Way back in mid-May, we received an email from Lindley Thornburg of Heather Freeman Media & Public Relations asking if we’d be interesting in profiling Molly Cummings, one of the co-owner’s of Washington D.C.’s District Distilling. While interviews are always good fun, and while gin sampling is even more fun, it was this very brief bio of our prospective interviewee that truly intrigued us:
Molly Cummings is a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and co-owner/juniper wild-crafter for District Distilling Company in Washington, D.C. She brings her filed and biological expertise to the craft foraging all of the unique Texas Mountain-based junipers featured in District Distilling’s award-winning gins (Alligator Junipers in Checkerbark and Barrel Rested Checkerbark; and Red Berry Junipers in WildJune).
A biology professor from the University of Texas at Austin that’s part owner of a distillery in D.C., AND a forager for wild juniper berries in the mountains of West Texas? This whole scenario fascinated us, so we just had to find out more!
In order to prepare for the Q&A, we requested some gin samples from District Distilling. They agreed to our “demands” and sent us the following lickety split (and when I say lickety split, I mean it arrived in two days):
Our goal was to determine what effect the wild juniper berries have on District Distilling’s gin, i.e. do their gins taste any different from the hundreds of other gins that line the liquor store shelves. Here’s what we thought of each gin expression…
Gin #1: Checkerbark American Dry Gin
What THEY say…
Checkerbark is an American take on the traditional London Dry Style Gin. While England’s demure gins are often restrained, Checkerbark is a bolder version of the British classic, and features wild harvested juniper berries. The inclusion of this unique and wild harvested juniper berry delivers a gin with a distinct flavor from a tree with a unique bark (the Checkerbark juniper tree).
What WE say…
- ABV: 47%
- Appearance: Crystal clear.
- Aroma: Very herbally with hints of anise, lemon peel, cracked black pepper, and most important of all, juniper.
- Taste: Whoa! Starts off really hot with lots of anise and black pepper. Mellows a bit in the middle with some citrus and juniper coming through. More pepper backed juniper in the long and spicy finish. Lots of juniper and black pepper notes linger in the aftertaste.
The Verdict: I can’t say that I drink much gin on its own, but the few that I’ve had straight are a bit more subtle than this one. Perhaps the higher octane has something to do with the added intensity. While it was quite nice overall, I think this is one that will serve you better as a mixer, especially if we’re talking about something really citrusy like The Rickey (which just happens to have originated in Washington, DC!).
Gin #2: WildJune Western Style Gin
What THEY say…
WildJune is for the Wild at Heart. This premium craft gin boasts 11 botanicals including wild Red Berry Junipers foraged from the West Texas Mountains. Handpicked junipers coupled with cinnamon and hops gives this unusual gin its exceptional flavor. Bold, complex yet subtle and seductive— this gin is for the adventurer in all of us.
What WE say…
- ABV: 45%
- Appearance: Crystal clear with zero color.
- Aroma: Much more licorice on this one, i.e. kinda like that Panda Soft Licorice. After that I get juniper, lime zest, green tea, cracked black pepper, and something else that I can’t quite pinpoint. Curry spice perhaps?
- Taste: Not as spicy and peppery as the American Dry Gin. Much more fresh and lively, if that makes any sense. WIldJune is much more easy drinking on its own. Black jellybeans and eucalyptus with a healthy kick of juniper in the middle. A bit more spice at the finish with all of the flavors coming together nicely. Some licorice lingers in the aftertaste.
The Verdict: I liked this much better than the American Dry Gin as I found it to be better balanced and easier to drink straight. I don’t drink Martinis, but I’m guessing that this would probably make a very nice one. What I do like is Negronis, and I have no doubt that this would make for a really delicious one.
Gin #3: Checkerbark Barrel Rested American Dry Gin
What THEY say…
We took our award winning Checkerbark American Dry Gin and stowed in both new oak and used Bourbon barrels and added one of life’s most precious commodities – time. Presenting in a golden hue, Checkerbark Barrel Rested Gin features aromas of vanilla and cinnamon mingling with juniper and refreshing citrus notes.
What WE say…
- ABV: 47%
- Appearance: Pale amber / 14K gold color.
- Aroma: Way different from the other two! Getting vanilla, cinnamon, powdered sugar, soft juniper notes, mint, a bit of black pepper, and anise.
