Pivot Award for juniper berry research

Thursday 1 April 2021

The juniper berry - synonymous with gin - is the focus of Massey University research to evaluate and identify suitable strains and propagation methods with potential to give New Zealand-made gins a unique sensory signature.

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(from left) Professor Joanne Hort; a juniper berry seedling; and Master of Science student Su Liu with juniper seedlings at Massey's Plant Horticultural Unit at the Manawatū campus.

Last updated: Monday 28 November 2022

The juniper berry – synonymous with gin – is the focus of Massey University research to evaluate and identify suitable strains and propagation methods with potential to give New Zealand-made gins a unique sensory signature.

The project will also explore the potential for a variety of other uses for juniper berries, including in meat and pickle flavouring, and pharmaceutical uses.

Professor Joanne Hort, Fonterra-Riddet Chair of Consumer and Sensory Science at Feast (Food Experience and Sensory Testing Lab) in the School of Food and Advanced Technology (SFAT), is leading a team of researchers at the Manawatū campus. They will evaluate the attributes of a New Zealand-grown juniper strain with the help of a $100K grant. Other lead researchers are Dr David Popovich, also from SFAT, Dr Svetla Sofkova from the School of Agriculture and Environment, and Dr Vaughan Symonds from the School of Fundamental Sciences.

Funded by the Taranaki-based Pivot Award, the project – Advancing a Juniper Berry Industry for New Zealand – will run this year as a partnership between Massey, Taranaki-based Begin Distilling (makers of Juno Gin and other gins) and Greentec Propagation, to progress the research needed to support the evolution of a juniper (Juniperus communis) berry industry for New Zealand.

The Pivot – Enabling Innovation in Agriculture Award is a partnership funded by Massey University and the Bashford-Nicholls Trust (through BAF – Bishop’s Action Foundation). Each organisation contributes $50,000 annually to the fund. Mary Bourke, Deputy Chair of BAF and Bashford-Nicholls Trusts says; “the award aims to support research projects, or the application of new research, to benefit communities and industries in Taranaki. Projects must have the potential to influence the future of agriculture or veterinary science, and to effect change.” 

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David and Joanne James, from Juno Gin in Taranaki.

Potential for niche export market

Professor Hort says a key focus of the research will be to “further sample New Zealand-grown juniper berries to determine if different terroir leads to distinctive sensory profiles in New Zealand-made gins, at the same time growing our understanding of the implications for plant identification, collection, selection, propagation, growing and harvesting, in both North and South Islands of New Zealand.” 

Juniper plants form “cones” that are similar to fleshy fruits formed by flowering plants, and these are referred to as ‘berries’ in the food and beverage industry. 

David James, of Begin Distilling, says “exploring the potential for commercially growing juniper in New Zealand could achieve a range of benefits for industry users, including security of supply and traceability, while at the same time providing a complementary crop – with carbon credentials – for New Zealand landowners.”

Professor Hort says research identifying a material difference in the flavour characteristics of the New Zealand-sourced berries could provide the basis for a future niche export market, in much the same way that New Zealand grapes and hops, and products made from these ingredients, are achieving niche export markets.

She adds that regardless of sensory differences between locally-grown and overseas-sourced variants, there is a rising demand for juniper berries. “There is a great opportunity to market New Zealand-grown berries in the future, for example –  to local and international distilleries, restaurateurs, sauerkraut and pickle producers, and meat and game meat producers who currently use imported juniper berries.”

The researchers are also aware of “promising attributes for juniper essential oils”, with extracts of juniper possessing diuretic, antiseptic, carminative (able to combat flatulence), anthelmintic (able to de-worm), antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-rheumatic properties. 

The project builds on work which began when Massey and Juno Gin launched a citizen-science project (The Great New Zealand Juniper Hunt) at the end of 2019. The next phase has two main aims: to explore the volatiles (aroma compounds) and sensory character of unique New Zealand juniper/gin attributes; and to grow an understanding of the implications for plant identification, diversification, collection, selection/propagation and growing in Taranaki and wider New Zealand, says Professor Hort. 

Massey University Provost Professor Giselle Byrnes says the award offers a significant opportunity for industry partners in Taranaki to collaborate with Massey researchers to address challenges or create new opportunities in the agriculture and veterinary science sectors. 

“Through this award, we are looking to deepen strategic collaborations between the University, industry and the Taranaki community,” she says. “Strong partnerships are needed if we are to deliver sustainable social and economic benefits to the region, but they also have the potential to solve bigger challenges for New Zealand and the world.”