Sipping on Gin and Juniper

“Civilization Begins with Distillation”

William Faulkner

And, without distillation, there would be no gin. Thus, without gin there would be no civilization.

Even though my logic might seem flawed, I think many civilized persons would agree.

The origin of the distillation process is wildly disputed, but many scholars think that distillation of alcohol might have started in the twelfth century in Salerno, Italy, when spirits were distilled from wine. The process worked its way through Europe, becoming known as brandy or burnt wine.

Lacking grapes, northern Europeans learned to distill spirits from grains, and in the mid-seventh century, the Dutch created the forerunner to modern-day gin, re-distilling pure malt spirits with juniper berries, subsequently dubbing it Genever.

Read more Collection Connection: Whiskey and Research

Rare book distillery photo 4
Illustrations of stills from a German herbal manual published in 1550. Part of the rare book collection of the Peter H. Raven Library.

It is said that English soldiers, fighting beside the Dutch in the Thirty-Years War, noted how Dutch soldiers fought fearlessly after drinking Genever. The English called it “Dutch Courage” and took the drink, and the expression, back to England. In the 1720s, English distillers learned to produce a drink comparable to Genever, but it was unsavory because they used inferior grains. So, they added aniseed, juniper, elderberries, sugar, cherries, raspberries and other fruits, and cut the concoction with water. They named it Geneva, which was later shortened to gin.

The addition of juniper was by design, and perhaps good marketing because it had long been revered for its medicinal properties: Plato and Aristotle noted the restorative powers of juniper in their writings; Greek philosopher Galen believed it to “Cleanse the liver and kidneys, and . . . any thick and viscous juices”; and thirteenth-century theologian Thomas de Cantimpré recommended boiling it in wine for stomach pain.

Juniper berries
Juniper berries

The juniper species commonly used for gin, Juniperus communis, is the most widespread conifer on the planet, found on every continent in the northern hemisphere. The “berries” used for flavoring are actually cones. Unfortunately, St. Louis summers are too hot and humid for the plant to thrive here. The dwarf cultivar ‘Compressa’ is being trialed in the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Bavarian Garden.

Cook with juniper using this recipe from Herbal Cookery: From the Kitchens and Gardens of the St. Louis Herb SocietySteak with Cream of Juniper Sauce.

Juniperus communis
Juniperus communis. From American medical botany, volume 3. Digitized from the Missouri Botanical Garden Peter H. Raven Library.

The gin we enjoy today is basically vodka, a neutral distilled spirit mixture of barley, rye, and perhaps wheat or corn with added botanicals, again primarily juniper. The botanicals are introduced into neutral spirits in basically one of three ways: by macerating them in the alcohol and re-distilling, by suspending them in botanical trays in the still, or by extracting them separately and mixing with the finished spirit. Often, the infused spirit is re-distilled. Whichever method is used, water is added at the end to reduce the spirit to the desired strength.

Although they might list their botanicals, distillers will not reveal their recipes. Indeed, Tanquery will not even list the additives, but juniper must predominate. These days, coriander is also routinely added to gins.

Any number of common herbs may also be included in some recipes—bay leaf, basil, cardamom, citrus peels, sage, saffron and cinnamon. Caorunn, a highly regarded Scottish gin, incorporates locally foraged bog myrtle, sweet coul blush apple, dandelion leaf, heather and rowan berry. A St. Louis Herb Society member recently sampled a Boë gin in Newquay, Cornwall, England, that was violet-infused. From all accounts, it was delicious!

The label for Missouri Botanical Reserve, a gin distilled by Square One Brewery & Distillery in 2016 and handed out as a gift by Garden President Dr. Peter Wyse Jackson. Botanical ingredients include echinacea, lavender, dandelion and sassafras.

Gin continues to evolve as distillers experiment with processes to infuse botanicals, find new botanicals to add, and craft new recipes to set themselves apart from the competition. The drinking public will decide whether distillers are going too far with their exotic additives. Perhaps, at some point, we shall experience botanical fatigue. It should be clear, however, that without an array of botanicals for distillers to choose from, few of us would be drinking it except for the hardcore like myself who prefer a simple strong juniper, for medicinal purposes, of course.

Bill Rable
Provisional Member, St. Louis Herb Society

For more information on botanicals in gin, see The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart (Algonquin, 2013); Gin: A Global History by Lesley Jacobs Solmonson (Reaktion, 2012); Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason, by Jessica Warner (Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002); The Dedalus Book of Gin by Richard Barnett (Dedalus, 2011), which were consulted for this article.

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