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Genever’s often forgotten history

Bols Old Gin
Bols Genever Crate
Written by Gin Foundry

The early history of gin is much more than the sole work of one man or one moment in time, as is often proclaimed in many of today’s bite size media titles. It was the gradual coming together of two forces, juniper and spirit, both of which had many separate adventures before they were united in a glass of Genever, let alone gin. The exact moment at which juniper berries were first used to flavour malt wine is one of history’s great mysteries. However, one can narrow it down to two countries, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The most oft repeated myth surrounding the invention of Genever is that of Dr Sylvius, a Dutch medical doctor and professor at the university of Leyden. Dr Sylvius’ role as inventor of Genever puts the spirit’s origins in the Netherlands, but we’ve explored this fable further in a separate article (The Legend of Dr Sylvius) and suffice-it-to say that while it is a convenient way to abridge a long and winding history, it is plainly false.

To get a clear understanding one must first look to Belgium, as it is key to understanding Genever’s history and more importantly, why the spirit underwent its various transformations. A quick look back in their national archives shows numerous reasons for a shift-away from distilling Genever in Belgium too.

One of the first major reasons was a distilling ban in the 17th Century, which lead to Flemish distillers migrating to the Netherlands, France and Germany. Implemented in 1601, the ban on distilling (triggered primarily by the Government’s concern about a national food shortage) meant that many distillers departed, though it is also worth noting that by this point – thousands of migrants had already fled due to the Eighty Years War (1568 – 1648).

This dual combination of factors, which displaced large portions of the population, shifted the centre of prosperity from Southern Belgian cities to the North. With skilled tradesmen, scholars and thinkers all moving with the tide, the resettlement laid the foundation for the “Dutch Golden Age”.

In the century that followed, distilleries in the Netherlands prospered, with one particular customer, the Dutch East India Trading Company (the VOC), taking the spirit with them across the world. Not only were sailors entitled to the equivalent of 150ml a day, Genever also became a valuable bartering commodity too. With journeys to the “New World” taking anywhere between 9 months and 2 years, (meaning at minimum each ship would carry 135 to 150lt per sailor) and multiple stops required to restock water and food, it’s little surprise to see the VOC were the most valuable customer to many distilleries.

With the continued dominance of the VOC, consuming spirits had begun to spread throughout the world and with a monopoly on spice routes, the Dutch distillers also continually added new and exotic botanicals, which were landing into nearby ports from the returning ships. As a result, over the decades Genever grew in intricacy and in depth of flavour, transforming from its origins as a single botanical tincture to a complex spirit rich in spice and exotic aromas.

Genever was indeed first predominantly introduced to Britain during the Thirty Years’ War, however, it was more of a gradual adoption than a smash and grab.

The fables actually begin with the Eighty Years War, some decades earlier. In 1585, Queen Elizabeth of England sent 6,000 men to the Low Countries to provide support against the Spanish. By the time the troops arrived in Antwerp however, they were months too late. Never the less, during their time there the troops observed a tradition among their Dutch counterparts. The Dutch would sip from small bottles they kept on their belts, after which they fought valiantly – thanks to their “Dutch Courage”.

Years later British and Dutch soldiers fought together once more (the Thirty Year War), drinking “Dutch Courage” ahead of battles. During these wars, slowly but surely, Genever traveled back into England where it began its rise in popularity. The English language reflects this slow adoption and transformation from Genever to Geneva, and then shortened to one intoxicating monosyllabic word: Gin, as wittily demonstrated in Massinger’s 1623 play, “The Duke of Milan”.

Genever as a spirit only really became truly fashionable some years later, gaining wider popular appeal with the arrival of the Dutch King, William of Orange in 1689. While many historians and commentators typically focus on the story of gin from then on out, their studies tend to dwindle to a stop post-Gin Craze, though the truth is that Genever continued to thrive well into 1880s.

For example, a key moment in the history of the spirit was when the ban was lifted after 112 years and the Southern Low Countries were once again allowed to distill in 1713. Belgian distilling grew once more, while their northern counterparts showed no signed of slowing down either. By the end of the 18th century, Schiedam had grown from 37 distilleries to 250.

Sparing the twists and turns of history in this abridged story, following the Belgian Revolution and the creation of modern day Belgium and the Netherlands in 1830 – Genever literally exploded in scale. The Belgian government lowered taxes on domestic Genever and banned the importation of Genever from the Netherlands, driving the amount of distilleries in the country up from 599 to 1092 in a four-year period. It’s worth noting the size of Belgium, as 1000 distilleries would be a huge amount even in the context of the UK or the even the US, but Belgium is more like the size of a small US state, or for us Brits, smaller than Wales.

Belgium was one of the first industrialised countries of Europe and new technology was being introduced at break-neck speed (such as the column still), which greatly helped the efficiencies of what this tidal wave of distilleries were creating. By the mid 1880’s, Belgium was producing over 15 million gallons of Genever per year.

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 traditional (mainly farm) distillers maintaining that they were making a better product, a distinction developed between the two methods, with makers either creating Genever using the old traditional system (oude) or new (jonge) using more industrialised techniques.

For more information on the difference between these two styles, we’ve written separately about both in further detail in our article due for release soon: Styles of Genever and technical details. Even though there was a huge demise in the amount of distilleries producing Oude Genever, by 1912 Belgian Genever production surpassed 22 million gallons.

These heady, glory years all came to an abrupt end during WW1 however, when many distilleries were pillaged by occupying German forces, who melted down stills in order to create artillery shell casings.

The story was different further north. Even though both nations remained neutral, many of the Distilleries in the Netherlands were spared much of the same fate in WW1 and were able to continue distilling (primarily due to Belgium having great strategic value on the road to France).

The few distilleries that were producing Genever in the Netherlands over this era however had not adopted the industrial progress of their Belgian counterparts. Many had already had to close their doors, unable to compete with the price points of and growing popularity for the newer style of spirit, especially once combined with a stagnant economy, cholera epidemics and years of worsening poverty.

From a more global perspective however, partly due to the VOC’s efforts centuries earlier and partly due to the years of outbound migration in the 1800s (where thousands of Dutch traveled to the Americas), the ongoing perception of Genever outside of Europe was one of being a predominantly Dutch product.

While seemingly overshadowed by Old Tom and then London Dry Gin’s reputation in the latter half of the century, many early gin cocktails of the 1900s call for Genever – or “Hollands” as it was also known – in their recipes.

With the Temperance movement making things difficult in Belgium, from the early 1900s all the way through to 1985, it was Genever from the Netherlands that managed to continue to make its way across the world. It may never have reached the peaks of the Belgian makers in terms of volume, but its steady nature and continued quality has meant that the spirit survived and has since become primarily associated with the country.

To continue on down this twisting and turning story – We’ve outlined Genever’s more recent past (from 1920’s onwards) in a separate article due for release soon. We go into detail about some of the key figures, its modern resurgence and what the future may hold for this fascinating and diverse category.

Filliers bottle