Knowing gin means knowing the aroma of juniper. This has always been considered an essential source for a gin’s flavor and gives an unmistakable taste to this grain spirit. But one thing is really interesting: Although one can classify the smell clearly as juniper, the fragrance cannot be referred to a single chemical compound. Juniper is just no artificial flavor, but nature at its purest. In this article I would therefore like to respond more accurately to what juniper is and why it is well suited as a source for flavored spirits.
Due to climatic conditions juniper is found almost exclusively in the northern hemisphere. So it is not really astonishing that gin has its origin in the Netherlands and its boom in England, simply because resources were available in the immediate vicinity. (Image: Geishaboy500)
The various species of juniper can be found either as bushes or trees, but both types are evergreen. This means that even in winter they do not pull back their chlorophyll from the leaves. The largest known species is the Juniperus drupacea and reaches a height of up to 40 meters. For gin production there are two main types of interest: first the common juniper Juniperus communis and second Juniperus sabina. Their use for gin production cannot primarily be referred to their taste, but much more because these are the two most common species in Central Europe.
Gin is not flavored with juniper berries
“[...] gin gets its distinctive flavor from the flavoring with spices, including coriander and especially juniper berries [...]“. This is a much-quoted definition of gin on the internet. But that is not only a web issue, because this can often be read in literature on spirits, too. In principle this is wrong. Juniper is one of the conifers, which do not have ovaries and therefore do not form berries and fruits. Those are called “cones”. These cones provide the taste, which makes gin so delicious. (Photo: bottomdollar99730)
Chemical compounds – from the juniper into the bottle
As with any natural product, especially those used in the production of spirits, the flavor cannot be attributed to a particular substance. It is rather the interplay of various chemical compounds that produce the pleasant smell and taste, as in the case of juniper. To shed some light in the dark cones that provide the spirit with flavors, I am going to characterize some substances that were detected in the juniper berries by physicochemical methods of analysis.
* About 40 percent of the content of juniper berries is made of sugar and resin. The latter set is for the most part made of resin acids and a significant proportion of volatile aromatic compounds.
* Providing the main flavor and very crucial for the gin production is the essential oil. This makes depending on the origin of 0.2 to 2.0 percent of the ingredients. This essential oil is composed of compounds that are chemically very similar and they all have the same basic structure. These include inter alia α- and β-pinene, terpene-4-ol, borneol and geraniol.
* Another important substance that is responsible for the aroma of juniper, but which only occurs in trace amounts, is called sabinene. In addition to its occurrence in juniper sabinene also appears in ground cubeb, lime, marjoram and cardamom. Maybe this is one of the reasons why those spices and fruits are used so often in the gin-making and harmonize so well with the juniper flavor.
* The last chemical compound, which I would like to mention at this point is used under the name 3-carene. This substance occurs in various citrus species, pine, black pepper and juniper and has a sweet odor. 3-carene is in sciences often used as starting material for the synthesis of menthol.
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