If there’s one piece of knowledge that separates those unknowledgeable about gin to those who know where their towel is at in regard to this storied spirit, it is this: gin is made and/or flavored with juniper berries.
In fact, gin is so tied with the berry that its name derives from the dutch word jenever, which literally translates to “juniper”. Without junipers, gin becomes something else entirely, something distinctly not gin.
Juniper berries are not the sort of item that are a regular part of an American’s pantry. So the question is – “What the hell is juniper, anyway?”
First and foremost, it’s not technically a berry, but rather a cone, albeit a fleshy, berry-looking one. In fact, it is this relation to conifer trees that give the juniper it’s “piney” taste, one that lesser gins are more than willing to exploit. Many a poor gin tastes more akin to pine trees (or even Pine-Sol, if there’s a strong, chemical taste) than true juniper. In other words, juniper can have a pine taste, but it’s only one of several taste characteristics it has.
While there are several varieites of juniper out there, there are primarily two whose berries are used in the creation of gin. There’s Juniperus communis, which should be considered the European juniper berry used in gin, and Juniperus occidentalis, which should be considered the New World variety used in some artisinal gins.
The berry fresh off of the stem is considered near worthless, as it’s too bitter to be palatable for either man or farm animals. However only when the berries are dried, or combined with other ingredients, is its true value understood.
Side Note: While we use the deep dark purple-ish berries to flavor our meats, sauces, and soups, it’s the fully-grown-but still-green berries that are typically used in gin production.
How did juniper end up in gins? As with many things alcoholic, one first needs to look to the history of pharmacology to understand. Juniper berries were used as a medicine for everything from increasing physical stamina (the Greeks) to a diuretic (Chinese, Germans), to even a contraceptive when applied to the genitalia (the Greeks yet again).
From this path, it’s only a short jump to adding junipers into fermented alcohols such a beer, to adding it into mashes to be distilled. And once added to any intoxicant, its popularity would have increased, especially if its addition made the intoxicant more palatable.
The better gins look to get the most out of the juniper berry, an idea I’ll explore in a later post regarding other botanicals. Juniper, when applied well, is more than a pine taste, but a complex interaction of several characteristics that are used to balance with other flavorings. But for now, the two things you need to take away from this post is that 1) Gin is Juniper; and 2) Juniper is more than a piney taste.