Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Gin makers chase aromatic magic

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Distilling spirits has been identified as an area with export growth potential for New Zealand. Now gin makers are on a nationwide hunt for juniper plants with special character to help make drinks with unique kiwi flavours. Richard Rennie spoke to one of the pioneers.
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JUST as casks do for whiskey and grapes do for wine, juniper sits at the heart of a good gin’s flavour. As the main botanical or plant flavouring used in gin, its distinct scent belies the nondescript coniferous bush that is its source.

But as New Zealand gin makers continue to grow their niche artisan industry they are compelled to seek the vital botanical from overseas. An initiative aims to change that, to help ensure NZ gin will indeed be 100% local.

A collaboration between Massey University researchers and two gin distilling companies aims to get more New Zealanders looking through gardens, parks and reserves to see if they can find the ideal source for a commercial juniper growing industry.

Taranaki distiller Juno Gin is working with its southern West Coast counterpart Reefton Distilling on the Great Juniper Hunt.

The project aims to find juniper seeds that can form the basis for sustainably grown, commercial juniper and is supported through Venture Taranaki’s Tapuae Roa project.

The distillers are confident they will uncover a variety of the species to provide NZ distillers with a wide range of flavour profiles and opportunities to ensure their product becomes entirely NZ made. 

Last year Taranaki got a funding boost to enable the region to better identify new food production opportunities for an area with abundant rainfall, fertile soil and good infrastructure.

Government commitment to oil and gas exploration has waned with its low-carbon economy bid and the region has begun exploring its options with increased urgency.

With a climate that makes its rhododendrons a tourist industry the region is also well suited to the botanicals used by Juno and other distillers.

NZ already grows an array of botanicals including angelica, orris root and coriander seed, which distillers say bring a unique taste profile to locally distilled products.

“The botanicals we already grow in NZ like angelica, orris root and coriander seed all have a flavour and vibrancy that is really unique and amazing,” Juno co-founder Jo James said.

“We think it is safe to assume locally grown juniper will show that same excitement.”

Juno gets coriander seeds from a Wairarapa farmer and sampling has shown the seeds’ exceptional levels of volatile oils lend them a unique and highly scented profile well ahead of traditional northern hemisphere supplies.

“And we see no reason juniper should be any different. 

“With the angelica we use you also get distinct terrior (flavour and characteristics imported by a particular environment) effects. The angelica from the coast has quite a different taste to that from more alpine areas.”

Gin is legally required to contain at least 50% juniper as its prime botanical. 

In NZ the plant is scattered throughout the country, often grown as an ornamental. 

But being a member of the cypress family it is capable of growing to 40m high across a range of climate challenges. 

The juniper hunt aims to identify where different plants are then use Massey University resources determine which are genetically distinct.

“Overseas it can grow from the relatively benign climate of the United Kingdom to some really cold, harsh places including Armenia. Here we have already had responses to the hunt from Feilding and Kerikeri.”

The distillers have gained the support of Taranaki based Cedar Lodge Nurseries, working with owner Pip McVicar to propagate the varieties of juniper identified.

James said the distillers would like to form a juniper co-operative, providing a nationwide clearing house for buyers and sellers of the botanical.

“What we don’t want to see is large monocultures of the plant grown. 

“We want to retain the diversity of the types we find and maintain a variety of it grown around the country in a sustainable way.”

Garden nurseries could provide a way of dispersing the varieties identified while there has also been farmer interest in growing the species.

“We have already spoken with the local Young Farmers group. Farmers are interested in using juniper as a shelter belt that can be cropped for aromatic use as well.”

In 2012 a Ministry for Business, Innovation and Enterprise identified alcoholic spirits production as a value-add sector with potential to demonstrate strong growth internationally. At that stage the sector had 10% year-on-year growth.

That has accelerated in recent years with strong growth over the past 18 months.

“When we started in 2012 there were a dozen distilleries in NZ. Today there would be 20 gin producers alone in NZ. 

“People are looking to distill some interesting spirits including absinthe using aromatics from our horticultural sector,” she said.

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