Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The Juniper Dilemma

Should Juniper be the dominant flavour or one of many flavour components.

Juniper a coniferous plant in the genus Juniperus has a fleshy fruit like female seed cone which when distilled gives Gin its distinct Pine flavours, or so Wiki tells me.

Current Market
When one thinks of the flavour of Gin, Juniper is what most people believe they are tasting.
That is ofcourse not necessarily the case, what im saying is that people don’t necessarily know what the flavour of Juniper is and many popular Gins arguably don’t taste like the pine needles from your Christmas tree. People have come to associate Gin as a spirit that is generally refreshing and can be spicey, fruity, floral, earthy or Piney or in the case of a good one all of the above. So basically when you consider the current market offerings there are many often big name products that I would not consider as having juniper as the predominant flavour.

The Dilemma
So the Dilemma that is creating a bit of a stir at the moment is ofcourse how to define Gin should Juniper be the predominant flavour or just a flavour component. Should the Juniper content be legislated or is a wif of a single juniper berry in the general direction of the distillery enough.

Currently EU legislation across the different categories says that Gin must have a predominant Juniper flavour. The US legislation says that it must possess the characteristic flavour of juniper berries.

So whats the Problem?
All seems pretty straight forward right? Wrong, everything from the method of steeping/infusing the temperatures/pressures used in distilling to the terroir of the Juniper used can make a significant difference to the taste. That’s right much like your favourite growing region for the Pinot Noir grape Juniper berries can have significant differences across species and growing region. I will cover this in another post but suffice to say there are over 60 known species of Juniper growing in climates from the Arctic to Africa.

There are 2 opposed camps of thought, I will try to explain these below:

Camp Juniper

Juniper is the defining character of Gin so it should be the main flavour there can be other flavours but Juniper is the star. So what they are saying here is I understand that different species of Juniper and different distillation methods, that is fine but if these species or methods don’t provide a dominantly Pine led taste then they have not created a Gin but rather a  flavoured Vodka. Gin should be well defined so people know what they are getting when they buy it.

So then the question is what does dominant mean, to me that means somewhere over 65% of the taste should be Juniper.
When we start talking percentages we either have to break down the chemical composition of the Gin and isolate the compounds in Juniper that provide the Pine flavour this would be the most fool proof but probably also the most expensive and may not work in the case of non distilled flavoured Gins that may be using other chemicals for their pine flavour that aren’t present in Juniper. The alternative would be to legislate against the volume/weight of juniper as a percentage of the total recipe. Issues with this second method go back to my earlier mention that certain types of Junipers exhibit lower pine flavours and instead sweeter fruity flavours. Also different botanicals produce different levels of essential oil/flavour for different weights. Also it is worth mentioning that compliance costs are going to be exaggerated for smaller craft distilleries and any regulation is increasing barriers to entry for new players and decreasing competition and innovation.

We also need to ask the question do we want to end up with a heavily restricted industry where innovation is restricted.

Camp Innovation
This can vary significantly, but from those whose opinions I have got the common view goes something like this:

Juniper should be one of the main components in Gin or the flavour of Juniper should be discernible amongst the other flavours in Gin. Gin should set wide boundaries and experiment with different and unusual botanicals as well as different Juniper species. Other Botanicals can have more flavour than Juniper as long as Juniper is still a good part of the Flavour. Juniper flavour is wider than just the Pine flavour and different species should be experimented with.

Here we run the risk of diluting the category too much and moving away from the core defining character of Juniper that separates Gin from Vodka. Again we run into the issue of should we legislate the juniper content just at a lower level say for example 40%.

Whether you are a pro Juniper supporter an innovation supporter or somewhere in the middle it seems that something is going to happen with the increasing number of products on the market and a currently very poor labelling/ distinguishing system.

My Personal Experiences
Gin wasn’t my choice of spirit in younger years the pine flavours weren’t that appealing to me with the choice of Gordons or Tanqueray original. My first enjoyable experiences with Gin were with Tanqueray 10 a decidedly citrus forward Gin. For many years I would always come back to T10 however slowly but surely as I spread my wings and tasted all different styles of Gin I developed a taste for stronger and stronger Juniper flavours one might even say I was a Juniper freak these days. I still thoroughly enjoy a good citrus forward Gin or even earthy/spicey Gin but more often I go back to a strong Juniper forward Gin now.

So I guess what im trying to say is that we all see where the current market is with some of the biggest names/brands producing products that aren’t at all juniper forward and people are flocking to these brands. I think the gin revolution owes much to these brands for kick starting people’s interest in premium Gin. I personally know many people who have started with these citrus/spice/floral forward Gins and end up on the same Journey that I took to becoming Juniper obsessed.

So Juniper will have its day the more people drinking Gin the more that will naturally migrate to more intense Juniper styles.

My Conclusion
I personally think that the innovation is a great thing and is building the category, but there should still be detectable Juniper in a spirit for it to be called a Gin. I see Juniper much like Hops in craft beer, they might be hard to palate for a newcomer to the category who has been drinking lager but once you develop a taste for them you need to keep going bigger and bigger to satisfy that craving.

The key issue for me is in the labelling/identification of Gin and its myriad of associated flavours customers should have an idea of what they are buying so as not to be disappointed or feel mislead. Looking to craft Beer again there are a million and 1 styles identifying the flavours you can expect, I think Gin can learn something from this.

People have bandied about the term “New Age” for the last decade or so but perhaps a term such as this but maybe a little more descriptive should be used to describe Gins that are not Juniper dominant. This would allow these Gins to be recognisable by anyone unfamiliar with the brand and allow these “New Age” Gins to retain the hand crafted associations that come with the Gin territory.

There is the same level of passion and craft going into these new age style products as goes into traditional Juniper Lead Gins so it would be a shame if these Gin’s were faced with the negative connotations attached to flavoured Gin  or even flavoured Vodka.

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