In Praise of the Juniper Berry

Fig 4-2 Juniper BerriesThe hero of gin lovers everywhere, the juniper berry is not really a berry at all but the seed cone of the juniper plant. Juniperus communis, the common juniper, is a shrub or small evergreen tree with needle-like leaves in whorls of three. Juniper often grows as a low-spreading shrub, but juniper trees can grow to over 32 feet (10m) tall. The juniper plant has over 50 species, and the largest range of any woody plant, thriving throughout the temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere from North America to Europe and Asia.

Many cultures consider the leaves of the juniper to be a symbol of protection against disease and evil spirits. In Tuscany, a sprig of juniper is often placed in front of the door to offer protection to the house and its inhabitants. Juniper can also ward off snakes, at least according to the ancient Greek pharmacologist Pedanius Dioscorides, who claimed that the smoke from a fire of burning juniper could keep snakes away.

The “berries” of the juniper plant begin life a grey-green color, and ripen in 18 months to a deep purple-black hue with a blue waxy coating. Juniper berries are revered for their medicinal purposes, particularly as a diuretic and in regards to conditions of the kidney, bladder, and stomach.

Of course, to students of wine and spirits, the juniper berry is known primarily as the predominant flavoring in gin and other spirits such as Genever, Steinhäger, and Wacholder. The flavor profile of juniper berries is often described a pine-like, resin-like, intensely herbal and with bitter citrus notes. Noted author Harold McGee, in his book On Food and Cooking defines the flavor of juniper as “green-fresh.”

The Juniper Forest ("The Valley of Juniper) in Ziarat, Pakistan

The Juniper Forest (“The Valley of Juniper”) in Ziarat, Pakistan

Juniper berries are considered an important culinary herb, particularly throughout Scandinavia and Central Europe. Juniper is often used to impart a sharp, clean flavor to meat dishes – particularly game meats – as well as cabbage and sauerkraut dishes. Juniper has a natural affinity for pork and is found in many recipes for roast or braised pork. The recipe for Choucroute Garnie, a classic Alsatian dish of sauerkraut and meats, universally includes juniper berries.

One more thing: on Easter Monday, the young boys in Kashubia (Northern Poland) chase the girls in the town square, brushing (sometimes referred to as “gently whipping”) their legs with juniper sprigs. This is, according to tradition, to ensure good fortune in love to the “chased” young ladies. After watching this annual tradition unfold,  I am guessing, the parents would most likely appreciate a nice shot of gin.

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas: missjane@prodigy.net

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

2 Responses to In Praise of the Juniper Berry

  1. christawojo says:

    I’ve just taken up gin, and being Polish American I’m fascinated by the juniper tradition. Thanks for this post!

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