From Medicinal to Recreational: The Birth of Gin

Dave Broom
·11 min read

What follows is a tale of depravity and joy, of low-life and sophistication, of creativity and unscrupulousness, of medieval mystics and scientists. Gin’s globe-spanning story weaves through medicine, alchemy, politics, the birth of national identity and that of the working class, imperialism, the spice trade, war, disease, Prohibition, frivolous Bright Young Things, and hard-eyed WASP businessmen. Gin’s praises have been sung by great writers and musicians, its subtleties created by masterly distillers and given extra dimensions by mixologists. In its time, it has variously been blamed for society’s ills and become a symbol of middle-class respectability.

Most of all, gin is resilient. It knows that people will eventually come to their senses and appreciate it for what it has always been–a spirit of extraordinary complexity and depth.

Listening to gin’s story is to sit at the feet of a war veteran and wonder quite how they survived the fantastical escapades they describe. Survive gin did, and prospered. We are now in gin’s second Golden Age. How we got here, however, is quite a yarn. So sit back…

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The Miracle Berry

The small conifer emerged tentatively, ally to the heaths, grasses, mosses, and lichens covering and coloring the new landscape that the ice had left after it had gouged and scoured the rocks for millennia. With the ice in retreat, juniper, with its black berry-like cones, was at the forefront of the recolonization of the land by vegetation, and its pollen remained safely preserved in peat banks for Man to discover several millennia later.

Ancient Remedy

In the early days of human civilization, when people cured themselves with whatever the earth could provide, the berries of what came to be scientifically named as Juniperus communis were valued for their particular potency. The Ancient Egyptians noted in the Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 bc), one of the oldest records of medical knowledge, how juniper cured jaundice. For the Ancient Greeks, it was both a performance-enhancing drug and a remedy for colic. The father of medicine, Roman physician Dioscorides (c. ad 40–90) detailed the effective use of juniper berries steeped in wine to combat many chest ailments, and also as an abortifacient. Were they distilled? Perhaps. Dioscorides’s “pot-on-pot” distillation method would appear in medical and herbal texts over the subsequent 500 years. Pliny the Elder also praised juniper, mentioning it 22 times in his Naturalis Historia (c. ad 77–79), where he writes:

“The seed…dispels flatulency and sudden chills, stops coughs and brings indurations to a head…and the berries taken in red wine act astringently on the bowels…The seed is diuretic in its effects…either as a dose of four berries in white wine or in the form of a decoction of 20 berries in wine.”

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Medieval Panacea

By the thirteenth century, this miracle berry was one of a dizzying catalogue of ingredients that alchemists and apothecaries were experimenting with in cities such as Bruges. It was in nearby Damme, 7 km (4.5 miles) away, between 1266 and 1269 that Jacob van Maerlant wrote (in rhyme) the 13-volume encyclopedia Der Naturen Bloeme, itself a translation of Brussels-born Thomas of Cantimpré’s 20-volume Liber de Natura Rerum. In Chapter 8, van Maerlant advises: “cook [juniper] berries in wine for cramps…cook berries in rainwater for stomach pains.” He also describes a method of distilling the wood to make oil, which, along with juniper incense and berries stuffed into masks, led the battle against the onslaught of the Black Death (1346–53).

Hieronymus Brunschwig’s treatise on distilling of 1500, the title of which translated into English as The Vertuose Boke of Distyllacyon, contained a recipe for “water of genyver berries”:

“In the morning/at nine at night/drink of the same water at each time an ounce/is good against the gravell in the limbs and in the bladder/it causes the urine to come out and well to piss…”

This was the age of the herbals–encyclopedias of plants and their curative properties–and juniper played a prominent role in most of them. The Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner chose to exemplify the distillation of juniper’s fruits in his 1559 herbal entitled The Treasure of Euonymus. Gesner’s herbal also contained a vast recipe for “a most noble water of vertues worthy to be preferred before silver and gold” and listed juniper among 23 base ingredients, while another recipe that claimed to “restoreth youth” had 44. The other ingredients are familiar to gin lovers: grains of paradise, sage, fennel seeds, nutmeg, pepper, bayberry, fresh herbs, cubeb berries, cardamom, and almond. Three years later, William Turner published his A New Herball, the first to focus on English plants, including juniper, which he reported “grows plenteously in Kent…in the bishopric of Durham and Northumberland” and could be used as a diuretic, as well as to keep vipers away. This was followed in 1640 by the last of the great herbals, John Parkinson’s Theatrum Botanicum, in which he wrote: “No man…can easily set down the virtues of the juniper tree,” yet undeterred he goes on to try. Juniper, it would seem, was good for treating everything from nosebleeds to the plague, including convulsions during childbirth and asthma. By then, however, in the Low Countries at least, juniper had another valuable attribute, and one that had an affect on wealth as well as health.

The Spirit of the Low Countries

We don’t know his name, but we can surmise that a certain merchant who lived between Arnhem and Appeldorn in 1495 was rich, because who else but a wealthy man would have a household book handwritten for his own delight? And who else would have been able to afford the outrageous amount of spices needed to make a recreational spirit, the earliest found to date to use juniper? This was a decadent, liquid manifestation of power and also a clear indication that people were drinking for pleasure. Two years later, “brandy –a catch-all term for spirits at that time–was being taxed in Amsterdam.

