Our spirits expert works up a sweat gathering juniper berries.
I looked down into the orange plastic bucket. I had been picking juniper berries for an hour. My haul didn’t even cover the bottom of the pail. No one had told me the berries were so small and the ground-hugging shrubs they grew on so dense and prickly.
Juniper, of course, is the defining flavor of gin. At this rate, I wondered how man had ever produced a single bottle of the stuff.
Greengate Farm, where I was doing this frustrating exercise, is on Door County’s Washington Island. Improbably, it’s the only purposely grown juniper patch in America. Maybe the world.
“There is no commercially farmed juniper,” Ron Doetch, a sustainable-agriculture consultant there picking along with me, said. “It’s all foraged.”
Death’s Door Spirits is based in Middleton, just outside Madison. But it has long sourced winter wheat for its gin and vodka from Washington Island.
Now they’re trying the same locale for juniper. To harvest the crop every year, they invite a small army of bar workers – and the occasional soft-handed journalist – to spend a day breathing crisp air and harvesting microscopic berries.
Not all the juniper in Death’s Door Gin comes from the island. The bulk is from Bulgaria, where pickers comb through fields of wild juniper. They get dollars a week. Crafty me, I was doing it for nothing.
A bartender asked Death’s Door founder Brian Ellison if the locally grown juniper had a flavor distinct from that of Europe. “The short answer would be no,” he said. “It’s juniper. The long answer is yes.” Greengate Farm grows Juniperus virginiana, a species common to North America, different from the Juniperus comonalis. Ellison feels the virginiana imbues the gin with a less piney flavor.
After two hours of picking, I was pooped. As my plunder was weighed (2 ounces, enough for one bottle of hooch), my respect for what goes into gin soared.
What we accomplished that morning was a small bit of what’s needed to make a batch of mother’s ruin. But next summer, when I sip a Death’s Door Gin & tonic at a Milwaukee bar, I’ll be swishing it around in my mouth, looking for my two ounces of juniper. It’ll be in there somewhere. ◆