Q. When is a berry not a berry?
A. When it is a juniper berry – or aromatic, fleshy, female seed cone if you want to be finicky
It has occurred to me that the casual gin drinker (possibly you) may be a bit hazy about what exactly a botanical is and where you might find one. So I thought I would write a few blog posts about them. This is the first of a series of posts distilling the essence of each botanical beginning with juniper berries.
In Botanicals Distilled it makes sense to start with juniper. Juniper berries are the main flavour of gin. Just in case you didn’t know that! The predominant flavour of the spirit must by law be juniper in order to be called gin.
Juniperus communis, to give it it’s scientific name, is the low growing shrubby evergreen conifer on which the juniper berries grow. It is a member of the cypress family with small, needle-like leaves widespread across the northern hemisphere. Its favoured habitat is chalk downland, moorland, coastal dunes, rocky hillsides and the understorey of coniferous woodland.
It is one of three conifers native to Britain. But its distribution in the UK is rather patchy. Under the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework juniper communis remains on the priority list of species for all four countries in the UK. Loss of habitat and browsing by animals is partly to blame for the decline in abundance of juniper trees, but truthfully no one really knows the reason and the picture is probably much more complex.
The trees are dioecious. That means the conifers either have male or female flowers. A bit tricky when it comes to pollination as the female flowers are pollinated by wind. The berries take up to two years to fully ripen from green to a beautiful deep purply-bluey-brown. When ripe the berries are eaten by birds and so the seeds hidden within are dispersed.
Packed with bioflavonoids and antioxidants with antibacterial and antifungal properties juniper berries are truly a superfood. Only recently have the health benefits of the berries begun to be understood. There are several claims surrounding juniper. It is claimed to have natural antiseptic properties, an ability to reduce blood pressure and as an aid to digestion, something the Romans knew all about. I wonder, does this mean gin is good for you?!
For gin production, the majority of juniper berries are sourced from around the Mediterranean with the finest berries growing in Italy and Macedonia. Juniper berries typically form half to two-thirds of the total botanicals in a batch of gin. The dried berries (not fresh) are often crushed or macerated. Then steeped in neutral grain spirit to release their unique flavours before distillation.
And oh boy, what flavours! Bite into a juniper berry. You get a powerful complex hit of resinous, piney, lemony, bittersweet flavour. The flesh of the berry is sweet with the real juniper kick being in the seeds. Without going into too much geeky detail the various oils in juniper are -pinene (pine), sabinene (spicy), limonene (citrus), borneol (woody) and farnesene (floral) and quite a few more! This complexity is what makes the creation of gin so interesting. Juniper is the Queen of Botanicals and without her, there is no gin as we know it – just flavoured vodka.