There aren’t many American craft spirits out there that can say they’ve celebrated a 20th birthday, because on a most basic level very few have existed for that long, or managed to survive for that long. With the American microdistilling market only now coming into its adulthood, a single brand that’s been around for more than two decades is still a rarity, but a pretty good indication that whatever’s in the bottle likely deserved to stand the test of time. And that’s a pretty apt description of Junipero Gin.
“Junipero” is one of those names I’ve recognized for far longer than I knew anything about it. Hell, when the first Junipero was bottled, I was only 13 years old. After first becoming curious about cocktails in my 20s, I distinctly remember seeing the name in many upscale locales, but I don’t think I ever genuinely realized that the brand was a gin, despite the rather obvious allusion to juniper berries in the name. Rather, I believe my assumption at the time was that “Junipero” was some kind of juniper liqueur or herbal amaro. At least, that was the fanciful picture my brain drew for me at the time.
In reality, Junipero was and has always been one of the pioneering classics in the history of the American craft gin movement. As a category, gin had always been defined to the consumer by its association with classic U.K. London dry gin brands such as Gordon’s or Beefeater, or their American “London dry-style” equivalents. Junipero arrived to serve that market, but to serve it with more verve and volume. They weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel in the flavor department, as would become common with the sweeter, citrus-obsessed New Western gins of the later 2000s and 2010s—rather, they simply took the classic London dry gin profile and amped up its proof point and intensity to a more brash American sensibility. As a beer geek, it couldn’t help remind me of the way the American craft beer scene adapted British styles such as India pale ale, making them bolder and more boisterous … which only makes more sense when one realizes that it was Anchor Distilling Co., the offshoot of the legendary Anchor Brewing Co., that first produced Junipero. Today, Anchor Distilling is known as Hotaling & Co., the importer/distributor of many spirits brands from outside the U.S.A. Recently, they’ve redesigned this classic gin with an updated, juniper berry-blue bottle that has a much more modern look, as highlighted by the huge “JUNIPERO” scrawl across the bottle.
In terms of its makeup, the spirit itself is unchanged. Its 12 botanicals are a classic mix of commonly used elements, including juniper (naturally), coriander, cubeb, grains of paradise, lemon peel, orange peel, orris root, cassia bark, cardamom, bitter orange peel, aniseed, and angelica root. Perhaps most notably, it’s bottled at a very sturdy 49.3% ABV (98.6 proof), making it one of the strongest classic-style gins on the market. Such is the personality of Junipero—it doesn’t do anything half-assed.
Let’s get to tasting, as I’m not sure I’ve ever actually tasted this neat before.
On the nose, Junipero is fresh and perfumey, with moderate booziness that you’d no doubt be expecting for the commanding proof. It’s quite resinous, with sticky pine seguing into florals, violets and almost blueberry-like fruitiness. There’s a faint orange citrus as well, but the nose is certainly more defined by juniper than anything—this is not the citrus juice bomb gins that have come into vogue in more recent years.
On the palate, this is likewise quite piney and resinous, although not as bone dry as I was expecting it might be. The alcoholic strength alone does assure a certain level of residual sweetness, which plays nicely with flavors that segue into sweet orange, florals and warm spices, of which cardamom seems the most present to me. Once again, I find myself thinking of beer, and specifically of West Coast IPA—Junipero is like the West Coast IPA of gins, having that intensely resinous character and a bit of corresponding bitterness that balances out whatever sweet citrus is present. The heat, meanwhile, is considerable, but you knew it would be, right? This is the gin you turn to when you want to make sure the gin flavor is incapable of getting lost in your mixed drink or cocktail.
All in all, this is a classic of the genre, and distinctly American in its take-no-prisoners approach. It’s not calculated for subtlety, necessarily—it’s more like “brash in the right way.” It will make a big boy martini, there’s no doubt about that, but I also find myself thinking that the kind of people who enjoy gin on the rocks—my wife is in this camp—might also love Junipero in that setting, as the dilution will be incapable of dampening its bold flavor profile.
Distillery: Hotaling & Co.
City: San Francisco, CA
ABV: 49.3% (98.6 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $35 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor and spirits geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.