So gin is really just flavored vodka. But flavored with what? Anything? No, not anything -- primarily with juniper berries. What are juniper berries? They're the little, dark-colored seed cones (technically not a berry) that, according to Wikipedia, have "unusually fleshy and merged scales, which give it a berry-like appearance." Juniper berries grow on juniper trees, which consist of over fifty different species grown all over the world. The trees can vary in size and height, from low-growing to tall with long-spreading branches. Juniper berries have been used as a pungent spice since the time of the Romans, who used the seed as a cheap domestic substitute for pepper when unavailable from India. It therefore makes sense that the Dutch, credited with inventing genever, used it along with other medicinal spices, to flavor their distilled malt wine with a peppery accent.
Part of what makes gin such a fun spirit for producers to make is the role that foraging plays in the overall flavor of the spirit. With gin production, it's not so much the act of distilling the flavor out of something as it is distilling the flavor into something. Working with local farmers, growers, and suppliers to source these flavors can add excitement to the experience. Dave Smith mentioned yesterday that working with herbs and botanicals grown in the Bay Area was part of the fun when making the Terroir gin. In the same vein, regional gins like Bruichladdich Botanist express the terroir of Islay with locally sourced juniper. However, it appears Scotland is in a bit of trouble when it comes to juniper at the moment.
Read the story from this past summer about how a local fungus is endangering the juniper crop in the UK and putting gin production into jeopardy. And you thought whiskey producers were the only ones who had to worry about a shortage!