Gin is proving just the tonic for Britain’s beleaguered native juniper trees. The rise of craft iterations of the spirit mean that distillers have begun planting their own – a two-pronged method that adds both a local flourish to the end product and could be the answer to a supply shortage should a no deal Brexit come to pass.
As gin’s popularity soars – 66m bottles were sold in Britain in 2018, up 19m from the year prior – producers are hoping to bring more of the process onto home turf. Of the 300 odd distilleries dotted around the UK, many pride themselves on local ingredients and wear their provenance on their sleeve, such as Naomi Joy, who distils Vicars Gin on her Oakhampton estate in Worcestershire.
“When I was thinking about going into the gin business, it made sense that I wanted my unique selling point to be growing the botanicals on the land,” she explains. With that in mind, she planted 50 bushes in April and has her fingers crossed that they will flourish before she expands her collection.
Juniper used on a commercial scale currently comes from the Mediterranean, mainly from Italy and Macedonia, where the berries grow large in the sunshine. Oil from their fleshy aromatic berries is gin’s defining flavour: in fact for a spirit to be even legally classified as gin, juniper should be the predominant botanical. Responsible for its pine-like, refreshing quality, gin simply isn’t gin without it.
During the original eighteenth century craze that William Hogarth depicted so memorably in 1751’s Gin Lane, the little navy berries grew in abundance in the British countryside, so Georgian drinkers had no trouble in gathering all the gin ingredients that they needed. The tree was one of the first species to grow here after the last Ice Age; one of only three native conifers, alongside the yew and Scots pine, it has been a feature of the landscape for 10,000 years.
However, after millennia of thriving in Britain, a few years ago juniper was on course to be extinct by around 2050. A conservation charity, Plantlife, started monitoring its growth in 2004. The charity was alarmed by its sharp decline, which it attributed to overgrazing deer and rabbits, and a deadly fungus, phytophthora austrocedrae.
Tim Wilkins, species recovery co-ordinator, at Plantlife, a conservation charity, estimates that some counties in southern England, where it habitually thrived on chalk downs, have lost as much as 70 per cent of their historical population. British gin’s new-found popularity might just come to its rescue.
Having trailed behind whisky and vodka for decades, mother’s ruin is now the country’s favourite spirit. You would have needed to steer clear of any bar, pub or supermarket for the past few years not to have noticed the renaissance. Until recently this popularity had been little help to native juniper because there was simply too little of it left to be a useful ingredient to big distillers - hence the importing.
To give an idea of scale, a world-leader such as Beefeater, made in south London, will sniff through around 200 samples of juniper a year to pick the right varieties. These are then blended together to ensure consistency because Beefeater cannot get enough of any one variety to make all of their gin for the year. They also keep two years’ worth of stock at any one time to avoid the risk of a bad harvest. The odd plucky Juniper tree hanging on in the British countryside is an irrelevance for distilling on that scale – which is where craft distillers come in.
Growing juniper does require great patience, however. Hepple Gin, made up in Northumberland, has only recently started making use of trees that were planted back in the Nineties. (It takes more than 16 years for the female tree to reach full maturity, so it is something of a longterm solution.)
Founded by ex-Sipsmith distiller Chris Garden, chef Valentine Warner and mixologist Nick Strangeway, Hepple promotes the healthy growth of the current juniper population, and is keen to propagate more. Working with the Northumberland National Park, Newcastle University and Hepple Whitefield Farm, they are aiming to plant at least two hundred seedlings every year on the heather moors around the distillery, all grown from the estate’s own original seed.
Another pioneer of English juniper is Beckett’s Gin, which harvests a strictly controlled, sustainable number of berries from National Trust land at nearby Box Hill in Surrey. In 2014 when Beckett’s launched, it laid claim to being the world’s only gin to use English juniper. Like Hepple, it is also working to foster a new population, as well as caring for the current one.
Working with the National Trust and the Forestry Commission, it is nurturing a crop on Juniper Top in Surrey which, ironically given its name, is no longer home to any juniper. For that project, its distiller Neil Beckett uses the Box Hill juniper by extracting some of its seeds, which are then X-rayed, processed and stratified to produce seedlings. It typically takes a year for these seedlings to even peek through from the potting mix.
Alongside enthusiastic distillers, Kew Gardens has taken its own action to save the trees, putting together 51 seed collections from varieties of native juniper trees from across Britain, including Shropshire, Cambridgeshire, Devon and Pembrokeshire. It keeps these in its Millennium Seed Bank for preservation, where they are housed in vaults at -20 degrees to ensure their safety for future generations should the seeds be needed.
Until recently the decline of British juniper would have been sad, but no threat to a gin and tonic. However, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association warned last year of the potential ramifications a no deal Brexit might have on juniper imports and, given its starring role, any shortage would be a nightmare for British gin.
This has given juniper growing a sudden urgency: Naomi Joy adds that, with a “potential shortage” on her hands, the “let’s plant some of our own” ethos was inevitable. She is keen to achieve self-sufficiency, and plans to sell any surplus on from her Oakhampton Estate to help other British distillers.
Taking inspiration from this independent approach to gin making, creative aficionados are taking matters into their own hands too by using a plain base spirit to embellish with their own combinations of botanicals.
Although we may be as enthusiastic about gin as we were in the Eighteenth century, modern regulations are a little stricter: these days, making gin from scratch would require a licence from HMRC, but keen cooks and gardeners can flavour existing gin with homegrown ingredients for a personal touch. Many popular botanicals can easily be cultivated in a greenhouse, such as raspberries, coriander, cucumber, apples and limes.
Infusing a plain gin with more exciting botanicals to suit your taste is straightforward. The approach is similar to making sloe gin: it’s a case of steeping the chosen botanical in gin in a clean, empty, sealable container. If the taste seems weak after 24 hours of steeping and occasional stirring, just add more of the botanical until you’re happy with the balance.
Professional distillers have plenty of different ideas on how long to steep for – depending on how strong you want the flavour, you could leave your botanicals in there for weeks, or as little as a day or two. When the botanicals have infused the alcohol to your satisfaction, strain the gin through muslin into a sterilised container. Chin chin!
Are you experienced in juniper growing? Do you have any tips to help people interested in trying? Tell us in the comments section below.