That distinctive smell that permeates the air when a fresh bottle of gin is opened is the signature scent of juniper. Some gins like Junipero are flavored with only juniper and a lot of it, others balance it with as many as 18 or 20 other botanicals and some add so much of another flavor the juniper has to fight for its rightful place as the star of the show. It is a battle juniper must win, or else the spirit cannot rightfully be called gin. Gin even gets its name from the juniper berry; it is the shortened version of the French “genievre.”
Juniper is not a cultivated crop. The plants grow wild and the people who harvest the berries pick by hand and throw the berries in a sack. It takes berries from more than one supplier to make up the amount a big distillery needs. Luckily, a little bit of juniper goes a long way. The berries are harvested in the fall and go through rigorous testing by each distiller to meet the grade necessary for a consistent quality beverage.
Gin is not the only the product based on the juniper berry. It is an important spice in the traditional dishes of Central Europe such as sauerkraut and venison. In ancient Rome, juniper berries were used in place of peppercorns that were rare and expensive. Juniper berries used for cooking are always crushed, never used whole. They are used sparingly, mostly with game meats, pork or for curing fish. Recipies that highlight juniper range from simple dishes like Blueberries in Gin Syrup to more subtle dishes like Juniper-Brined Roast Turkey. Yum!
When cooking with juniper, remember that it is used as a diuretic and also as an agent to stimulate uterine contractions during labor. Breastfeeding women, women who are pregnant, people with kidney disease, children under 12 and elderly people should not eat food prepared with juniper.
Juniper is used widely in herbal medications. It is used in the treatment of urinary tract infections. Its oil has an antiseptic quality that disinfects the urinary tract as it passes through. The berry also has a diuretic effect that dilutes the urine. It is also used in the treatment of bladder stones. It is used as a digestive aid and as a relief to many gastrointestinal disorders. It is purported to help with rheumatism, arthritis and gout. Applied as a poultice made with its diluted essential oil, it warms the tissues by perfusing them with blood. It relieves the pain of swollen and aching muscles and joints. Juniper can be inhaled as a vapor to help treat bronchitis and pulmonary infections and the berries can even be chewed to freshen the breath and heal infected gums. As was pointed out in using juniper in the kitchen, care must be taken in its usage and a qualified professional should supervise all usage. Because juniper bushes are plentiful in the grazing areas of sheep it has been noted that it has a curative effect on them, also. Local veterinarians used it to cure dropsy in sheep.
Botanicals have a rich history and role in folklore, juniper is no exception. The Holy Family was said to hide from King Herod’s soldiers in a juniper bush. In Grimm’s fairy tale called “The Juniper Tree,” murder, cannibalism and revenge all make for gruesome bedtime reading. Juniper was burned during outbreaks of the plague. Scottish folklore claims the smoke from juniper wood fires was used for ritual purification of temples. It is used for “smudging” a house to clear it of evil spirits and used a charm to ensure long term protection.
Juniper is the defining ingredient in gin, but the family has grown recently, adding new takes on the standard recipes. The selections range from Hendrick’s Gin, with its infusion of cucumber and rose to evoke the feel of drinking in an English garden to Aviation Gin in which lavender gets equal time all the way to Junipero, a gin hoped up on juniper-steroids so as to resemble a Steinhäger dry gin, one that is aromatic, but with few botanicals added. Finding the perfectly juniper-balanced gin for this evening may take awhile, but it is time well spent.