Does a Biologist Forage Juniper for Your Gin?

Made in the USA: DC's District Distilling Crafts Gin from Native Juniper

By AJ Dronkers and Susan Able, EdibleDC

 Molly Cummings may be the only juniper forager in Texas who is making commercial gin.

Molly Cummings may be the only juniper forager in Texas who is making commercial gin.

A DC distillery that has created their craft gin program around native botanicals from Texas? Yes, that would be District Distilling on the corner of 14th and U Streets NW.

Unique in the gin industry? Yes, again.

"99% of gins are made from the common juniper which is harvested in Europe," explains District Distilling's co-owner Molly Cummings, who also happens to be a biology professor at the University of Texas and Forager-in-chief for District Distilling. She emphasizes to us, "Really, no other distillery is foraging at this level. We've made a pretty intense commitment to harvesting U.S. juniper, so it's likely we'll keep standing out in the in the spirits industry."

Speaking to Edible DC from London last week, Molly was showing her gin at tastings organized by the Distilled Spirits Council at an export promotion sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She was thrilled at the warm reception by British gin experts. "Our Checkerbark Dry Style Gin is very much what you think of when you think of gin--juniper forward--so that evergreen taste and nose. We've gotten a terrific response to Checkerbark, but our WildJune, which we make as a Western-style gin and it is very different as we use those red juniper berries and 11 other ingredients including other botanicals and cinnamon, has really had a fantastic response. The British and European gin experts have been over the moon about it and it's a rush to have created something that getting that kind of response."

 A handfull of Checkerbark juniper berries.

A handfull of Checkerbark juniper berries.

When juniper berries are ready for harvest, Molly hops in her pickup truck and heads to the Davis Mountains in southwest Texas to forage and hand-harvest two varieties of juniper for District Distilling's gin, the Checkerbark juniper and the redberry juniper. They are both quite different from each other. The Checkerbark tree, named after it distinctive bark, has berries that are green and angular. The wild red juniper puts out a juicier berry, almost like a tiny cranberry with a similar flavor. District Distilling's distiller, Matt Strickland, then makes three American-style gins with Texan juniper: Checkerbark Dry Style Gin named for the rare juniper with distinctive bark, the Checkerbark Juniper; WildJune, which uses the native wild redberry juniper, and Checkerbark Barrel Rested, a bourbon barrel-aged version of the Checkerbark Gin.

"I've got the best job of any of us," Molly tells us, referring to her siblings who pooled resources to launch District Distilling in 2016. Her brother, DC resident Michael Cummings and co-owner, is on point to manage operations. From the start, as a biologist and gin aficionado, Molly knew that local juniper could really differentiate their company's gin and also keep their commitment to using local ingredients. She's proud of the fact that District Distilling is the only distillery in the U.S. to build a gin program on hand-harvested junipers.

 

 Checkerbark Barrel Rested American Dry Gin nestled in the nook of the tree that provided its botanical flavoring, the Checkerbark juniper.

Checkerbark Barrel Rested American Dry Gin nestled in the nook of the tree that provided its botanical flavoring, the Checkerbark juniper.

Juniper berries are famous for their role in flavoring gin. The word gin is derived from the French genievre, or juniper. Another fact: Juniper berries are not real berries. They're cones with scales so miniature and packed down that you can't even see the scales — instead, they appear as round berries. There are some 60 species of juniper found around the world, growing in different ways: some as shrubs, low and sprawling; some more upright as trees. In North America, there are 13 indigenous species that grow wild. And only female trees have berries.

You can taste the Checkerbark Dry Style, Checkerbark Barrel Rested Dry and WildJune gins at District Distilling Co. 1414 U St., NW. Want to buy a bottle? The Retail Shop at District Distilling sells the gin or you can buy online.