District Distilling Co. in Washington, D.C., uses juniper berries from Texas to make its gin. It's one of the few companies in the world to use American juniper trees. USA TODAY
Gin tastes like juniper, and all juniper is the same, right? Not so much. For nearly all of the spirit's history, a single species has been relied upon: the aptly named common juniper. David T. Smith, author of Gin Tonica and the forthcoming The Gin Dictionary, says that at least 95% of distilleries stick to this species. Even more starkly, he estimates that there are no more than 12 experimental gin makers, in the USA and Australia, who rely primarily on an alternative juniper species.
With more gin available than ever, a veritable collection of thousands of labels spanning the globe, a different type of juniper offers differentiation from the masses. And more importantly than a marketing point, different types of juniper do indeed provide different flavors.
“Among producers in the gin world, juniper provenance is becoming an increasingly important thing to consider," says Matt Strickland, head distiller at Washington, D.C.'s District Distilling Co., a distillery, bar and restaurant. As with the types of grapes used for wine making in different regions of the world, juniper can also reflect a sense of place.
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Strickland's enthusiastic penchant for experimentation has led him to look beyond the common juniper for his gin. "The thing we're becoming more known for is our use of wild-harvested junipers from West Texas," he says. "Our Checkerbark Gin uses the alligator juniper and our WildJune Gin uses Redberry juniper."
These wild junipers offer potent flavors, which must be doled out in a controlled fashion. "I prefer to use them as accents to the flavors of the common juniper," Strickland says. "A little goes a long way in this case. The alligator juniper in our Checkerbark Gin has a very savory and slightly vegetal character, so I use it in small amounts to boost the complexity of the spirit. Redberry juniper carries a bit of fruitiness not unlike dried cranberries, which provides a nice compliment to the other botanicals in our WildJune Gin."
Matching the botanicals used in each gin with its distinctive juniper is also key. "For me, it's all about flavor and aroma linkages," Strickland says. "Gin is all about harmony — harmony between the botanicals and harmony with the flavors of the base spirit. If even one thing is out of place it can ruin the whole experience."
For the attentive home cocktail enthusiast, choosing a particular gin with a specific type of juniper and matching botanicals can pay major dividends. "These wild junipers really do change the type of cocktails the gins work best in," Strickland explains. "The savory notes of our Checkerbark Gin pair really well with tonic [which] makes one of the best 'G&T's' I've ever had! But when I try that with our WildJune Gin, which is more fruity and floral, it doesn't hold up as well. Instead, it pairs beautifully with vermouth and makes one hell of a Negroni."