How a UT Professor Found the Perfect Juniper Berries for Gin in West Texas

Last summer, Molly Cummings stood atop a ladder at the broad waist of a juniper tree in Texas’ Davis Mountains, filling her apron with plump berries collected from its branches. Cummings, a biology professor at UT, dubbed that West Texas tree Fertile Myrtle, and took the voluptuous plant’s bounty—along with berries contributed by other trees, including a pair she named Thelma and Louise because they clung to a cliffside—back home to Austin, where she treated and dehydrated them. Then she shipped them off to the East Coast, where they were used to put a new spin on an old spirit.

Ultimately, those berries added a Texas twang to gin made at District Distilling Co., a distillery based in Washington, D.C., that Cummings and her siblings have owned since 2012. As someone who studies fish behavior, courtship, communication, and camouflage techniques, Cummings’ background in science serves her well in her side endeavor as a gin maker. Her biological expertise comes in handy especially when foraging the wild junipers for District Distilling Co.’s award-winning gins.

Gin was first made in the Netherlands; it derives its name from the Dutch word for juniper. Most gin is made in the United Kingdom, using berries from the only species of juniper that grows there, called the “common juniper.” It’s aromatic and piney flavored and more savory than sweet.

As it turns out, eight species of juniper grow in Texas, including several that thrive in the volcanic soils and higher elevations of the Davis Mountains, a roughly 900-square-mile area of peaks and ridges 200 miles southeast of El Paso. The pea-sized bitter berries, along with other botanicals, add flavor when they are distilled with neutral grain alcohol—in this case, District Distilling Co.’s housemade vodka.

“We’re using uniquely American junipers not featured in any other gin in the world,” Cummings says. “They’ve got a unique geographic character to them. They evolved in West Texas because of its unique soils, unique weather, and mountain altitude.”

During a conversation with Parrish Brady, a research associate in astrophysics at UT who shares an interest in creatures that reflect polarized light, Cummings learned of a species of light-reflecting scarab beetle that lives in alligator junipers, also known as checkerbark junipers, around Fort Davis.

Suddenly, the biology professor had an idea—she wanted to try making a Texas-themed gin from the tree’s berries.

She headed to the mountains around Fort Davis, and discovered that the much larger berries of the alligator juniper, named for the pattern on the tree’s bark, impart a bolder, more extreme zing to gin than the comparatively smaller common juniper berry. Cummings describes her distillery’s Checkerbark gin, made with those berries, as something James Bond would drink—sophisticated and juniper-forward. A deep golden-colored version of Checkerbark called Checkerbark Barrel Rested spends an extra heft of time in bourbon barrels, which adds a tinge of whiskey flavor.

Then the brightly colored berries of the redberry juniper, which also grows around Fort Davis,  caught her eye. Those berries were eventually used to make the distillery’s Western-style Wild June gin, which is flavored with nearly a dozen botanicals. Wild June’s label features artwork by Austin musician Bob Schneider, who is also designing new labels for the company’s other gin varietals.

“What’s pretty cool about our two different gins is our dry (the Checkerbark and Checkerbark Rested) is extra bold, and our Western style, Wild June, is the opposite. It’s sweet and juicy,” she says. “It’s the yin and yang of the juniper world.”

Cummings and four of her five siblings launched District Distilling Co. in Washington, D.C., in October 2012 and introduced their spirits the following year. The company makes vodka, rum, whiskey, and some specialty liquors such as grappa and creme de menthe, and blends bourbons. But the distillery’s gin, which made its Austin debut at South By Southwest in March 2018, has garnered the most attention.

The Checkerbark gin has won a host of awards, including silver and bronze medals at the  American Distilling Institute, the Denver International Wine and Spirits Competition, and the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The Wild June took a gold medal at the San Franciso World Spirits Competition in 2018, and District Distilling Co. was named Gin Distillery of the Year at the New York International Spirits Competition in 2016.

Today Cummings collects juniper berries on about 10 private properties in the Davis Mountains. Occasionally, she randomly knocks on a landowner’s door to ask permission to harvest from a particularly promising tree, which is how she found Fertile Myrtle. She spotted the tree’s laden branches while driving along a gravel road in the Davis Mountains Resort subdivision, not far from where members of the Republic of Texas separatist group seized hostages as retaliation for the arrest of two group members in 1997.

Only female junipers produce berries, and the branches of this tree were weighed down with them. They were low in the tree and easy to reach, too. When she knocked on his door, landowner Jimmy George readily agreed to let her pick berries.

Every tree’s berries taste slightly different. That’s why Cummings names each tree and labels the berries she gathers from it. Plans are in the works to identify each bottle of gin with the name of the tree whose berries were used to create it.

In case you were wondering, don’t bother trying to make gin with that allergy-inducing ashe juniper that causes noses to run and eyes to itch around Central Texas. Cummings has tried—with less than tasty results. “The evil juniper makes evil gin,” she says.

She wants District Distilling Co.’s gin to become the prominent gin in Texas, but that’s a tall order. Right now, it’s a small operation.

Still, the gin was well-received at a spirits conference in London last summer, and is popping up in liquor stores and on specialty cocktail menus around Austin.

More recently, it has appeared in West Texas, where the berries have their roots.

“I think people are responding in equal parts to story of adventure—it’s a wild-foraged, Texas botanical and it has an amazing taste,” she says.

She knows who gets credit for that—those fecund trees that impart a streak of brash Texas attitude. That’s why she always thanks them before she drives away. “These are not crops,” Cummings says. “This is nature. And that’s part of nature’s beauty—she’s variable.”

 
 
 

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