“The Distillers have found out a way to hit the palate of the Poor, by their new fashion'd compound Waters called ‘Geneva’, so that the common People seem not to value the French brandy as usual, and even not to desire it.” So wrote Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe in 1726.
The troubling “new fashion’d compound” that was exercising Defoe was gin, which was all the rage in Britain at the time. As food prices fell, disposable income had risen and the traditionally brandy- or beer-sozzled British had developed a taste for the juniper-infused spirit.
It all started with the arrival of William of Orange, the Dutch prince who became King William III of England when he was crowned joint monarch with his wife in 1689. Gin, then a favoured drink of the Netherlands, crossed the channel and was adopted by the English.
The boom in gin drinking in Britain had been encouraged initially by the Government, which allowed unlicensed production of the spirit. At the time, Britain and France – the latter the traditional supplier of brandy to the Brits – were at loggerheads, and so homemade gin seemed a better option. In London in 1726, there was an estimated 1,500 stills for distilling gin in private houses. By 1743, the English were drinking litres of the stuff per person annually.
Gin takes its name from its prominent flavouring: Juniper Berries. In French, the word for juniper is “genièvre” and in Dutch it’s “jenever” – also the name for ‘Dutch gin’. This is the source of Defoe’s “Geneva” and the common nickname for the drink, “Mother Geneva” (it was also known as “Mother’s Ruin”). In fact, gin today is legally defined in the EU and the US as a spirit in which the predominant flavour is Juniper Berries.
The juniper plant has a long and storied history. Burning juniper wood produces little smoke but a strong scent, and historically it has been used to purify sacred sites or in witchcraft. In November 1922, when British archaeologist Dr Howard Carter entered the fourteenth century BC tomb of Egyptian prince Tutankhamun, alongside the incredibly intact sarcophagus and other “wonderful things!” as he put it, Carter also found berries from two different juniper species. The samples – not native to Egypt – had probably come from Greece, where the plant was used in medicine and also by athletes in the belief that the berries increased stamina.
But the juniper berry is not in fact a berry at all: it is a small, dark purple cone from the coniferous juniper bush. At the height of the English Gin Craze, juniper was widespread throughout the United Kingdom and the berries could be picked year round. Today, juniper grows mainly in the Scottish Highlands and in a few pockets throughout England. A recent resurgence in artisanal gin in the UK has brought the distinctive, pungent resinous taste of juniper to a new generation.
Beyond gin, the berry also holds a place in hearty, old-fashioned British recipes that make use of the country’s strong game traditions. Dishes of venison, duck, pigeon, pheasant and even goose and pork counterbalance the rich abundance of fatty flavour in the meat with the bracing, piquant punch of juniper. Cured meats, too, such as pancetta, benefit from the addition of dried Juniper Berries to help balance the flavours.
Britain’s love affair with the juniper berry has also travelled. The tradition of the ‘sundowner’ during the British Empire grew out of more than just a desire for a self-satisfied snifter at sunset. Gin and tonic – as English as a good cup of tea – was drunk by the British around the world: tonic water was laced with foul-tasting quinine to ward off malaria, and to ward off the tongue-curling flavour of the foul-tasting quinine, the tonic was mixed with a liberal measure of juniper-infused gin. A fine solution indeed: cheers!