When I was in the Juniper Dunes a few months ago, I made a joke about soaking juniper berries in vodka to make gin. When I came home and realized you can actually do that, so naturally, I had to try. I was recently back in juniper country (Harney County!), so I decided to collect some berries and try my hand at infusion.
Collecting the juniper berries was significantly more difficult than I anticipated, because it turns out juniper trees are significantly more interesting than I ever imagined. I’m sure most gin drinkers would sneer at my finished product, but I’m thrilled with what I learned in the process.
First, a contextual note about the range of juniper trees and the history of gin. Maybe I’m the only one, but I’d often wondered when surrounded by junipers here in North America how a new world plant became the key flavoring for an Old World spirit. Was it brought back with potatoes, chocolate, and tobacco? Turns out, the juniper is actually a wide ranging tree, with over fifty species, and it’s the European ones that have been used in the past for gin. (For more history, including the era in which turpentine was used as an alternative flavoring agent, check out the Wikipedia article.) The Western Juniper commonly found here in the drier parts of the Northwest is not used traditionally.
The picture above, which I took in the Juniper Dunes, actually represents a bounty of ripe juniper berries. They are very hard to find! Even when I camped entirely surrounded by juniper trees, it was very hard to find ripe berries. I learned with a little research that juniper berries (which, to be technical, are cones and not berries!) actually take at least two winters to ripen, and that a single tree will have berries at different stages of development. In my observation, whatever the stage, the berries were sparse and often out of reach.
That juniper berries take years to ripen seems somehow appropriate, since the trees are so slow-growing themselves. I like standing next to a gnarled, 40 foot tree in the harsh environments where I’ve seen them, and knowing it may be hundreds of years old.(If you are interested in more on juniper trees, their berries, and their uses, I highly recommend you read this article. This one is also pretty good.)
I did manage to harvest a few by shaking branches and catching what came to me, which wasn’t much. These instructions for harvesting juniper berries said that was important to avoid robbing the plant of unripe berries, and that seemed wise. When I examined the few tablespoons I managed to collect, it seemed that even some of the ones that had fallen weren’t ripe, so I’m certainly glad I didn’t do any plucking.
When I got the berries home, I did a bit of research before deciding to use this recipe. (This one also seemed promising.) Between my spice rack and a trip to the store, I assembled the necessary herbs and spices, and couln’t resist throwing in a sage leaf that I collected, as well, for a bit more Steens Mountain flavor. For the vodka, I used a relatively low grade bottle that the clerk and the liquor store recommended for infusions. It was $8 for a fifth.
I infused for about two days, which the recipe suggested would be adequate, before inviting two gin-loving friends over for gin and tonics. They were kind and appreciative, and even brought some gin from the store at my request so that we could do a comparison.
My homemade gin was sweeter than the real thing, and also tasted more like vodka. (Oops — I let the remainer infuse for a few more days and the flavor improved considerably.) I think it was recognizable as gin, though, especially with the tonic water and lime.
Would I do this again? Definitely. But I’d buy the juniper berries.