Why is Juniper so Important in Gin?

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“All animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others”. Sounds familiar? That’s because it’s from Animal Farm, a book that anyone who was educated in the UK would have read for their GCSE in English Literature (am I showing my age here?). Basically, in one beautifully constructed sentence, Orwell shows us that life is full of contradictions. Modern day examples are everywhere: we’re all super connected via social media, yet some of us are more lonely than ever. That Tinder one night stand who turns out to be your soul mate. Seeing the words Jumbo Shrimp on a menu (how can it be jumbo and shrimp at the same time, how?, how?). And how is it possible that the prickly, unfriendly juniper bush can deliver berries of such sweetness that we have made them into our national drink. 

Juniper (or to give it its full name, Juniperus communis) is to gin what grapes are to wine. Juniper berries are what gives gin its distinctive taste and are in fact so important to the spirit that they are required by law to be the core botanical in any drink that wants to call itself gin. The aroma and taste of juniper is – or at least should be – the signature note in any gin, both on the nose and on the palate. Only once this flavour base is established can distillers add their signature touches: citrus, herbs, black pepper, spices, roots … the list is quite long. 

But, here’s the science bit, concentrate. Gin is defined by its predominant flavour. With no governing body to regulate every blend of gin, what’s gin tasting to me might not be to you. And many dyed in the wool, old school, gin drinkers feel that “their” spirit of choice has been canabalised with some of the new fangled, fancy pants flavoured gins that are mega popular today. 

So, if you want to really understand gin, it’s important to get to know juniper. To begin with, juniper’s superpowers have been around long before we distilled it, added tonic to it and created the humble G&T. The earliest recorded medical use of juniper berries dates from an Egyptian papyrus of 1,500bc, where they were suggested as a cure for tapeworm infestations. Ancient Greeks would chew on the berries prior to Olympic events in the belief they would give them stamina. The name Gin itself is derived from Dutch jenever, which English troops brought back to the UK after the thirty years war in the 17th century. The drink was, and still is, enormously popular in Holland, so much so that there the Dutch apparently have as many words for gin as Eskimos do for snow. 

The Brits brought the spirit back to Blighty, and realising that it was made from the humble juniper berry, decided to experiment with making their own home grown version. It would take years, around 300 of them, before gin would become the spirit it is today, but practice makes perfect. And we think our gins are pretty perfect! 

However, gin is facing a problem. Go for a walk almost anywhere in the British countryside and you will most likely come across a juniper tree or two. But these trees have been in sharp decline since the 1980s. This is worrying as gin production uses a massive amount of juniper berries, which are still picked wild. And, unlike the great sprawling vineyards of the south of France, juniper is not widely cultivated, nor can it be controlled and harvested in the same way vines can be. Basically, gin has become a victim of its own success.

Common Juniper once grew widely in all over the Northern Hemisphere, yet in the UK global warming, a lack of insects to pollinate, fragmented population and an increase in the Juniper Shield Bug, mean the plant is suffering. Some counties in the south of the country say their juniper berry production is down 60-70%. Others say their plants have just simply died out. In fact, so worrying is the decrease in juniper across the UK that the plant remains the subject of a BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan), under the government’s response to the Convention on Biological Diversity agreed at the 1992 Earth Summit.

How has this happened? Well, despite looking as hard as nails, the plant is actually very fragile. ‘Juniper has everything against it,’ explains Andrew Wright, a countryside manager for the National Trust. It's a bit of a diva. Female plants will often fail to catch the pollen when pollutants block off their receptors, seeds must first be eaten by birds and then go through two frosts. We need at least 30 plants to ensure a healthy population and milder winters are proving to be a problem.’ 

What’s more, juniper is dioecious, meaning the plant has separate male and female flowers and both male and female trees are needed to produce juniper seeds. Once pollinated by the wind, the female plant produces her berries: initially, berries are green before turning into the fleshy, purple, aromatic berry we associate with juniper and gin. So, even if you see plants everywhere, remember only half of them are able to produce the hallowed berry. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom for junipers. The plant is surprisingly easy to grow at home, and once the young plants have taken (young in this case is around 18 months), they require very little maintenance and can live for up to 170 years. They’re great pot plants and thrive in cool temperatures. Readers in the UK, we are looking at you. 

So there’s your answer. If you want to keep enjoying your favourite spirit but don’t want to strip the country of its national pride, simply grow one at home. Just imagine the possibilities...