Since moving from their trusty bathtub to a rotavap in order to pursue further product development, we’ve been hearing tales of frantic tinkering behind the Master of Malt scenes. With packs of dried, fresh and varied botanicals being shipped across the UK and fed into what can only be described as a piece of kit undergoing a baptism of fire, interest and mystery sounds the team in Tunbridge Wells.
So, it was with huge excitement that we heard the news that our talking shop over a coffee with Ben earlier in 2012, had sparked an idea that has now come to fruition. We wish we could take more credit, or had even been part of the journey since, but we’re merely the springboard off which better minds decided to order a lot of juniper thereafter.
The name says all you need to know. It is now possible to get single bottles of juniper distillate from different estates. With gin geeks now skipping lines to see where to purchase and others now asking what?!? Let us explain. If you want to really understand gin, it’s important to get to know juniper. We would compare it to understanding the influence of casks for whisky fans, grapes for winos or dilution of ice for bartenders. Juniper is such an important aspect of gin that quite literally, it is not only the primary botanical used in gin but by law, it needs to be the predominant flavour in anything seeking to be classified as 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. Even the name Gin itself is derived from either the French genièvre or the Dutch jenever, which both mean juniper.
We’re about to go all green fingered on you all, so bear with us for a while – there is a point to this… Juniper shrubs vary in size and shape, are evergreen and are usually low spreading bush type plants. They are a low maintenance plant to grow and while they prefer an acidic pH soils they don’t have a problem in soil pHs that are not acidic either. We’ve heard of Juniper shrubs being used for groundcovers, border plantings and understand that they are especially helpful in preventing soil erosion, weed control and planting on difficult to access parts of a landscape. From our own experience with them – we know that juniper shrubs are quite drought tolerant and perform well enough in rock gardens too. If this wasn’t enough, most varieties of juniper require very little pruning, if any. It is therefore not surprising to hear that depending on your taxonomic viewpoint, there are between 50-67 species of juniper and they are found in most countries in the Northern hemisphere. They are amazing plants.
In fact, “Common Juniper” has one of the largest geographic range of any woody plant in the world. Occurring from Western Alaska throughout Canada and Northern USA, in coastal areas of Greenland, Iceland, throughout Europe and in Northern Asia and Japan. It was once widespread in Europe, except for some low-lying areas around the Mediterranean and it even occurs in small patches of North Africa. It’s amazing to think that juniper occurs at varying elevations and at its southernmost extent it has been recorded at altitudes of up to 3,500 metres. If this was a grape, wine makers would be going crazy over it. Given we all understand that soil, climate and growing conditions all affect grapes and that this has resulted in the term “terroir’ used to define wine regions, styles etc… why should it be so different in juniper bushes and as a result gin? Especially considering the range and geography the plants have been recorded in.
First, here’s a little more (than you’ll ever need to know) about our friend the juniper bush… As we mentioned above – to understand gin, one must first understand its origin.
While juniper occurs in patches in England and throughout most of Scotland, it is only really common in the Highlands. Two subspecies can be found in Scotland, of which the erect, shrubby form is most widespread. In the UK, few specimens grow taller than 5 meters but in other countries it has been known to grow up to 10m high.
In the Highlands, juniper is more abundant in the drier, Eastern part of the country. Interestingly for you horticulturalists out there, the bark is brown on young plants, but turns grey as it gets older. The flavour profile of young, green berries is dominated by pinene (resinous, woody pine notes) and as they mature this piney, resinous character is joined by greener citric notes. The outer scales of the berries are relatively flavourless, so the berries are almost always at least lightly crushed before being used as a spice. This matters less with making gin as during the maceration period, the alcohol will permeate through the skin relatively easily regardless. Juniper berries are primarily used dried as opposed to fresh in gin production, but their flavour and odour is at their strongest immediately after harvest and declines during the drying process and subsequent storage.
