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Gin, whisky and juniper

Juniper has two close associations with alcohol.

Juniper berries have long been the traditional base for flavouring gin, as you are no doubt already aware. But the connection with whisky… Patience. Let me talk about the plants first.

Junipers are hardy conifers. Make a phrase with the words “boots”, “tough” and “old” and you’re getting warm. They are found occurring naturally throughout the Northern Hemisphere, and one of the family is native to Britain. More tolerant of exposure, cold and polluted air than most conifers, junipers are also singularly unfussy in their soil requirements, although a peaty fertile soil will produce the best results.

Many of the family are well suited to the rock garden, eg Juniperus chinensis blaauw, or Juniperus communis compressa. Even more are ideal ground-coverers, like Juniperus sabina tamariscifolia, or Juniperus squamata meyerii. This latter one is a favourite of mine. It has long, drooping branches and striking glaucous-blue leaves (needles), but beware. Although an excellent space filler, given its own time it could eventually reach 10m (30ft) high and the same across!

I must mention too the oft-seen “Skyrocket”. You know it. That tall, narrow bluish conifer in every second garden – Juniperus virginiana Skyrocket, growing up to 6m (20ft). Think twice about planting in a pot. It’s a bit on the big side. If you want one for a tub, go for J communis Compressa mentioned above. It is unlikely to exceed 1m.

If you want to do your bit for our threatened native plants, plant a native juniper. That’s plain old Juniperus communis. It is a lovely spreading shrub with feathery foliage, and just because it grows in the wild, doesn’t mean it looks at all out of place in the garden.

Now talking of the wild juniper, did you know that this was one of the first tree species to colonise our fair land after the ice receded? It dates back some 10,000 years, and was at a time widespread. Now, thanks mainly to the grazing of sheep in our uplands, it is becoming quite rare. It is most common in the North and West of Scotland, but becoming increasingly scarce elsewhere.

I know some of you have only persevered this far because you’re wondering about the whisky connection. Well, I’m not being (unduly!) flippant here. This is serious stuff. Part of the reason for the decline of native Scottish juniper was the introduction of a law in the 19th century outlawing unlicensed whisky stills. Now something as trivial as a law wasn’t going to stop us making whisky, was it? So our resourceful forebears discovered that juniper wood burned with a smoke which was almost invisible. Which made the stills much harder to detect. So huge tracts of juniper were harvested for fuel, and you must remember the huge scale of the illicit distilling trade in those days. Irreparable damage was done, and the decline of the juniper was accelerated in the unquenchable thirst for the water of life.

So plant one in your garden for these reasons –

  1. It looks good and it’s hardy.
  2. It’s getting scarce.
  3. You can use the berries when home-brewing your gin.
  4. You can set up a still in your garden shed with little fear of detection.

What more could you want from a plant?

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