Protect the G&T
Juniper, a key ingredient in gin, may be extinct in the UK within the next 50 years. What's gin lover to do?
We’re hazy about the exact ingredients of our favourite gins (which is exactly how the makers want to keep it). But everyone knows juniper berries are a key component.
However, over the past 10 years, the number of juniper plants in the UK has declined, rapidly. According to Plantlife, a conservation charity, supply has dwindled by almost 60% in the South Downs, where the berries were once prominent. And now the Scottish supply is under threat from a deadly fungus, phytophthora austrocedrae, which causes the normally dark purple berries to turn orange and brown, killing off the plant.
There are a few gin producers who use British juniper, though the use is usually minimal. Distillery manager Allan Logan from Scottish gin brand The Botanist says, “We use local botanicals, including juniper from Islay, where we’re based, but these are small quantities, added after the original distillation.” And for that they require juniper in large quantities and source this from Europe. In fact, producers large and small actually source the majority, if not all of their juniper in Europe – so we don’t need to start hoarding just yet. Not only is the supply lacking over here, but “British berries tend to be smaller and harder, and don’t give out as much flavour,” says Tom Hills from the East London Liquor Company. “We source juniper from Macedonia for our signature gin – and the other ingredients come from around the world, which has always been traditional with gin.” As an example, look at the side of a Bombay Sapphire bottle and see where all their botanicals come from.
Every botanical added, whether in primary or secondary distillation, affects the profile of the gin – hence why producers are so very secretive about suppliers. As Tom Coates from Portobello Road Gin explains, “We source our ingredients from where they grow best – so we’d get wheat from the UK, but our juniper comes from Tuscany.” Botanicals – juniper in particular – are not unlike grapes, says the master distiller at Bombay Sapphire, Nik Fordham. “Growing conditions – ground conditions, climate, sun – will give the juniper a different profile. And juniper from the same region can have 140 different samples with different flavours.” But unlike wine makers, with gin there should be no vintage harvests. “A gin produced yesterday, or years ago should taste the same as one today. Consistency is key – it’s our reputation on the line,” says Fordham. For huge producers like Bombay Sapphire that means there has to be several suppliers – it’s a business continuity issue. “Our master of botanicals Ivano Tonutti is an expert at sourcing exactly the right profile – an expert can tell just by crushing the berries what sort of aromatic qualities will fit.”
It’s not just the climate that means juniper thrives in Macedonia and Tuscany – the fungus is less of a threat there, too. The prickly, pine-like bush grows wild – it’s not cultivated on farms – and in the UK this has meant nearby carrier plants for the disease have passed it on to juniper. In Europe there is also industry supported by the plants. “Juniper grows on prickly bushes so people have to go out in gauntlets and collect it by hand with sticks and baskets,” says Hills. “It keeps a traditional industry going.”
But what of the juniper in the UK? “At The Botanist we set up a foundation to sustainably source our botanicals,” says Logan. “Our apprentices handpick our 22 local botanicals, unique to our gin, and we replant what we take to ensure we’re not depleting the supply.” There are replanting schemes happening, including one by Plantlife of 300 juniper seedlings in the English lowlands, and in Scotland the charity is working with landowners to test ways of keeping the plants wild, such as cattle grazing. You can also join the amateur spotters’ scheme and look out for local plants, too. So even though there’s not a threat to our G&T, it’s worth keeping a bit of the countryside alive.