Ju­niper joined by new botan­i­cal re­cruits in Ir­ish gin rev­o­lu­tion

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - OUTDOORS - Michael Viney

The pros­trate ju­niper bush out­side my bed­room win­dow sprawls wide and low, its piney, spicy fronds the wren’s favourite hunt­ing ground for lit­tle spi­ders. If snow comes, it of­fers cosy refuge to the acre’s bat­tal­ion of black­birds.

The bush is a gar­den cen­tre cul­ti­var, in one of the dozen shapes that might have been on of­fer. Across the world, the named types of Ju­niper com­mu­nis run to 170.

There’s even a na­tional cul­ti­var, “Hiber­nica”, a tight, nar­row, blue-green col­umn more than 5m tall , bred from a sin­gle clone. This par­al­lels the dis­tinc­tive, phal­lic pillar of the “Ir­ish yew”.

When it comes to sex, how­ever, the pros­trate bush out­side my win­dow has to dis­ap­point. Like ev­ery holly tree I ever planted in the hedge, it is dis­ap­point­ingly male and thus berry­less, even as its fruit might suit the sea­son. A few of the ju­niper’s dark, aro­matic berries (ac­tu­ally its fleshy seed cones) add richly tangy notes of au­tumn flavour when crushed into a veni­son stew or savoury squash.

My own thought had been for the stuff­ing of our Christ­mas guinea fowl, but then re­search by the Ir­ish chef JP McMa­hon found recipes for game in old Ir­ish “big house” cook­books. They in­clude one for guinea fowl with ba­nanas, al­monds and gin – adding ju­niper by in­fu­sion, as it were.

Not­ing a re­cent “gin rev­o­lu­tion” in Ir­ish cui­sine, McMa­hon of­fered an en­hance­ment of cured salmon: “Douse the salmon with a few shots of gin and mix some toasted ju­niper berries through [a dust­ing of] salt and sugar.” Leave in the fridge for three days, rinse off and dry for an­other day. The re­sult: “lovely”.

There has, of course, been an­other Ir­ish gin rev­o­lu­tion go­ing on, in small-scale pro­duc­tion of the spirit, adding “botan­i­cals” other than ju­niper. One from Glen­dalough uses “11 ‘clas­sic’ gin botan­i­cals along with some lo­cally for­aged plants such as net­tle, wa­ter­mint, clover flow­ers, ground ivy, heather flow­ers, rose­hips . . . ” (the list goes on for half a hedgerow).

Oth­ers add ap­ple, wild thyme, el­der flow­ers, white clover and tansy. At Din­gle, the land­scape of­fers rowan berries, fuch­sia, bog myr­tle and more heather, the gin gain­ing “fresh flo­ral char­ac­ter that per­fectly bal­ances the tra­di­tional ju­niper.”

Cu­ra­tive po­ten­tial

Ju­niper has given gin its ba­sic char­ac­ter since the ear­li­est days of herbal medicine. Its wide span of cu­ra­tive po­ten­tial (such as chest in­fec­tions) ran counter to gin’s later pop­u­lar rep­u­ta­tion as an abor­ti­fa­cient – “mother’s ruin”. As straight booze, it was de­vel­oped in the Nether­lands in the 17th cen­tury: gen­ever in Dutch and genièvre in French.

The new­est choice of “botan­i­cals” are the sea­weeds of the shore, such as the tra­di­tional Ir­ish dil­lisk, car­rigeen and sloke (clock­wise from left in my draw­ing). But ju­niper still com­mands its place, and I can’t im­prove on the “tast­ing notes” of­fered for Done­gal’s new “mar­itime gin”:

“The palate has in­cred­i­bly bright and soft ju­niper to the fore, and as it sub­sides, An Dúlamán’s com­plex­ity is re­vealed in rich umami, brisk salt, zest and then a but­tery oys­ter smooth­ness with hints of chest­nut and firm tan­nin. Given time, sweet notes of peach ebb to a com­fort­ing warmth.”

Five lo­cally har­vested sea­weeds give this brew its mar­itime essence. The same plants flour­ish in New­found­land, where a prize-win­ning dis­tiller uses pur­ple dulse har­vested from the Grand Banks. His gin is “slightly salty, full of ju­niper – it’s like be­ing in an ocean mist, next to a herb gar­den”. Quite.

The Da Mhile farm­house dis­tillery in Wales in­fuses its gin with sea­weed plucked from St Ge­orge’s Chan­nel, along with lemon, thyme, fen­nel, pep­per, car­damom and salt. The sea­weed gives the gin “a slight green tinge”.

Ju­niper was the first woody plant to grow across Ire­land after the fi­nal re­treat of the ice age. It sur­vives, after a fash­ion,

When it comes to sex, the pros­trate bush out­side my win­dow has to dis­ap­point. Like ev­ery holly tree I ever planted in the hedge, it is dis­ap­point­ingly male and thus berry­less

in both bushy and pros­trate forms, where the plough, fer­tiliser and hill burn­ing have not reached and graz­ing is least in­tense. That has left patches of plants, of­ten so loose and widely scat­tered that only 50 to­gether, with fruit­ing fe­male bushes and no plant more than 20m from an­other, are thought to have much of a fu­ture.

Since ju­niper habi­tat be­came num­ber 5,130 in the Euro­pean Union’s na­ture con­ser­va­tion list, such “for­ma­tions” of ju­niper have oc­cu­pied much Ir­ish study and even seedling-by-seedling counts, mostly on western coastal heaths or lime­stone grass­land in­land.

The last sur­vey for the Na­tional Parks and Wildlife Ser­vice, in 2017, found some sites hit by pro­longed tur­lough flood­ing and a few oth­ers by over­graz­ing. But oth­ers among 82 for­ma­tions had high plant den­si­ties. High on Cor­raun, for ex­am­ple, the Co Mayo penin­sula op­po­site Achill, more than a mil­lion wind-dwarfed plants are twined among the heather (Ir­ish Wildlife Man­u­als 101 at npws.ie).

None of the new “botan­i­cal” gins, I no­tice, seeks virtue in “lo­cally plucked” ju­niper berries. Berry-eat­ing birds at least have the virtue of drop­ping di­gested seeds and the chance of fur­ther ger­mi­na­tion.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION: MICHAEL VINEY

The new­est choice of “botan­i­cals” are sea­weeds of the shore, such as (clock­wise from left) tra­di­tional Ir­ish dil­lisk, car­rigeen and sloke.

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