02 Aug Ginformation #5: What is juniper? 5 fun facts to know
With so many gins in the market these days, boasting a myriad of botanicals from the common (coriander, orris root, angelica, rosemary, mint, cucumber, rose) to the exotic (saffron, pandan, Australian wattleseed) and even downright weird (ant or turkey breast gin, anyone?), it can be rather overwhelming.
However, there is one botanical that is paramount to making a gin, the one botanical to rule them all – Juniper.
But what exactly IS juniper? Well, here are five fun facts about this essential gin botanical.
1) Juniper berries are not berries at all
Yes, juniper berries may look like berries, but they are actually cones (like pine cones), but ones that are unusually juicy and fleshy meat.
Juniperus communis, otherwise known as juniper, is a coniferous plant that is part of the cypress family of plants, of which it is the only one that bears edible fruit. It is a thorny, evergreen shrub that is commonly found in the Northern Hemisphere.
2) The word ‘gin’ is derived from the word ‘juniper’
As we’ve mentioned before in previous Ginformation posts, what we know as gin today was an evolution of the traditional Dutch juniper-flavoured spirit Genever (or Jenever), which is named after the juniper berry (jeneverbes in Dutch).
3) Gin isn’t the only Juniper-flavoured drink
Speaking of Genever, that Dutch spirit and gin are not the only alcoholic drinks that make use of juniper. In some countries, juniper is even made into brandy or wine.
In Finland, where Kyro Distillery Company’s Napue Gin is made, juniper is used to make a beer called rye and juniper beer known as sahti.
It’s still gin that juniper is best known for though, and although there aren’t any rules governing the production of gin, nor are there regulations that clearly define what a gin is, one thing is certain – a gin wouldn’t be a gin without the juniper.
4) Juniper has lots of non-drink-related uses as well.
Genever allegedly started out as a medicine, as people believed it had medicinal benefits. Indeed, today juniper berries are used to produce juniper berry oil, which is used for medicinal purposes.
An essential oil can also be extracted from juniper berries, which is used in aromatherapy and perfumery.
Medicines aside, juniper is also used as a spice to flavour and season food in Europe, especially game meat dishes.
5) Juniper tastes ‘piney’
So, after all that, what exactly does juniper taste like? To be honest, we’re not quite sure. It has a very distinct flavour that has been described as ‘piney’, ‘botanical’, and even ‘bitter herbs with a bit of citrus’.
One thing is for sure, if you’re a fan of gin, you should probably have a good idea of what juniper berries smell and taste like.
But if you’re not sure which smell it is exactly (since some gins don’t really emphasise on the juniper much), try this: sample two or more different gins side by side, and chances are you’ll find that that one particular flavour that connects the two – a bitter, slightly sweetish with a hint of peppercorn on both the nose and taste.
It’s hard to describe the flavour, exactly, but because it’s so prevalent in in gin, we just like to call it ‘juniper flavour’.
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