NEXT Wednesday, March 15, is apparently National Juniper Day. These spiky bushes, one of only three types of conifers native to the UK, are best-known for their distinctive blue-black berries and their long history of uses. Ancient Egyptians and Greeks used to use them for medicinal purposes: during the middle ages, it was believed that planting a juniper bush outside your house would help keep witches out (though apparently this didn’t work if the witch could correctly guess the number of needles on the bush). But it is as a flavouring that Juniper really excels: it is great in cooking, especially with game, and instrumental in the making of gin (which gets its name from genever, the French word for juniper).
These days, gin is enjoying something of a renaissance. From becoming the cool new spirit of Prohibition America in the 1920s, it continued its growth for the next few decades as a core cocktail ingredient until falling out of favour in the 1970s. In the last five years, however, gin has bounced back. In 2015, sales of gin overtook whisky; in 2016, it enjoyed record sales of over £1bn. Last year, 40 million bottles were sold in the UK, enough to make 1.12 billion gin and tonics or 28 for every adult in the country. Hic.
Later this month, Salisbury’s ever-excellent independent wine store, Cambridge Wine Merchants, is holding a gin-tasting masterclass. If, like me, your knowledge of gin only stretches from Gordon’s to Bombay Sapphire, think again. When I caught up with CWM’s Gareth Thomas, he talked me through the modern drink’s many varieties: from Dutch to American, ‘Bathtub’ to barrel-aged, and all sorts of subtle flavours complimenting the juniper, from citrus to coriander to cardamom (Gareth’s own gin of choice is Silent Pool from Surrey, which he described as ‘clean, pure and very, very good.’) The juniper behind this drinks explosion has mainly come from abroad: in this country, sadly, the health of the plant is going in the opposite direction. According to Salisbury-based conservation charity Plantlife, juniper is in long-term in decline in England: it has contracted markedly over the past 50 years and could become extinct in the next 50. Luckily, we live in one of the few areas in the south where it can still be found: it is abundant in places on Salisbury Plain and there are even a few stray bushes on the A36 towards Southampton.
So remember to raise a glass to juniper next Wednesday: your G&T wouldn’t be quite the same tonic without it.
Cambridge Wine Merchants’ Gin Tasting Masterclass is at the Haunch of Venison on March 23. For tickets, email Salisbury@cambridgewine.com For more information about juniper, visit plantlife.org.uk