Because of its vast geographic global range, juniper is not considered threatened at an international level. However, in Britain there has been a substantial decline in both the distribution of juniper and the size of juniper colonies, particularly in England. As a result, juniper remains the subject of a Biodiversity Action Plan, under the government’s response to the Convention on Biological Diversity agreed at the 1992 Earth Summit. Cue paragraph one – if you like gin, and can’t really be bothered with gardening but have some space – get some juniper in there!
Rather fascinatingly, juniper is dioecious, i.e. individual plants are either male or female, unlike most tree species, where both male and female flowers occur on the same tree. Male flowers appear as yellow blossoms near the ends of the twigs in spring and release pollen, which is then dispersed by the wind. Female flowers are in the form of very small clusters of scales, and after pollination these grow to become berry-like cones. Shaped like irregularly-sided spheres, these berries are green at first, but ripen after 18 months to a dark, blue-purple colour – prime for taking and adding to a botanical selection in order to make gin.
Each juniper berry contains half a dozen seeds which are triangular, hard and black, and are dispersed by birds which eat the berries. All juniper species grow berries, but most are considered too bitter to eat. In addition to Juniperus communis, other edible species include Juniperus drupacea, Juniperus phoenicea, Juniperus deppeana and Juniperus californica. Some species, for example Juniperus sabina, are toxic and consumption is inadvisable. In all fairness however, it’s rare to come across anything other than the communis in the UK, so you’ll probably be okay if don’t have the Encylopedia Botanica to hand during your hike and you get peckish.
Because of their long ripening period, berries can occur on a juniper shrub throughout the year and as such, it is usually possible to see them at different stages of development on the same plant. Usually, juniper seeds are slow to germinate and normally require two winters of dormancy before they will sprout and begin growing. Juniper as an entire plant is a slow-growing species, but in optimal conditions it can grow up to 28 cm in a year.
It is for its gastronomic, medicinal and ritual properties that juniper is best known. The Romans used juniper berries as a cheap domestically-produced substitute for the expensive black pepper. Something similar can be seen when berries were ground and added to sauces and especially to game dishes in England and Scotland to add a bitter, spicy flavour, and were used to flavour bread and cakes in the North of England. From a bit of light reading – it would seem that the juniper berry is still being considered as a possible treatment for diet-controlled diabetes, as it allegedly releases insulin from the pancreas (hence alleviating hunger).
From a remedial purpose – the earliest recorded medicinal use of juniper berries occurs in an Egyptian papyrus dating back to 1500 BC, in a recipe to cure tapeworm infestations. The Romans too used the berries for purification and stomach ailments, while the famous mediaeval herbalist Culpepper recommended them for a wide variety of conditions including the treatment of flatulence, for which juniper oil is still used today. Juniper berries have also been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, including Juniperus phoenicia and Juniperus oxycedrus at multiple sites. The latter is not known to grow in Egypt, and neither is Juniperus excelsa, which was found along in the tomb of Tutankhamun. It would have been likely that the berries would have been imported into Egypt from Greece.
Allegedly, the Greeks used juniper berries in many of their Olympics events because of their belief that the berries increased physical stamina in athletes. On a separate note – chemicals in the berries also stimulate contraction of the uterine muscles and could potentially be administered during labour. These properties were used to abort an unwanted pregnancy in Middle Ages, and the phrase used in Lothian of giving birth “under the savin (an older name for juniper) tree” was a euphemism for juniper-induced miscarriage.
The largest body of folklore concerning juniper comes from Iceland where amongst other things, it was traditionally believed that juniper and rowan could not grow together because each creates so much heat that one or other of the trees would be burn up. For the same reason it was considered not a good idea to bring sprigs of both woods into the house together unless you particularly wanted your house to burn down. Thankfully for us Gin fans, Coarunn Gin’s distillery (who use both to make their gin) has been safe and sound for a few years, which should help dispel that myth.
