Religion, war, disease, gangsters, empire and moral dissolution — the history of gin has it all. Rising from sober beginnings in the monasteries and apothecaries of northern Europe, to become the drug of the masses, triggering a national crisis; but also a symbol of sophistication and class, the glittering jewel of the cocktail age. Like a great literary heroine, gin has ridden the waves of fashion and fallen in and out of favour — at times plummeting spectacularly from grace, only to later make a triumphant re-emergence. It has entranced both the poor and the powerful, undergoing many transformations along the way, and remains today one of the most popular spirits in the world. This is the story of the indomitable ‘Slappy Bonita’.
The invention of gin is often attributed to Franz de la Boë (1614-1672), a Dutch chemist, anatomist, and ardent defender of the theory of the circulation of the blood. By infusing spirits with botanicals, and juniper in particular, de la Boë produced an invigorating health tonic, which enjoyed great success, and which he named ‘jenever’ — that is, Dutch for ‘juniper’.
In fact, as Davy Jacobs, Co-ordinator of the Belgian National Genever Museum says, jenever, usually spelt ‘genever’ in English, has a much longer ancestry, evolving from a distilling tradition that begins with the medieval Arab scientists of the Islamic Golden Age. It was they who first developed a means of creating high-alcohol spirits, using knowledge gleaned from translations of technical texts from India, Iran and Greece.
“The soldiers who fought on the Crusades, together with the monks who went to North Africa on a mission to convert people there to Catholicism, discovered those distilling techniques and took them back with them to Europe. Then in the monasteries and universities in Europe, especially in France and the Low Countries, those techniques were further developed and refined,” Jacobs explains. “That we have genever is thanks to those monks and also to the soldiers of the Crusades, who very much liked brandy, which was later flavoured with different herbs and spices.”
In Flanders, the Cistercian monasteries of Ter Duinen and Ter Doest in particular played an important role in safeguarding and disseminating these techniques, leading to the development of sophisticated distilling expertise in the area that is modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands. By the time Franz de la Boë perfected his elixir in the 17th century, grain-distilled brandy was already popular.
Juniper, too, had been long established as a healing botanical, and its berries were commonly employed to treat a vast range of diverse ailments: boiled in wine or water, they were used to treat cramps and stomach ache; set alight, their smoke was thought to cleanse homes struck by the plague; ingested, it was believed they could cure gout and gallstones; baths of rainwater infused with juniper were even believed to cure skin conditions and digestive discomfort.
“The oil of the juniper berry was given to people for all kinds of diseases and pains, at first administered in small drops,” Jacobs explains. “Later, when people started to experiment and put juniper oil and berries into alcohol, they found it gave a very specific taste, very fresh and sweet, which they began to like. And so they then began drinking it for pleasure.” The natural abundance of juniper berries in the Low Countries also helped to make it an obvious and popular addition to local spirits, complemented by other herbs and spices, such as aniseed, coriander and caraway. Towards the end of the 15th century, these ‘brandies’ were already beginning to be taxed in the region, suggesting they were no longer being drunk in drops, but ‘by the shot’.
“That we have genever is thanks to those monks and also to the soldiers of the Crusades, who very much liked brandy”
De la Boë therefore perfected rather than invented the drink. Yet even had genever been his own invention, he would be less the ‘father of gin’ than its benevolent uncle; also known as ‘Dutch gin’, genever is distinct from the clear spirit commonly served up with tonic, ice and slice. Instead of the floral, herby taste of London Dry Gin, genever is almost closer to whisky, with malt tastes on the back of the tongue, and a wide variation in colour. “The biggest difference between genever and gin is the strength of the juniper,” Jacobs notes. “The main taste of genever is really the taste of different grains, while in the gin the main flavour that comes through is the distinctive juniper berry.”
So how did grain-dominant genever morph into the botanical, juniper-heavy gin we know today? The process, Jacobs claims, begins with the religious conflicts which took place in the Low Countries, during the 16th century, which caused many master distillers to emigrate. Some went to France, where they helped to develop cognac; others to Germany, where they distilled schnapps; and others to England, where they distilled what would become the phenomenon of ‘gin’.
War had another indirect impact on the drink’s development, and its love affair with the English palate. During the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648, and likely during other similar conflicts, English troops garrisoned in the Netherlands noted the native soldiers’ habit of downing genever before battle. Admiring its effect on steadying the nerves and warming the blood, they too developed a taste for the drink and nicknamed their discovery ‘Dutch Courage’.
This is an extract from a much longer and more interesting article, published in Hot Rum Cow issue 1, which is available to buy in our shop.