Molly Cummings rakes her hands gently down the branches of a juniper tree growing on a hillside in the Davis Mountains like she’s milking a cow.
Pea-size berries drop with a steady plunk-plunk-plunk into the heavy apple-picking apron cinched around her waist, and an hour later, when the pocket on the front of that apron bulges with berries, she empties them into a paper bag commonly used for lawn clippings.
The bounty, eventually, will make its way to a distillery on the East Coast, where it will add a special West Texas zing to a batch of gin.
“My goal is to become the Tito’s of gin,” says Cummings, a University of Texas evolutionary biologist who, along with her five siblings, owns and operates District Distilling Co. in Washington, D.C. The company makes rum, vodka and whiskey and blends bourbons, but it’s the gin — and its uniquely Texas roots — that garners the most attention.
After a few hours, she removes her long leather pruning gloves, folds up her stool, packs the berries in the back of her sport utility vehicle and bids adieu to this tree, which she’s dubbed Fertile Myrtle.
“Thank you, sweetie pie,” she calls out to the lush green plant. “Big bodacious babe that you are.”
Cummings describes the gin-making part of her life as a “grand botanical adventure” and admits it’s become something of an obsession. As a biologist at UT she studies the skin camouflaging techniques used by marine creatures, and that science background has served her well in the spirits industry. She labels each sack of juniper berries she collects, noting the date, location of the tree and the tree’s name — and she names them all, from Eve, who started it all, to Washtub Wanda and Big Bertha.
Late summer means harvest time, and after a good weekend’s work in the Davis Mountains, she’ll head back to Austin with about 20 pounds of raw berries. There, she sprays them with citrus oil to remove the fine powder on their surface (a type of yeast bloom), blanches them in boiling water, dehydrates them and vacuum packs them for the trip to the distillery in Washington, D.C. (Texas isn’t as known for its gin the way it is for whiskey, but producers here like to include Texas-grown ingredients when they can, such as grapefruit peel from the Rio Grande Valley or yaupon holly from the Bastrop area.)
She spent 10 weekends in West Texas last fall, collecting about 50 pounds of berries from alligator juniper trees and another 50 pounds of berries from red junipers. Those berries were used to make about 36,000 bottles of gin.
“The thing I really love about gin is it’s so nature-focused,” she says. “It’s defined by its botanicals.”
Gin traces its roots to the Netherlands, and the name comes from the Dutch word for juniper. By definition, it’s a neutral grain spirit and botanical made with juniper berries. Nearly all gin is made in the U.K., using the same species of juniper, called the “common juniper,” because that’s the only palatable species there.
But Texas alone, it turns out, boasts eight different species of junipers, and two of them thrive in the volcanic soils and higher elevations of the West Texas mountains. Cummings experimented first with the berries from alligator junipers, also known as checkerbark junipers, which are named for the pattern on their bark. The species’ berries measure twice the size as those from common junipers. This is Texas, after all.
Plus, they taste good.
“The alligator juniper adds a nice zing to dry juniper,” Cummings says. “Friends who are martini connoisseurs love it.”
Then the bright red berries of the red junipers that also grow around Fort Davis caught her eye, and she began working with them too. (She also learned that berries from the allergy-inciting ashe juniper, or cedar, that flourishes around Central Texas make an awful gin.)
Today Cummings picks berries on about 10 private properties in the Davis Mountains, where the property owners have given her permission to pick. Occasionally, she randomly knocks on a landowner’s door, which is how she found Fertile Myrtle.
She spotted the voluptuous tree while driving along a gravel road in the Davis Mountains Resort subdivision, not far from where the Republic of Texas standoff took place in 1997. Only female junipers produce berries, and the branches of this tree were weighed down with them. Even better, the berries were close to the ground and easy to reach. She wouldn’t have to scale its branches to harvest them.
She knocked on a door and asked permission to pick.
“I got no use for them, help yourself,” homeowner Jimmy George replied, a little baffled, when she explained her mission. Later, he dropped by to check her progress and let her know she was welcome to return anytime to gather more berries.
Cummings and her siblings launched District Distilling Co. and an accompanying restaurant in Washington, D.C., in October 2016 and trotted out their spirits in the year that followed. The gin made its Austin debut at South by Southwest this March.
“It is super easy to sell this gin in Texas,” Cummings says. “I want to be the dominant gin in Texas, and it’s the right product to do that.”
The distillery makes three types of gin.
Checkerbark, a juniper-forward American dry gin, gets its flavor from the berries of the alligator juniper. “Checkerbark is more of a James Bond gin,” Cummings says. “When I’m feeling sophisticated, I’ll have it on the rocks.”
A deep golden-colored version of Checkerbark called Checkerbark Barrel Rested is aged is in bourbon barrels, which impart a hint of whiskey to the spirit. Cummings sips it straight or uses it to make a gin version of an old fashioned. “Aged gin is a new thing,” she says.
While searching for alligator junipers to make the Checkerbark Gin, she came across another species of juniper with a juicy red berry. That became Wild June, the distillery’s Western-style gin, which is flavored with nearly a dozen botanicals. In another sign of its Texas roots, Wild June’s label features artwork by Austin musician Bob Schneider, who is also designing new labels for the company’s Checkerbark gins.
The gin’s Texas flair has served it well so far. In Austin, Spec’s, Total Wine & More, Wine & Spirits, Austin Wine Merchant and the Austin Shaker all carry District Distilling Co.’s gins, and restaurants including True Food Kitchen, Vespaio, Pitchfork Pretty, Antone’s, Threadgill’s, Beer Plant and Chez Zee serve them. The gins were well-received at a spirits conference in London earlier this summer, and more than 200 bottles of Wild June were used recently to make the world’s largest gin and tonic at a food festival in London.
“It was such a feather in my soul when we went to London,” Cummings says. “The U.K. really knows their gin, and their experts were blown away with how gorgeous our gins are. That was so validating.”
But the credit always goes to the plant, and that’s why Cummings always thanks her trees when she’s done harvesting from them.
“It’s a live being that’s giving you something, and I want to make sure I don’t forget that,” she says.
If you want to try it: Checkerbark sells for about $25 a bottle. Wild June sells for about $30 a bottle. Checkerbark Barrel Rested sells for around $36.