Botanicals 101: Juniper
When we talk about juniper with regard to alcohol, almost all of the time it’s in reference to gin. There are a couple of beers brewed with juniper in them, but they are not very common outside of Scandinavia (an example would be sahti, a juniper ale from Finland). Back to gin: it’s named for juniper. Gin as we know it today is a relative of the spirit jenever, which means juniper in Dutch. “But what exactly is juniper?” you posit before asking, “Is it the reason I hate gin so much?” Ah my friend, hold your horses and let’s chat botanicals.
Juniper grows worldwide and has several different varieties. The variety most used for gins is Juniperus communis; it’s usually called Gemeine Wacholder, or just Wacholder, in German. Some varieties are poisonous, but Juniperus communis is safe for humans to eat. Juniper grows most often in shrub formation, but sometimes will branch out (ha ha) into a tree. Due to the different climates and elevations at which juniper grows, it’s often considered to express its terroir when consumed (i.e. juniper grown in one area will taste different to juniper grown in a different area). This is why sometimes you’ll see the juniper’s provenance listed on a bottle of gin.
Juniper berries are what is used to flavor gin, not the spiky leaves or stems of the bushes. The berries start out small, hard, and green with very bitter flavor notes. As they ripen, the berries turn dark blue-purple and their flavor contains more evergreen pine, citrus, and bittersweet notes. Interestingly, juniper bushes produce berries at different stages, so one shrub can have both ripe and unripe berries on it at the same time. When picked, the berries are dried and then used either for gin or for cooking, especially for meats and sauces.
Bear with me (berry with me?) right now as I get into the definition of gin; I’ll keep this part short and delve into All Things Gin (alternate title: “Ginesis: something something figure out a pun for Phil Collins / Tom Collins”) at another time.
The current EU definition for gin is as follows:
(a) Gin is a juniper-flavoured spirit drink produced by flavouring organoleptically suitable ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin with juniper berries (Juniperus communis L.).
(b) The minimum alcoholic strength by volume of gin shall be 37,5 %.
(c) Only natural and/or nature-identical flavouring substances as defined in Article 1(2)(b)(i) and (ii) of Directive 88/388/EEC and/or flavouring preparations as defined in Article 1(2)(c) of that Directive shall be used for the production of gin so that the taste is predominantly that of juniper.”
In a nutshell, this means that gin only needs to be at least 37.5% ABV and taste mostly like juniper. That’s it! What does “predominantly” even mean, really? As long as some people somewhere agree that there’s some juniper flavor to the spirit (which again, remember, juniper can have wide variation in its flavors), then a producer can call their spirit “gin.” This is why the gin market has literally been flooded over the past few years with hundreds of types of gin, leading to a large amount of confusion for the average consumer. So, no, it’s likely not the juniper that’s the reason most people say they don’t like gin. (Don’t get me started on tonic! No wait, DO get me started on it, but in a different article).
TLDR: it’s totally ok to be confused about gin these days, and yes, I have a lot of feeeeeeelings about gin
Back to juniper! It was historically used medicinally by Egyptians in 1500 BC to treat tapeworm infestations, then later by the Romans for stomach issues. Juniper oil is still used today to treat flatulence, regulate urinary excretion, and assist in cellulite removal. I can’t find any information as to whether drinking gin will have the same effects, but I also can’t find any information saying it doesn’t, so…(jk jk jk). Juniper wood can be used mostly decoratively or for small crafts; there is contentious debate on the internet as to whether it’s good to smoke meats with. Hernö distillery of Sweden made a gin aged in casks of juniper wood, which was pretty exciting.
I think that’s about it for juniper; get in touch if there’s anything else you’d like to know! I’ll definitely be doing a deep dive into gin, tonic, and gin culture, so keep a lookout for those posts soon.