Gin can be flavoured with all manner of things: flowers, spices, citrus fruits, seaweed. But there is one botanical that all gins must contain by law, and that’s juniper. About the size of a pea and blue-black when ripe, juniper berries are chock-full of aromatic oils that give gin its signature notes of pepper, lavender and pine.
The downside to juniper berries is they are grouchy blighters that like to hide in the centre of viciously spiky shrubs. In Tuscany, where some of the world’s best juniper grows, their version of “up shit creek” roughly translates as “stuck in a juniper bush”.
Most commercial juniper is still harvested by hand in the wild in Bulgaria, Macedonia or Tuscany (usually around this time of year). But you can find it all over the place: I’ve foraged juniper everywhere, from Italy and the Pyrénées to the Lake District, and I’ve learnt how different it can taste depending on where it is growing.
Ginepraio (€39.80 for 50cl, Bottega Alcolica) is a stylish new gin made with three types of juniper from Tuscany: the coastal area of Maremma that produces juniper that’s slightly saline; Castellina di Chianti (more resinous); and the rugged Apennines (more citrussy/floral/peppery). These three junipers – which I tasted separately – are blended with local botanicals, including dog rose, citrus peels and angelica, to create a gin with an elegant floral/nutty character. I love the clinical-looking bottle too.
In complete contrast is Wild June (£49.99 for 70cl, The Wine Drinker), a full-bodied craft gin from Texas that is made with red-berry juniper foraged in the west Texas mountains. Juniper can be remarkably fruity (especially when it’s young and green) and that really comes through here in a dried-cranberry note. A base of rye distillate and botanicals, including cinnamon and hops, gives it all a sweet, spicy kick. One for a Negroni, I’d say.
Closer to home is Hepple (£35.95 for 70cl, Master of Malt), a beautiful dry gin made with a blend of juniper including green juniper berries (along with Douglas fir, lovage and blackcurrant leaves) from the Northumbria moors. This gin has a pure, unadulterated juniper character – it is rain-drenched pine needles, torn bracken and resinous woodlands, with a hint of sharp cassis. Adorned with a splendidly prickly juniper illustration by Timorous Beasties, this is a great all-rounder, but really merits being served in a martini.
British juniper is under threat, so Hepple is engaged in extensive replanting projects, as are Crossbill Gin in Scotland and Beckett’s in Surrey. It’s a long game, though, as a single juniper bush can take 16 years to mature. So savour that martini while you can – and know you’re doing your bit for the environment too.