the Cupressaceae family, juniper trees or shrubs take three or four years to grow to maturity, then two or three more years before the berries are ready to be harvested.
A single juniper plant will hold berries in every stage of ripeness, so they have to be picked a few times a year.
Juniper provides gin with its sharp, piney and resinous flavour that carries a hint of citrus.
In addition to juniper, we use a blend of six other premium botanicals in Sing Gin for a tantalising freshness.
The common juniper plant is native to the UK and most of continental Europe, and is found growing across the northern hemisphere.
Unfortunately, juniper is in short supply in England today due to the loss of wild habitat. The conservation charity Plantlife UK works to save England’s junipers, appealing to the British fondness for gin and tonics as a way to encourage conservation and habitat restoration.
Today most gin producers purchase their juniper from one of the following countries:
Albania, Bosnia, and Herzegovina together produce over seven hundred tons of juniper berries per year, and a lot of it is picked in the wild by individuals who sell their harvest to a large spice company. Their method is time consuming: pickers will place a basket or a tarp under a branch, whack it with a stick, and try to dislodge only the ripe, dark blue berries while leaving younger, green fruit alone. Once picked, the juniper is spread out in a cool, dark place to dry. Too much sun or heat would cause them to lose their flavourful essential oils, and a damp environment could invite mould.
Common juniper was used for medicinal purposes by the Ancient Romans and Greeks, who used it to treat toothache, headaches and even to aid digestion. They’ve got a point there – there’s nothing like a delicious after-dinner gin cocktail to round off a lovely meal!
During the Black Death in the 14th Century, ‘Plague doctors’ wore masks with long beaks full of juniper berries and other botanicals to mask the unpleasant smells they’d encounter tending the sick. They believed that juniper stopped the spread of the disease. This was somewhat true – the disease was spread by fleas and juniper is an effective, natural flea repellent.
The first instance of juniper used in alcohol production was by Belgian theologian Thomas van Cantimpre, whose 13th Century Liber de Natura Rerum was translated to Dutch by a contemporary, Jacob van Maerlant, in his 1266 work Der Naturen Bloeme. The text recommended boiling juniper berries in rainwater or wine to treat stomach pain. It’s a far cry from gin, but anything that combines juniper and alcohol is a step in the right direction.
The Greek physician Galen, writing in the second century AD, said that juniper berries “cleanse the liver and kidneys, and they evidently thin any thick and viscous juices, and for this reason they are mixed in health medicines.” This suggests that juniper berries were mixed with alcohol back then too, although it would have tasted nothing like the superb gins we drink today.
Juniper berries started appearing in English distillers’ recipes in 1639. By the 1700s, unlicensed gin manufacture was legal in England, and crude rather toxic gin replaced beer as the tipple of choice. This was followed by a period that led to gin gaining the nickname ‘Mother’s ruin‘.
Juniper is always the most dominant flavour in London dry gin. However, some gins embrace the flavour of juniper and corresponding notes of pine and cedar more than others. These gins are typically good all-rounders for mixing a perfect gin and tonic.
In gin production, the ripe, purple berries of juniper are used, either whole or they can be milled or gently crushed to release more oils. At Sing Gin, we prefer to hand-crush our botanicals in a large pestle and mortar. Call us old-fashioned, but gin-making is a labour of love and we like to put the work in!
The juniper used most widely in gin production is Juniper communis, a small tree or shrub that can live for up to two hundred years.
Juniper is typically sold either whole or as crushed or cut berries. It can also be purchased as a powder (more commonly used in baking, food products etc.).
The certified organic juniper used in Sing Gin is responsibly sourced from Italy and they’re suitable for vegans kosher certified. We buy the whole, dried and triple sifted berries of the plant. Rather than use whole juniper berry, we crush it along with our other botanicals by hand at the distillery to achieve the signature strength of flavour and aroma.
In the same way that the botanicals in gin accompany certain foods beautifully, juniper is an ideal ingredient to add to rich gamey dishes containing venison, duck and pheasant.
Juniper also complements pork and lamb, and is excellent when added to dishes such as potato gratin, sauerkraut and pickles. The berries can also be used to make sweet syrups to poach fruit in or to use as a base for a fruit salad. To get the best results, lightly crush juniper berries before adding to a dish to help release their flavour.
Juniper is often used as a garnish for gin.
When storing juniper, keep in mind that it has a shelf life of two years, provided it’s stored in an airtight container in cool, dry conditions away from direct sunlight.
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