- Taste: MUCH softer and mellower than the American Dry Gin. Oodles of vanilla and light cinnamon at the start along with some mild sweetness. The juniper shows up in the middle, but this time around, it’s delightfully subtle. There’s also some licorice coming through. The finish is lightly spiced with cinnamon and cracked pepper followed by vanilla and powdered sugar. The aftertaste is quite soothing and lightly sweet.
The Verdict: Really nice things happened to the American Dry Gin once it spent some time in the barrel. Much more enjoyable and highly sippable. I can definitely drink this as-is, but I’m guessing that it would also excel in a variety of cocktails like a Negroni, or maybe even an Old Fashioned. This gin was easily my favorite of the three.
I’m far from a gin expert, so while I’m not experienced enough to rate these gins against the few gins that I’ve sampled over the years, I will say that the WildJune and Checkerbark Barrel Rested were really fun to drink and I’m looking forward to trying them in different cocktails and/or just sipping them on their own. As far as how the wild juniper berries affected the flavor, I’m thinking that the anise and licorice notes are what really set these gins apart from others that I’ve tried over the years (I’m probably wrong about the licorice and anise, but what else is new?).
Now that we have all of that out of the way, let’s get on with our interview with Biologist, Wild Juniper Forager, and Distillery Co-Owner Extraordinaire, Molly Cummings…
G-LO: I’m a little confused (regular readers know that this is normal for me). When I perused your bio on the University of Texas at Austin website, there is no mention of anything related to Botany and/or Plant Biology. How does a Biologist that studies “sensory ecology, evolution, and behavior” get into the booze business?
Molly Cummings (MC): This is an easy one to answer, and the simple answer is— Why Not? Isn’t the Booze business all about “filling up your senses”? Truth be told, it wasn’t my day job that got me into the booze biz, it was growing up in Wisconsin where the Whisky/Bourbon Old Fashioneds reign. A pre-dinner Old Fashioned was the norm in our family. And I think that was the real inspiration behind my brothers conjuring up the idea of starting a distillery. Being a biologist by trade and accustomed to heading out on nature expeditions (granted, usually I am on the scout for fish), it made the hunt for a truly American Juniper berry a natural task for me.
I love a good nature adventure; and now I have an excuse to head out to the mountains nearly every weekend in the fall!
G-LO: Now that we know how you got involved in the distilling business, tell us how you came up with the idea of foraging for wild juniper berries in Davis Mountains State Park. Just so you know, I checked Google Maps. Those mountains are 430 miles from UT at Austin. I get that you can move pretty quickly through Texas, but seriously, why there? That’s a hell of a long way to go for some funky berries!
MC: Our mission at District Distilling Company is to produce uniquely American spirits. So when we were designing our gins, it made perfect sense that we would be on a quest for a uniquely American juniper! We had heard about the Checkerbark juniper (also known as the Alligator Juniper because of its alligator skin-esque bark). The name alone inspired a hunt for it. And when I heard wind that they were abundant in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, I planned my first roadtrip as quickly as I could. During some of my first Checkerbark juniper hunts to West Texas I started noticing this other juniper that was crazy red and unusually juicy. I had never heard of the red berry juniper before, so I had to key it out in my tree books to make sure it was a juniper. I quickly started collecting those as well and sending them off to our amazing Distiller, Matt Strickland, to have him work his magic.
It’s true that it is quite a distance to get there, but these berries are well worth the effort. And while I often camp in the Davis Mountains State Park (it is spectacular), I never collect there. Instead, I have developed some wonderful friendships with local landowners that have welcomed me on their land to forage for junipers (in exchange for a bottle or two of our amazing gins!).
Honestly, part of the beauty of these berry hunts is to get far away from the hustle and bustle of the city. I rarely have cell phone reception out there, so it is a wonderful retreat into nature.
G-LO: What makes these juniper berries so special? More importantly, how are you gonna keep them a secret from all of those Gin loving Brits? How are the juniper species (more specifically, the character of the berries) different from others in the US and Europe?
MC: Hopefully I can keep the Brits away from the land of the alligator & red berry junipers because it just isn’t that easy to get to; and the geographic area is not large at all (plus they don’t serve high tea in those parts of the country!). I’d rather they seek out these natural gems in their liquid gold form better known as Checkerbark American Dry Gin and WildJune Western Style Gin!
