28 Jan 2019

Great New Zealand Juniper Hunt: gin startup seeks tree supply

6:00 pm on 28 January 2019

A start-up gin distilling business in Taranaki is appealing to the public to join the Great New Zealand Juniper Hunt and help it find the liquor's elusive key ingredient - juniper berries - in this country.

Juno Gin co-owners Dave and Jo James.

Juno Gin owners Dave and Jo James, who're part of the appeal to find juniper plants in New Zealand. Photo: Robin Martin / RNZ

Juno Gin has teamed up with Massey University to see if they can end New Zealand's reliance on imported berries and establish the world's first commercial plantations of Juniperus communis here.

To be considered gin, at least 50 percent of the liquor's botanical or plant-based material has to be juniper berries, which gives it its distinctive taste.

New Zealand distillers import their berries or cones from the Northern Hemisphere at a cost of about $2000 per tonne, despite the common juniper plant being widely imported to New Zealand in the 1960s and '70s.

The conifer was used for landscape gardening but has since gone out of fashion. No seed stock is held here and you won't find it at your local gardening store.

Jo James loads a still with juniper berries.

Juno Gin co-owner Jo James putting juniper berries into a still. Photo: Robin Martin / RNZ

Juno Gin co-owner Jo James said the Great New Zealand Juniper Hunt was about finding any surviving plants.

"We want members of the public to help us spot those individual trees around New Zealand. The ones that have been planted as ornamental specimen plants," Mrs James said.

"We know there's a girl in Nelson. We know there's two boys in Christchurch. We kind of want to get them together and we need more than one little group of trees to be propagating from that."

Juno Gin co-owner Dave James said as far as they could tell, all juniper berries in the Northern Hemisphere were harvested in the wild.

Juno and its partners at the Reefton Distilling Company and Massey wanted to see if it was possible to establish commercial plantations in New Zealand.

Mr James said complicating matters would be the fact junipers need a male to female plant ratio of one to four to produce berries, but if they were successful the rewards could be huge.

"Everyone is sourcing their juniper berries from the Northern Hemisphere so if we can get down here a good supply of known provenance of where its come from and know the quality of it, we can actually lead that out in the market and be quite a significant exporter of it as well."

Juniper berries on a branch

Juniper berries. Photo: Svetla Sofkova-Bobcheva / Supplied

Mr James said gin distilled in New Zealand could leverage of the fact it was made using kiwi juniper berries as well as New Zealand water and botanicals.

Horticulture Production lecturer at Massey University, Dr Svetla Sofkova-Bobcheva, was initially asked to look at the potential for growing juniper in Taranaki.

"It proved to be with a really good potential and also beyond that region because juniper is actually a very robust plant so it can be cultivated in most of New Zealand."

Dr Sofkova-Bobcheva said the trees were low maintenance, could live up to 150 years old and were versatile.

"It can be added to some already existing agricultural systems like dairy or cattle pastures as a harvestable shelter belt, for example."

Dr Sofkova-Bobcheva said Massey had received funding to help with the Great New Zealand Juniper Hunt.

The university wanted the public to register sightings of juniper with photos on the iNaturalist website https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/the-great-new-zealand-juniper-hunt and it would take over identification from there before sending out researchers to take samples, she said.

Cedar Lodge Nurseries owner Pip McVicar.

Cedar Lodge Nurseries owner Pip McVicar. Photo: Robin Martin / RNZ

Cedar Lodge Nurseries in New Plymouth has the job of propagating a New Zealand stock of junipers from any discovered during the hunt.

Owner Pip McVicar said people would know when they had found one.

Juniper berries on branch

Juniper berries on a branch Photo: Svetla Sofkova-Bobcheva / Supplied

"You need to be on the look out for a spiky, kinda pretty unattractive plant really ... so if you know what juniper berries look like they could be either green or purple depending on their maturation and the tree is very prickly to touch.

"So if you think you've found one and you can brush your hand up the tree quite comfortably, it's not a Juniperus communis."

Ms McVicar said juniper had been cut out of a lot of old homestead gardens but could have propagated naturally.

She was optimistic a New Zealand juniper stock could be established.

"I'm hopeful, I'm really hopeful. I mean if we could get 10 plants from different origins we'd be winning. So the only way to do it, because we obviously can't scour the nation by ourselves, is to put the word out to the public and say 'Please can you help us'."

The initial public engagement phase of the Great New Zealand Juniper Hunt is set to last about three months.