The genus Vaccinium is a rather diverse group of plants including several common grocery store fruits: blueberry, cranberry, and huckleberry. What you won’t see in stores are the fragile, easily smashed berries called “Bilberries,” or to my readers who are still living in 19th century England, you might call these plants “black-hearts.” Bilberry Black Hearts Gin from Journeyman Distillery in Three Oaks, Michigan pays homage to these small dark colored berries.
Because they are so difficult to grow and ship commercially, most of the world’s bilberries are foraged for.
Bilberry Black Hearts Gin begins from a base of organically grown Michigan wheat. It is then distilled again with a fairly traditional group of botanicals including coriander, anise, angelica and two kinds of citrus.
Bilberry Black Hearts Gin has a somewhat dusty, spicy nose. Lots of coriander jumps out of the botanical blend, but those spices smell as if they are sprinkled across a huckleberry and custard tart. It’s an unusual nose that combines two disparate aromas. As it sits in the glass though at room temperature, you’ll notice a bit more of that berry character begins to take come through.
The palate though is rich and jammy. Early on a hint of that initial spice gives way to piney, somewhat resinous juniper. The berry notes then take over.
At first like dry cinnamon sprinkled over a blueberry, it takes on a more custard-like berry tart aroma. Bilberries themselves are tough to place as they’re not something people regularly eat on their own. There’s a distilled cranberry like tartness, with a touch of black raspberry— then the finish is warm and somewhat dry.
Hints of the wheat base come through, along with anise and crackers.
At 45% ABV, Bilberry Black Hearts Gin is still quite smooth. It also pairs nicely with savory ingredients like olives and onions. Try it in a Gibson, Martini, or Red Snapper.
Bilberry Black Hearts Gin has another side though— it’s also well complemented with citrus and tonic. In fact, it brightens it a lot and the berry notes become sweeter and jammier. Try it in a Gin and Tonic with East Imperial’s Yuzu Tonic Water.
Overall, Bilberry Black Hearts Gin
What surprised me was that despite the fruit and berry notes, Bilberry Black Hearts Gin works in a range of cocktails, and can easily work as a contemporary twist on a number of classic cocktails.
Fans of gins like Brockman’s or other berry-forward gins may want to give it a try. But it’s not as sweet. It’s a little more complex with the base adding character, and the spice botanicals playing a nearly-co-starring role.
Recommended in its category.
Michigan Gin Exchange 2019
Special thanks to a reader who sent me a selection of Michigan gins to try and review on this site. Stay tuned for more Michigan gin reviews!