These berries are quite distinctive from the traditional common juniper found in Europe and a good portion of the US. Both the red berry (also known as Juniperus pinchotii) and the alligator/checkerbark juniper (Juniperus deppeana) inhabit higher and drier lands in a small pocket of the West. These are scrappy trees and bushes able to find water when it is scarce and really good at outcompeting other plants for scarce water resources. Because of their adaptation to a harsher environment, they tend to concentrate their resources into their cones (what we call berries), and this makes for a more flavor-packed punch when it comes to the gin. A little bit of Checkerbark or Red Berry juniper goes a long way. The Native Americans in this region knew that these berries were small but mighty and used them for medicinal purposes.
The Checkerbark juniper is very aromatic with an extra bold zing. We pair this particularly bold and robust juniper with the common juniper, orange peel, coriander and orris root to make an American Dry Style gin with exceptional aromatic complexity.
The Red berry juniper has a sweetness to it that is so unusual for a juniper. She (sorry, but I have come to genderfy my berries and gins) is sweet with a little something extra that is hard to put into words. She’s not quite as tart as a cranberry, but she has a bit of an edge to her sweetness. Matt has complemented her sweetness with the common juniper and plenty of citrus and other unusual botanicals such as hops and cinnamon to make for a truly spectacular Western Style gin.
G-LO: How involved are you in the day to day operations of District Distilling and how often do you go to DC to check in on your investment? I checked Google Maps again. 1,523 miles! Wouldn’t it have been easier for you if this gin was made in Austin instead of DC?
MC: The beauty of co-owning a business with your siblings is that you generally just need to make a phone call to check in on things. I live too far away from DC to make regular visits; but all of us sibling co-owners have regular business phone calls to keep things running smooth. Growing up in a large family, we’ve learned to delegate responsibility, and I clearly have the best job of us all in being the wild forager and wildcrafter of our unique junipers! We hope that someday we can open up a satellite distillery in Austin; but for now we are thrilled to make our uniquely American spirits in our nation’s capital in DC. Plus, our gins are also exceptional in that we use an unusual base that features American mid-Atlantic rye and barley. We use District Distilling Company’s Corridor Vodka as our spirit base (80% rye and 20% malted barley). It is a whiskey-lover’s vodka and it makes for a smooth and exceptional base to begin the distillation process with our gin botanicals.
G-LO: When you’re not teaching, researching, forraging for wild juniper berries, or working in the distillery business, what’s your beverage of choice when it’s time for you to relax a bit?
MC: It happens to be our gins—Surprise, surprise! But, which gin I choose is completely dependent on my mood. If I’m feeling sophisticated and swanky, I’ll serve myself some Checkerbark either on the rocks or as a Gibson martini. If it’s after dinner and want something to sip on or in the mood for an Old Fashioned, I will have Checkerbark Barrel Rested. And if I’m in an up-for-fun mood or it’s hot out and I need a drink to really refresh me, I reach for Miss WildJune (either on the rocks, with soda, or just a bit of fruit).
G-LO: Speaking of drinking. What’s your favorite way to enjoy each of the three Gins, i.e. neat, on the rocks, in a cocktail, etc.? Please be specific. We love details!
MC: Truth be told, I think the very best way to have all of our gins is on the rocks. This way you can fully taste their nuanced beauty and the complexity and richness of their unique flavors. However, I do have my favorite cocktails for each of them!
For Checkerbark, it is a Gibson. (A savory American version of the martini.) I mix 5 parts Checkerbark American Dry, 1 part Dry vermouth and add a cocktail onion (perly white) served in a chilled martini glass. Oh, this is divine!
For WildJune, it is the Wild Watermelon. I shake together 1.5 oz. WildJune Gin, 1 oz. Watermelon juice (just squeeze two inch cubes of fresh watermelon) and 6 mint leaves and pour over ice in a tall or short highball glass. I then top it off with 3-4 oz. of Topo Chico (Texas’ favorite version of sparkling water, so club soda will do). It is so refreshing and summertime yummy!
Lastly, having grown up on Old Fashioneds, my favorite version of this classic is now with our Checkerbark Barrel Rested Gin [Editor’s Note: I wrote my tasting notes BEFORE the interview was complete, so it looks like my cocktail suggestion for this gin and Molly’s suggestion are in sync!]. Try it—it is about as smooth as it gets!