Genever and Gin


Many people refer to Genever as a particular kind of Gin made in the Low Countries. The truth is very different: Genever is Genever, not a Dutch Gin. Although they are both accented by the flavour of juniper berries, Genever evolves from maltwine-spirits (whisky-like malt tones), and is a distinctly different drink from later styles of gin. History, production process and other details about Genever are HERE.
To understand modern Gin, one should take a look at its origins and the evolutionary steps it was subject to. First of all, the early styles of Gin evolved in late XVII century England directly from Genever. It wouldn’t be wrong to think of Genever as the ‘father of Gin’. In fact, the Dutch were already distilling high quality spirits using juniper berries as main botanical long before Gin was even prototyped. And their mastery was well renowned in Europe.


Genever arrives in England

Among many others, England became a market for Dutch jenever from the 1570s onwards. Sailors travelling between English ports and the ports of the Low Countries brought genever back with them much as modern day travellers acquire luxury drinks in Duty Free. Moreover, during the Thirty Years War, British troops joined Dutch soldiers in the fight against the Spanish Army. They soon became familiar with Genever, drinking it ahead of battles to fight fear and fatigue. It is exactly what it’s called “Dutch Courage”!


thirty years war

A battalion of the Dutch Army during the Thirty Years War


Slowly but surely, Genever traveled back to England where it began its rise in popularity, especially when the trade in spirits from France and Germany was interrupted during the war years in the 1630s. Domestic demand quickly increased and ports like London, Liverpool, Bristol and Plymouth were constantly mooring Dutch ships loaded with Genever.  However, it was only some years later that Genever became truly fashionable: in 1689 the Dutch King William of Orange sat on the English throne. He boycotted imports of popular Brandy produced in enemy France and, as a consequence, Genever’s popularity in England became enormous; records of the time report that Dutch distillers loaded their Genever on ships headed to England as soon as it was produced, before they could let it rest for a couple of months as they used to do.


William of Orange landing at Brixham, Torbay, 5 November 1688. Jan Wyck
William of Orange landing at Brixham, Torbay, 5 November 1688. Jan Wyck


The birth of Gin

In 1690, to reduce the economical dependence on foreign countries, the monopoly of the London Guild of Distillers was ended and distilling was liberalised in England. This resulted in an explosive growth in the number of small, artisanal distilleries. They started mass producing a juniper based spirit that, although it took inspiration from Dutch Jenever, was significantly lower in purity, due to a combination of low quality raw material and poor technological expertise. Its English name was a direct transformation of the world Geneva, shortened to one intoxicating monosyllabic word: Gin.


“I promise you: when the brits tried to copy good old complex Genever they finally ended up with the much more simple version they called Gin. They just couldn’t make Genever …”
  Jörg Meyer


The Gin of the time was not the same refined spirit that we know today. It was a fuller bodied, sweeter and less pure distillate called ‘Old Tom Gin’. The name comes from the wooden plaque shaped as a black cat (Old Tom) often affixed outside pubs. Under the sign there was a slot where thirsty passers would place a coin and duly receive a shot of Gin, poured by the bartender though a tube. Old Tom Gin is thought to be the missing link between malty Genever and neutral, very botanical London Dry Gin.

Old Tom Gin


The ‘Gin Craze’

Without any sort of regulation on production and retailing of Gin, for most of the first part of XVIII century England the spirit was cheaper than beer often safer to drink that contaminated water of cities, effectively becoming part of the diet for many poor families. It was drunk at any hour of the day and its perceived sweetness and alcohol content made it an effective remedy to hunger pains.  Official tax registers show that production of gin reached its peak in 1743, with 70 million litres of Gin produced over a population of 6 million. Not enough, it is estimated that one in five people in London was illegally distilling gin at home, commonly in their own bathtubs.
To stop the epidemic consumption of the spirit, in 1751 the English parliament enacted the so called ‘Gin Act’, substantially raising the taxes both for producers and merchants of the spirit. After a period of riots in the poor districts of London, smaller distilleries were forced to close down and production was concentrated in the hands of few, more professional and capital intensive distillers. Notably, a Scotsman who had been producing whiskey moved to London and opened a distillery in Finsbury. He started producing a spirit of an unprecedented quality level, using the best grains and botanicals available at the time. His name was Alexander Gordon.


Modern Gin

Finally, the decisive event that transformed Gin into the its dominating form was the diffusion of the improved column still designed by Aeneas Coffrey in 1830. The new still could yield a much more neutral grain alcohol that did not require sweetening agents to be palatable. Dry Gin was born, and since it was first only produced in the city of London, this style is still referred to as ‘London Dry’. Regulations today protect the production method, although there is no limit to which botanicals can be used for distillation, resulting in a wide range of products with distinctive flavours, all fall within the appellation ‘London Dry Gin’. And don’t let the name mislead you, because it can be produced anywhere in the world.
Nevertheless, other styles of Gin continue to exist and be appreciated worldwide, as the one produced by the oldest active British distillery, Plymouth. Its Gins have a higher content of roots ingredients which make it less crisp that Dry Gin, and have a longer finish. Another surviving style is the ‘Sloe Gin’, very popular during the Victorian era and flavoured with plums.


Genever’s dark era and its revival

While many historians and commentators typically focus on the story of gin from then on out, their studies on Genever tend to dwindle to a stop post-Gin Craze, though the truth is that Genever continued to thrive in England well into 1880s. By the end of the 18th century, Schiedam – the world capitol of Genever – had grown from 37 distilleries to 250. This fact tells us that, although being more expensive that domestic distillates, Dutch Genever was still appreciated in England for its outstanding quality. One of the fundamental shifts to the flavour of Genever occurred in this period too. Not only were technological advances creating higher proof sprits faster and cheaper, European imports of corn from America started to find their way into Genever production. Though corn did little to improve the flavour of the base distillate, prices were so much lower than rye, wheat or barley and the yield so much bigger that its use was inevitable.
With the passing of years, Genever lost part of its original popularity because of a series of factors. First, United States of America, one of the biggest export markets for Genever, closed its borders to alcoholic beverages after the enactment of the Volstead Act and the beginning of the Prohibition era. This event put many distilleries under a great degree of economical pressure. Not enough, around decade later Nazi troops invaded the Netherlands and used the copper stills of distilleries to forge artillery, hence stopping Genever production for years. Perhaps also a general shift in taste towards more neutral, crisp spirits like English Gin may have contributed to overshadowing Genever in the last century.
Luckily, in recent time the iconic Dutch spirit is looking up at its old glory, being ri-discovered and appreciated by many enthusiast around the world. Long life to the Juniper King!


‘The Birth of Gin’