Two histories, inextricably linked
ELIXIRS AND POTIONS
The oil of the juniper berry is one of the earliest essential oils extracted by man; evidence of its extraction and use dates back to prehistoric times.
Juniper has been used by many cultures over the centuries. Its oil is reported to have been used by the Egyptians during burial ceremonies as well as in their cosmetics and perfumes. The ancient Greeks record using juniper berries as a medicine, particularly as a remedy for rheumatism and arthritis, in addition to a diuretic and appetite stimulant.
In medieval Europe it was used to fight deadly infections like typhoid and cholera, with decidedly mixed results.
The business of combining liquor and plant life goes back to the dawn of distilling.
In primitive days, alcoholic drinks were so brutal and belchful that anything, bark, berry or root, was grabbed at to make it more palatable. In some cultures ginger proved helpful, leading to the earliest ginger beer. Even pepper was used.
But juniper proved the perennial favourite.
The histories of gin and the juniper berry are inextricably linked, but where and who it was that made that first leap from medicine to martini is a subject of claim and counterclaim.
Archeologists have certainly discovered that our European ancestors used juniper to flavour the beer they drank. Italian monks were using their own plentiful supplies of juniper to make medicinal potions and elixirs in the 11th century.
However, France and the lowlands figure more prominently as the likely birthplace of gin as a social drink rather than a medicine, and by the turn of the 16th century the distillation of spirits – whether from grain or grape – was commonplace.
The resultant spirit, known as brandewijn – literally ‘burnt wine’ – usually tasted, as the name suggests, burnt and bitter. To ease the pain of consumption, inventive souls bent their minds to creating ways in which the intoxicating nature of this liquor could be made more palatable.
The usual suspect was, more often than not, juniper.
OF PROFESSORS AND BASTARDS
The French claim they were the first to put juniper to good use as a palliative, easing the pain involved in the consumption of spirits distilled during this early period, though the Dutch may well dispute the fact.
Pleading the case for the French is one Antoine De Bourbon, Count de Moret, the result of a brief affair between King Henry of Navarre and the Comtesse de Moret. He was born a bastard in 1607, but later in life his birth was legitimized and his father granted him the Abbé de St Etienne.
Like all ecclesiastical gentlemen of the period his mind soon strayed to things alcoholic, and in his short life he perfected something he called juniper wine, probably using a base spirit distilled from the grape.
Whether claiming ‘simultaneous creation’ or just plain cheating, around the same time, and in the noble cause of medical research (this being the protestant lowlands) the famous Dutch professor, Francisco’s de la Boe, perhaps better known as Franz Sylvius, discovered what the aromatic juniper berry could do for a slug of raw alcohol.
However, Juniper combined altogether more successfully with the grainy, malty flavour of their distilled spirits, which were generally derived from wheat and barley.
Naming it Genièvre in honour of the berry, Professor Sylvius is now the name most quoted as the inventor and father of gin.
It’s altogether more likely that many souls were experimenting with distillates and flavourings at the time, so perhaps it is more appropriate to label him as one of the world’s first great brand builders (or maybe he just hired a better P.R.).
Today, juniper is still the single ingredient that defines gin. The quality of the berry and the way in which its oils are extracted all play a part in creating the character of fine gins. That is why Martin Miller’s sources its juniper from wherever the best berries are to be found. Whether that is Tuscany, Macedonia, or as far away as India, is irrelevant. We demand only the finest quality juniper, with the highest oil and flavour content.