Juniper berries are a unique culinary ingredient. Used to flavor both food and drink, these tiny, purplish orbs are the only spice derived from coniferous trees. Juniper berries are prized for their resinous and piney taste, which imparts a fresh, almost citrus-like flavor to dishes and drinks. Intriguingly, juniper berries are not berries at all, but are in fact fleshy, round seed cones.
The most popular and well-known juniper infused beverage is gin. Gin can be aromatized with a variety of botanicals, but it is predominantly flavored with juniper. The word gin itself is derived from the Dutch and French word for juniper. The earliest iterations of gin can be traced back to 11th century Italy, where monks distilled a juniper-infused spirit for its purported medicinal qualities. Juniper has long been prescribed for its curative properties: the Romans burned juniper branches as a purification rite, Medieval doctors believed juniper protected against the Black Plague, and Native Americans consumed juniper berries as a form of birth control.
Today, most people enjoy juniper berries for their gustatory qualities. Throughout Scandinavia juniper berries are used to season and enhance the flavor of meats, stews, and even sodas. The resinous and sharp flavor of juniper berries is the perfect foil for rich game meats. Juniper berries can be purchased online or in some specialty spice shops if you’d like to try out juniper berries at home. If, however, these little berries prove difficult to find, you can always settle for a gin and tonic instead.