Harvesting Juniper Berries on Washington Island

Last weekend we revisited Washington Island to participate in an annual juniper harvest event by Death’s Door. We visited the island last month (see post here) and loved it so much we decided to go back. However, this time we had a mission, we were there to help harvest the wild juniper crops on the island and contribute them to Death’s Door.

In August Finn toured the Death’s Door distillery in Middleton, Wisconsin and learned more about the gin making process. Of course it all starts with the ingredients and that means juniper berries. The name gin is derived from either the French genièvre or the Dutch jenever, which both mean “juniper”. These berries are used with other botanicals to give gin that unique flavor profile. They’re not for eating, in fact they aren’t even technically berries but are actually modified conifer cones. That didn’t stop us from squishing some and tasting the pulp. Sure enough, they taste just like gin.

These are the berries we were hunting. There is no specific juniper berry season so harvesters need to collect the mature, purple berries and leave the lighter ones for more ripening. Our technique was to place the bucket under the bush branch and then jiggle off the dark berries into the pail.

It’s slow work. After an hour of picking we had about 1/3 of a bucket. It takes seven pounds of juniper berries to make 200 cases of Death’s Door gin, so maybe we can claim credit for a couple bottles?

The annual event only produces a small portion of the juniper berries used in Death’s Door gin. It’s really a celebration for the growing company. Besides putting you to work, there’s also events like a fish boil, scavenger hunt, and pig roast using pigs raised on Death’s Door Spirits spent mash. We thought we’d be hanging out eating roast pig into the evening but learned the last ferry off the island was at 5pm so we had to skedaddle early and take our pig meat to-go. If you go next year, plan to stay overnight on the island so you can kick back and enjoy some Death’s Door cocktails after a day of picking berries.

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