Practical uses of the juniper’s wood are few, and it was most commonly used to burn for its smoke. Though burning juniper wood gives off only minimal visible smoke, this smoke is highly aromatic and in ancient times it was used for the ritual purification of temples. The smoke was said to aid clairvoyance, and continued to be burned for purification and to stimulate contact with the “otherworld”. In central Europe juniper smoke played a part in the spring-time cleansing and casting out of witchcraft. Juniper was also burned during outbreaks of the Plague, while doctors were known to place it in their mask’s beaks as a rudimentary filter. Little did they know it was in fact the rats not the air that caused the problems.
Juniper’s use in alcoholic drinks and the use of its wood’s smoke are drawn together neatly in the tales of illicit Highland whisky stills hidden away in the glens, which used juniper wood for fuel so that the near absence of smoke would not attract the suspicions of the local excise man. Juniper berries are still used by certain whisky distillers to sweeten the still during the first distillation of a new still, although it is now widely acknowledged that this is more ritualistic than for flavouring.
From a more liquor oriented point of view, in the nineteenth century Highland juniper bushes were prolific enough for their berries to be collected by the bagful and taken to the Inverness and Aberdeen markets to be exported to the Dutch gin distillers. The berries are also used to flavour other alcoholic beverages such as a Swedish health beer and a French beer-like drink called ‘genevrette’ made from equal amounts of juniper berries and barley.
Recently, some American distilleries have begun using ‘New World’ varieties of juniper such as Juniperus occidentalis. Our favourite variety purely for its name is juniperus deppeana or Alligator Juniper whose bark is usually very distinctive, unlike other junipers, hard, dark grey-brown, cracked into small square plates superficially resembling alligator skin (pictured below). A few North American juniper species are none to produce a seed cone with a sweeter, less resinous flavour than those typically used as a spice.
According to George Dodd of the Whisky Aroma Academy, because of its use in herbal medicine and aromatherapy, there is a lot of information about the aroma molecules of juniper berries. Surprisingly given the amount of varieties, geography and growing conditions, there is quite a good consistency in the quantitative composition of oils amongst juniper from various parts of the globe.
The piney antiseptic notes are allegedly from the hydrocarbon Alpha-pinene, which forms between 40 and 45% of the aroma molecules in juniper. Sabinene, another Hydrocarbon is the second most common molecule (around 5-15%). Other molecules include Lemonene (4-5%), Farnesene, which gives a floral note (around 5%) and borneol and its woody notes (around 5%) to name a few. Each molecule brings with it individual aromas that depending on the overall percentages they have, combine to give slight variations to the final nose. As George mentions in his Gin Aroma Kit, “the aromas of junipers is an exciting and never ending story and the success of some gins may be due to trace juniper ingredients rather than the [other] listed botanicals”.
If aroma can form such a large impact on our perception of taste, and that a trace within an individual botanical can vary and alter our impressions of the overall composition – just imagine the endless possibilities when you start interchanging the strain of botanical or where they came from. Which brings us back to the beginning of this post and back to ORIGIN.
There are 4 single estate juniper distillates available now, with two more in the making. Each has their own particular flavour and each makes for an interesting tasting gin when combined with the other botanicals. It’s important to remember that each batch of juniper is processed and distilled in exactly the same way. First it’s milled down to the consistency of coffee grounds using a burr grinder (which does not heat it at all) then macerated in English Wheat Spirit for 24 hours.
After this, it’s distilled in the rotary vacuum still, where its temperature is regulated by a water-bath set at a maximum of 30 degrees. Due to the effect of evaporative cooling, the mixture is never actually heated above room-temperature. The distillate is taken off using a glass coil condenser filled with Ethylene Glycol at around minus 20. This in turn means that the larger molecules contained within the solution can carry over to the distillate without being affected or changed by heat. Every single batch of Juniper is processed in exactly the same way – concentration, temperature, maceration time, distillation process and subsequent bottling are all absolutely identical.
Given, the only difference between the various batches is the raw material, this allows us to explore the effect of the place of origin, or ‘terroir’ on the development of the juniper. With all of the above information on juniper and its origins, global range and even George Dodd’s belief that small changes in the molecules of juniper will change the perceived flavour of a gin – we were expecting some easily noticeable differences between the bottles. We tasted each of the juniper varieties first, and then added in the concerntrated vial of botanicals seen below.
