Plant Spotlight: Juniper
Pine needles, holidays, winter nights… Ahhh the images that the smell of juniper brings to mind. And gin, we can’t forget gin. What would that wonderful spirit be without the pine resin of this unique and strong plant which it is known for. For some, juniper can be overwhelming; but for many it is used as medicine and its folklore history is long standing and has influenced its use even today.
Juniper is the berry from an evergreen shrub. It grows throughout mountains and uncultivated land in North America, Europe and Southwest Asia, although there are a variety of juniper shrubs and trees that can be found elsewhere.
If you have never experienced juniper (most likely you have, just didn’t realize what it was), it has a piney fragrance with a spicy slightly citrus aroma and slightly bittersweet flavor. Its aroma is on the sweet side and reminiscence of fall. It is not only the main flavoring agent in London Dry styles of gin, it is also used in game meats to remove the gamey taste. Juniper can also be found regularly in pickling spices as well as many beverages. Most importantly, it’s a staple for gin and tonics. ;)
Folklore & Medicine
Juniper has been praised throughout historical cultures for its ability to dispel evil spirits, protect against bad magic and a variety of illnesses.
High in the Alps, where juniper grows proficiently, there is a tale of a poor farmer with ailing horses. His horses were thin and frail despite his best efforts to graze them in some of the best pastures during the summer time. They just didn’t seem to have an appetite and were losing weight and strength. Winter was quickly approaching and the farmer was heading to the woods to gather firewood for himself and his horses to keep warm in their barn. In the high Alps, people live with their animals in the winters to share the wood fire and warmth. On his quest for wood, the farmer ran into a spirit in the Alps who asked him what he was doing. He explained of his ailing horses. The spirit told him to gather 72 juniper berries and a handful of salt; grind them up and feed to his horses once a week through the winter. Willing to do anything to help his horses, the farmer gathered the berries on his trek through the woods. He followed the spirits advice for several weeks and began seeing their appetites and health come back to them. By the time winter was over, the horses look better than they had the summer before, which is the opposite of what typically occurs with the hooved animals during the winter. Ever since, juniper is added with some salt and into the salt licks of hooved animals all through the area, even to this day.
Juniper is revered in the Alps where these evergreen shrubs are loaded with Juniper berries in the fall. Old timers will take the juniper branches and sweep around the cracks of the houses. Their houses were made with stucco and it was believed that you could sweep out any evil spirits that were trying to get into the house through the cracks. Then the long juniper bows with all their needles on them were hung above the entrance of the doorway and before an evil spirit can get into your house they have to stop and count every needle. This would keep them from coming in because the sun would rise and they wouldn’t be able to make it in in time.
Juniper is very aromatic and the smoke of Juniper is used by shamans to induce a trance before performing magical rites and practices. It has been used in divine practices throughout history.
Juniper berries and fronds have been used as a key ingredient to dispel poison. In Native American tribes, juniper has also been used for protection from spirits and animals in the wild. It would regularly be carried in a satchel for protection.
The berry has a powerful antibiotic agent and is a diuretic (increases urine flow) which helps with urinary infections. It is also used to stimulate digestive function which helps us break down our food and digest our meals better. It is particularly helpful with heartburn and indigestion problems. It also aids in appetite and helps us absorb carbohydrates as well as balance and maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
How We Use Juniper
Dried Juniper berries are used in Dugan and Dame tonics and bitters. It is used as a flavoring agent and to balance the sugar in the tonic concentrates. The juniper in our tonic is subtle and complements the pine flavor in many gins. We simmer our tonics for at least twenty minutes in order to get the flavors and medicinal constituents from the plants into our ingredients.