Water of Life

To understand gin, you must first understand genever, the rise of which came on the back of warfare, religious persecution, nation building, and trade. There was a rich seam of alchemical-related writings in Dutch from the thirteenth century onwards, many of which mention juniper. However, it was Johannes de Aeltre’s 1351 copy of an earlier tract titled Aqua vite, dats water des levens of levende water that is particularly significant in highlighting a shift in the spirit’s function. In it, he stated that aqua vitae:

“Het doet oec den mensche droefheit vergeten

Ende maecten van hertten vro ende oec stout ende coene.”

“It makes people forget about sadness,

and makes their hearts happy and brave.”

Clearly, a change had taken place. People were realizing that what had been regarded purely as a medicine had another property. And so juniper berries were ready to assume their modern role.

The position of Bruges as a center for trade and intellectual investigation dwindled in the sixteenth century when the river Zwin silted up, and the focus shifted 90km (56 miles) east to Antwerp where, in 1552, Philippus Hermanni wrote Een Constelijck Distileerboec. It not only featured a recipe for juniper berry water but went into forensic detail about how to distill. It would become the manual for distillers in the Low Countries.

All of the healing waters up until this point had been wine-based, but a succession of poor harvests and cold weather prompted distillers to turn to what was around them–initially sour beer and subsequently rye and malted barley. As genever specialist Tess Posthumus points out, the spirit’s early history has been muddled through mistranslation.

Korenbrandewijn (grain-based brandy) was common, but was also known simply as brandewijn (brandy),” she says. “It wouldn’t have made sense for distillers to keep using imported wines when they had a large supply of grain. Adding juniper was not a way to imitate grape brandy but either for medicinal purposes, or to mask the flavors of stale grain.”

There was another reason for this shift from grape to grain. Supply of the former was severely restricted from the start of the Eighty Years War between the Low Countries and their then rulers, Spain, in 1568. A Protestant uprising, centered around Antwerp, was violently suppressed by the Spanish. The combination of increased religious persecution and a fall in trade prompted a mass exodus of artisans, distillers, and merchants. Six thousand refugees went to London alone during this period.

As Antwerp’s importance declined, distillers re-established themselves across the new Dutch Republic, in towns such as Schiedam, Leiden, Amsterdam, Weesp, and Hasselt (now in Belgium). There was a second wave in 1601, when the rulers of the Spanish-controlled south, Archdukes Albert and Isabella, banned distillation from grains, an edict which remained in force for 112 years.

Added Values

By the start of the seventeenth century, war was imposing a change. In 1606, the Dutch Republic taxed brandy, anise, and genever. Since prior to this only brandy had been taxed, it’s evident that the latter was now being more widely consumed. A shift in flavor also took place. Rather than just juniper, other spices were becoming easier to obtain. In 1602, the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnieor VOC) received its charter. Until its dissolution in 1799, it was the world’s most powerful trading body, with a virtual monopoly on the spice trade. The Dutch Golden Age had begun.

Among the refugees from Antwerp were the Bulsius family who, after a short period in Cologne, had arrived in Amsterdam in 1575, changed their name to Bols, and began making liqueurs. By 1664, they had added genever to their range. Both styles of drink required exotic ingredients, and the family established close ties with the 17-man Council of the VOC. In 1700, at the height of the VOC’s power when it had risen to the status of a de factostate, Lucas Bols became a shareholder, allowing him preferential access to the spices as well as a distribution network for his products.

The VOC’s nigh-on 5,000-strong fleet made Amsterdam the center of world trade. As E M Beekman observes in Fugitive Dreams, “monopolies can be legislated, but they can only be maintained by force…” Yet what did Amsterdam’s merchants and distillers care of the brutalities in the East when its riches were being unloaded on the city’s wharves? In came the spices and silks; out went the genever. By this time, the Dutch navy and army were receiving a daily ration of genever. Colonists in the East Indies would have soopjes (shots) of “parrot soup”, “fathead,” and “hopping water” throughout the day, and take their “mosquito net” nightcap before sleep. Genever was also used in bartering. The missionary Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk was offended when a Batak chief in Sumatra asked for 12 bottles of genever in exchange for a sacred text.

Hollands Go Global

Genever had become part of a complex web of trade and culture, one thread in the intricate tapestry of identity that the new nation was stitching for itself. As it began to be distributed around the world–to western and South Africa, India, Japan, China, the Caribbean, South America, and Europe–it became a signifier for the Dutch. It wasn’t just genever, it was “Hollands.” Production continued to rise. Grain came in from the Baltic, and malted barley from England. Casks were needed, made by coopers such as Petrus de Kuyper of Horst, whose son Jan opened a distillery in Schiedam in 1752, its smoke and scents mingling with the effusions from the town’s other 126 operations.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Dave Broom</div>
Courtesy Dave Broom

The creation in 1713 of the Austrian Netherlands (now Belgium) had, finally, seen distilling recommence there, though contemporary reports suggested that quality was not particularly high. By the end of the century there was also an increase of gin (genièvre) distilling in France, which, up until then, had banned distillation from grain. Although exports of genever to England were interrupted by four wars between the English and the Dutch (1652–4, 1665–7, 1672–4, and 1780–4), by the end of the eighteenth century, “Hollands” was selling in the London’s new “strong water shops” at half the price of French brandy. As the capital’s fledgling distillers were struggling to shake off the stigma that had attached itself to gin, genever entered the nineteenth century with confidence. It wasn’t only its colonies and neighbors that wanted genever, now America wanted it as well.

Excerpted with Permission from Gin: How to Drink It by Dave Broom, Mitchell Beazley

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