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Our microdistillery is going to be making gin. I'd like to know which species of juniper to use for the berries which will flavor it. Also, someone said that the berries were toxic. Is that true? Any other information about the use of juniper as a flavoring would be helpful, too.
Here is what Amy Stewart says about the use of juniper for gin in The Drunken Botanist (Algonquin Books, 2013):
"The juniper most widely is J. [Juniperus] communis communis, a small tree or shrub that can live up to two hundred years. They are dioecious, meaning that each tree is either male or female. The pollen from a male shrub can travel on the wind over a hundred miles to reach a female. Once pollinated, the berries--which are actually cones whose scales are so fleshy that they resemble the skin of a fruit--take two to three years to mature. Harvesting them is not easy: a single plant will hold berries in every stage of ripeness, so they have to be picked a few times a year."
North Carolina State University's Poisonous Plants database lists juniper as having low toxicity if consumed, and simultaneously describes the fleshy cones ("berries") as both poisonous and edible, which I understand to mean that if you ingested large quantities of them it might be unwise, but there is a long tradition of using them for flavoring.
The web page of Bill Casselman has a fascinating exploration of the etymology and history of juniper and gin.
A 1998 article by J. Karchesy of the Department of Forest Products at Oregon State University discusses the uses of juniper for specialty products:
"The juniper berry oil of commerce is an essential oil produced by steam distillation of Juniperus communis berries. This oil is composed mainly of monoterpenes, including a-pinene, myrcene and sabinene as major components, lesser amounts of sesquiterpenes and other volatile compounds. Commercial production is carried out in several European countries including Italy, France, Germany, and Austria. Perhaps the most famous use of this product is to flavor gin and alcoholic bitters. It is generally recognized as safe for human consumption (GRAS) and also finds use in many other food products such as frozen desserts, gelatins,puddings, and meats."
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June 24 2013 12:55:25