While it may trace its roots back to Belgium and the Netherlands’ genever, gin has become the most quintessential of British drinks, whether it’s being served in London’s taverns or on colonial verandas. Yet the key ingredient in ‘British’ gin now seldom comes from Britain.
Juniper’s seed cones give gin its distinctive pine aroma and resinous flavour. This pioneering shrub was one of the first species to recolonise the British Isles following the last ice age, with its habitat stretching from pine woods and moors to cliff tops and heath.
Overgrazing in some areas and a lack of grazing in others reduced its range, and its ability to burn with a near-smokeless flame made it the ideal fuel to chop down for illegal whisky stills. More recently, Phytophthora austrocedrae – a fungus-like pathogen, similar to the species that caused Ireland’s 19th-century potato famine – has decimated the UK’s remaining stocks.
Gin makers have turned to European sources, importing dried juniper cones from Italy and the Balkans. Yet a handful of British distillers continue to use local juniper – both wild and home-grown – as part of their recipes.
Rather than simply harvesting wild juniper from his estate in Northumberland, Hepple Spirits founder Walter Riddell has taken two steps to help the bushes. The first involves picking ripe cones that Lucy, his wife and a trained gardener, propagates into seedlings, which they plant on their moor; the second uses cows and horses to break up the soil to promote natural regeneration.
‘We’ve put ecology at the heart of our management decisions, even ahead of economics, because we believe that if we get the ecology right then it will make the economics right,’ Riddell explains. The estate’s rewilding work is supervised by ecologist Mary Gough in partnership with the Northumberland National Park and government conservation agency Natural England.
Hepple’s gins use juniper in three ways. While most distillers select the ripe, dark blue-black juniper cones to make gin, distiller Chris Garden instead harvests the green cones from Hepple and distils them in a vacuum to give his gins freshness.
Meanwhile, he uses traditional ripe Italian juniper in a pot still to give smoothness, and organic Serbian juniper for ‘supercritical extraction’ – a technique borrowed from the perfume industry – to give depth of flavour.
‘We source juniper from beyond Hepple because I don’t want to put too much pressure on things here,’ Riddell says. ‘The Italian juniper is different to what we have – it’s almost chocolatey.
‘We’re not absolutely fanatical about only going local because we’ve been trying to make the very best gin we can, using whatever means to make it. Both from an ecological point of view and for flavour, we’d like to raise the Hepple component, but that’s a super-long-term project.’
Hepple accounts for about a fifth of the juniper Riddell uses overall but, with about 200 seedlings being planted each year, he hopes to become self-sufficient eventually. ‘The changes we want to see on the land need a 50-year perspective or more – the natural world moves slowly up here,’ he adds.
The juniper regeneration
Other gin brands have also played a role in growing Britain’s juniper stocks over the years. In London, Portobello Road Gin – which uses Tuscan juniper in its recipe – gave away juniper saplings with bottles sold through supermarket chain Waitrose, while wine merchant Berry Bros & Rudd’s No3 London Dry Gin, which distils Italian juniper, supported conservation charity Plantlife’s efforts to map wild British juniper and provided grants to landowners to promote natural regeneration.
Plantlife, which works nationally and internationally to save threatened wild plants, also works with The Maidstone Distillery in Kent and Rémy Cointreau’s Botanist brand from Islay.
Several Scottish micro-distilleries also harvest juniper from local estates for their gins, including Badvo in Perthshire, Inshriach in Strathspey, and Loch Ness Spirits. Each of the distilleries makes its gins in small batches, allowing for their juniper to be gathered sustainably.
Crossbill, which launched in Aviemore in 2012, moved production to Glasgow’s legendary Barras market in 2017, but it continues to forage for botanicals in the Highlands. In recent years, the distillery has produced a special-edition gin made from juniper harvested from a 200-year-old plant.
Other Scottish distilleries are rearing their own shrubs, with Arbikie near Montrose planting about 600 juniper bushes each year since 2015. The distillery – which already makes its own base spirit from crops grown on its farm – aims initially to produce a small batch gin using its own juniper, with the potential to eventually supply all its needs.
At the foot of the Pentland Hills on the edge of Edinburgh, Hamish Martin and his family are celebrating a decade at the Secret Herb Garden, where they grow more than 600 plant varieties, and run the Secret Garden Distillery.
After a career importing wine, Martin retrained as a herbologist, and grows his plants without synthetic chemicals. All 12 botanicals in his Secret Garden Wild Gin (see notes, right) grow on site and are harvested by hand, with the recipe even including some of his own juniper.
Martin planted some 1,500 juniper bushes in the garden. ‘Just as you can’t harvest grapes from vines to make wine for four or five years, you have to wait until juniper is about four years old before it starts to fruit,’ he explains. ‘Juniper is part of our national DNA. We only have two wild spices in the UK – juniper and wood avens root, which tastes like cloves.’
Having planted the first batch of juniper in dense, wide rows, the next 2,000 bushes are being positioned in narrower rows and staggered diagonally, making them easier to harvest.
While only a small proportion of the juniper he uses is grown on site at present, Martin hopes to cultivate all the juniper he needs for his wild gin within the next four years. While other distillers have said juniper is notoriously difficult to grow, Martin gives a modest shrug of his shoulders when asked about his success with the plant. ‘For us, it’s been a journey of experimentation, and the juniper has flourished,’ he replies.
‘It’s not rocket science. I don’t have the arrogance to say I know what I’m doing or pretend to be a professional. For me, it’s about a relationship between us and the plants.
‘So much of modern farming is about take, take, take, but I believe we need to give something back. We don’t use chemicals, and we always leave parts of our lavender, roses and other plants for wildlife.’
Five to try: gins with British juniper
Helen Stewart opened Badvo distillery on her family’s farm at Pitlochry in Perthshire in 2018 when she was just 22. Her Scottish juniper delivers damp pine, blaeberry, and a savoury tang on the nose, developing into delicious orange zest and runny honey on the palate. Alcohol 45%
Becketts Type 1097 London Dry Gin
Made in London using juniper from Box Hill in Surrey and mint from Kingston-upon-Thames, Beckett’s offers gentle mint and lemon aromas, with spearmint and lime flavours balanced by a rounded texture and spicy black pepper notes on the finish. Alc 40%
Crossbill Small Batch Scottish Dry Gin
Just two botanicals – juniper and rosehip from the Highlands – are used to make Crossbill. The juniper is joined by spicy notes on the nose before leading into a warm and textured palate, with sweeter blackcurrant and mint notes. Alc 43.8%
Bright pine and marmalade aromas give way to richer dark chocolate, peppermint, and lemon zest flavours. Hepple harvests juniper from its moorland estate in Northumberland to be used in one of the components in its three complex distillation processes. Alc 45%
The Secret Garden Wild Gin
Some of the juniper used to make Wild Gin is grown within the Secret Herb Garden on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Floral and citrus notes on the nose lead into a complex mix of black pepper, lemon curd and rose Turkish delight on the palate. Alc 39%