For years, foresters and conservationists have been trying to create new markets for western juniper in Oregon. The species has overrun some parts of the state, and is sucking scarce water from Oregon's high desert.
A handful of custom sawmills that are willing to work with the small knotty tree have experimented with juniper fence posts and juniper cabinets and juniper shavings for pet bedding.
Meanwhile, in a tiny town in Sweden not far from the Arctic Circle, master distiller Jon Hillgren wondered what gin would taste like if it were aged in a juniper barrel.
Hillgren is the founder of Hernö Gin Distillery, and claims to be the world's northernmost gin maker.
Many craft distillers had tried aging gin in oak barrels and old whiskey casks, but Hillgren thought a juniper barrel would be the perfect compliment to the juniper berries that give gin its distinctive bite.
"In Sweden we make small butter knives out of juniper wood, and just smelling one of these knives you get a great juniper smell. I wondered, if we make a big barrel out of this, what would we get out of it taste-wise?" Hillgren says.
To make a traditional Swedish cask, Hillgren needed thick juniper staves with as few knots as possible, to prevent leaks. His distillery is located just a few miles from Sweden's largest sawmills, but he couldn't find juniper wood anywhere in Europe that met his specifications. So he searched Google, and found the In The Sticks sawmill in Fossil, Oregon.
Kendal Derby, a rangeland ecologist, founded the mill so that juniper cut during range restoration projects wouldn't go to waste. Few of Oregon's larger sawmills are willing to work with it. Hillgren began emailing Derby, and was delighted to find another small artisan business halfway across the world.
"We haven’t met each other, but we’re doing business very well. It’s all about trust. It's a perfect cooperation," Hillgren says.
Derby agrees. "It was fun. When we first started talking about it, I was headed out the door to go elk hunting. Jon promptly wrote back and said 'we go elk hunting in Sweden too,'" he remembers.
Derby custom cut an order of juniper staves for Hillgren. Some of the lumber didn't make the grade, so Derby used the leftovers to make butcher blocks and wooden blanks for flute carvers.
In Sweden, Hillgren hired a cooper to build each barrel by hand using traditional techniques, heating the wood to make it easier to bend. Hillgren let his gin age in the barrels for 30 days. He says that gave it a deep, complex flavor and a slight yellow color. He released the first bottles in 2013. This year, the Juniper Cask Gin won a gold medal at the International Wine and Spirits Competition.
"This mix, we thought would be fabulous, and we’re selling out," Hillgren says. He believes he is the only person in the world making gin in juniper barrels.
Hernö exports gin to eight countries, but it isn't distributing it in the U.S., though it's available on Amazon's website in the United Kingdom. Kendal Derby says he hasn't had a chance to try the finished gin yet. He's more of a beer guy, but he loves what Hillgren has made.
"It’s a great idea, and now he’s winning awards. The wood is a real ingredient for his success and that’s pretty exciting to be part of,” he says.
Derby primarily mills landscape timber and furniture grade lumber, and struggles to stay in business. The state has invested heavily in juniper, creating an Oregon Solutions project to help develop new markets for it. Nevertheless, Derby says most juniper sawyers go out of business eventually. He says he's trying everything, hoping to hit on a way to make In The Sticks profitable.
"Whatever someone calls and says they want, I do it, but I still don’t pay myself. I just work,” he says.