Updated: Jul 30, 2022
Gin cannot be gin without Juniper... no predominance of juniper flavour and it cannot be called "Gin".
Juniper has been about for a long time. Juniper wood was burned to "purify" the air during the times of the plague - helped by the pleasant aroma released from its burning with a relatively smokeless combustion. The doctors in plague ridden times wore strange looking masks which held juniper within the nasal protuberance in order to prevent being overcome by other smells.
Such masks would not be welcomed greatly in the current climate - but fortunately there are more artistic options nowadays (COVID-19 pressures notwithstanding).
Fortunately juniper now has a more universally appreciated function by helping us enjoy the fantastic drink that gin has become. Juniper berries rely upon chemicals called terpenes to impart its flavour.
Pinene (alpha-pinene to be more exact) is the most predominant terpene in juniper - the name gives away the fact that it is found in many conifers but it is also found in Rosemary for example as well as other well known plants that will be the subject of blogs soon to come.
Sabinene is also found in Juniper and this is also found in black pepper and tea tree oil. Myrcene too, is a woody/spicy/herby flavour also prevalent and is a big player in the flavour of juniper helping it to pair up with other botanicals such as cardamom which displays crossover qualities of taste (woodiness and citrus - have you ever tasted cardamom ice cream, it's vanilla-like with a magical difference !)
Limonene (no prizes for this flavour) and geraniol (floral - who would have guessed with a name like geraniol !) are also other terpenes featuring in Juniper's taste range and so it is not hard to see how juniper then lends itself to four main areas of gin recipe flavours, namely herbal / spiced / floral and fruity.
Our Juniper comes from Macedonia but be aware that juniper has one of the largest ranges of plants throughout the world although juniper colonies appear to have seen a substantial decline in the UK recently. Interestingly, Juniper plants are either female or male - as opposed to most trees that have both flowers on the same plant.
Although we have mentioned the plague from the Middle Ages - Juniper has been recognised as being a beneficial botanical for almost 4000 years. Its berries have been found in Ancient Egyptian tombs and documents record its use for tapeworm infections in those day and the Ancient Greeks promoted use of the berries as a form of physical stamina enhancing potion.
Classical books contain many references to Juniper - not least "The Complete Herbal" by Nicholas Culpepper M.D. courtesy of Project Gutenberg.
Nowadays there are studies being undertaken to look at antibacterial and anti fungal properties of juniper berries. One of these tests showed antibacterial properties against dermatophytes as well as oral Candida (thrush). Further studies have been looking at skin related juniper extract benefits for Staphylococcus aureus (a skin bacterium that can cause impetigo) and Campylobacter jejuni (a nasty cause of gastroenteritis). Be aware there are NO human studies showing benefit to date.
Juniper berries should be avoided by pregnant ladies and children and supplements can interact with some diuretics (increase water loss). However, the berries are also high in Vitamin C and contain many antioxidants with positive health properties being currently investigated.
After saying all of that, it is apparent that Juniper has been an important part of many societies for thousands of years. In my humble opinion, the incorporation into the making of gin is perhaps the most pleasant use to date and we hope that you agree with us!
Dr Colin Scott
"The Herbal Gin Company"