So onto the tasting:
ITALY – AREZZO
On its own the Italian juniper has a clean nose of soft pine needles. Clean, creamy with a hint of citrus. Smooth. Once the vial of other botanicals were added, it all combines to create a well rounded gin. Warm with a mild spiced finish.
NETHERLANDS – MEPPEL
On its own the Dutch juniper has an almost woody, earthy note. Hints of tobacco perhaps and a slightly longer finish than the Italian juniper. Once the other botanicals have been added, it feels even more creamy but with added sweetness. The finish is just as prolonged and in comparison to the Italian gin (all components added), it feels as if there is “more going on”. Despite this, the Italian is our favourite between the two.
ALBANIA – VALBONE
On its own the Albanian juniper marks quite a departure. While the contrast between Italian and Dutch junipers were discernable, comparing this to either really shows the potential of the series and just how different each batch is. Red fruits, citrus and dark cacao come through on the palate. Dry. Once the other botanicals are added, more of the same notes within the juniper but the liveliness has turned sweet. It feels lighter as a gin than the Dutch and livelier than the Italian.
BULGARIA - VELIKI PRESLAV
The juniper only tasting brought up piney fresh juniper notes. There’s a sharp and noticeable increase in the perception of alcohol both on the nose and palate, which when the vial of botanicals is added, remains possible to detect. Juniper dominates the other botanicals in this case, perhaps more so than the other three Origin bottlings.
After tasting all of the gins, both as single juniper varieties and with the subsequent addition of the other botanicals, it is amazing how just a single change can make such a big difference. Tasted blind, there is no way that one could guess that the only difference between the Bulgarian and Albanian gins is because of the origin of the juniper while the rest of the process/botanicals are identical. It feels like much more tinkering was done and is a testament to the potential of “terroir” within gin.
To be able to discern clear differences in the flavour of juniper makes the small hand crafted statement certain producers carry all the more potent. It’s not all the same. Provenance really does matter. On the flip side, it also makes Bombay Sapphire’s message about having to seek out ingredients that are of equal quality and flavour also just as impressive as, with a one shot distillation, variances within botanicals will make a huge difference. To be able to make the same product every time and on that scale is in itself a phenomenal achievement.
One of the biggest messages that the single estate juniper project can really show is that when 209 Gin’s distiller does a quick rota-vap check to see the end flavour profile of his individual botanicals, or when Desmond Paine chooses not to use certain forms of tea because there is no consistency within the strain or supplier, it’s because it really makes a difference.
It also paves inroads for the very few super geeks trying to make gins, that whilst there are obvious choices of distillation methods which provide different results, be it vapour infused, pot distilled or bathtub soaked – the same acknowledgement should be made about the raw ingredients and a bit more experimentation should be done (or if it is already happening, for it to be talked about a little more). Imagine combining the both elements of the production together – if you had different strains of the same botanical, distilled in different ways, you’ve got the start of a perfumer’s range in macro flavours at your disposal…
Where Master of Malt will stop with this is anyone’s guess. Even if they stuck to the identical method as used for the 6 Origin products and stuck to the same geographical regions – we’d assume that like grapes, trees and other agricultural or natural products – there would be micro differences. We’ll assume they might stop at a dozen as both interest and availability of different enough tasting juniper varieties might be limited. After all, one of the best things about the series is the clear difference they have between them, not the minutia of separation.
Undeniably, this is one of those super niche experiments but who cares, if you’re interested in Gin, provenance and enjoy discovering nuances within similar flavours, then get your order in now. Being able to taste the impact of different strains of juniper will affect how you see other gins and your understanding of the category. It is one of the most forward thinking concepts we’ve seen since the aroma kit, tailor made gins and making your own at home “Open Sauce” distillates. Master of Malt should be applauded for pushing it all the way through to completion.
Gin Education over and out.