When spirit met juniper: Gin's origins


If you've read our blog on the origins of alcoholic spirits, you'll know that distillation had been taking place in ancient Greece, ancient China, before taking off in the Middle East in the first couple of centuries AD.

But gin is, by definition, a (usually grain) spirit flavoured with juniper and other botanicals. So here we talk about the coming together of these two ingredients.

Juniper's origins

Juniper had, on its own, been flavouring European drinks since prehistoric times. It tasted good, and, like spirit, was thought to have medicinal properties. It was used in various cultures as a contraceptive, a diabetes drug, a tooth protectant, an antiseptic and an asthma treatment. It was also thought to induce labour and in the early stages of pregnancy, abortion, earning itself the unsettling title of the ‘bastard killer’.

When juniper met spirit

The first person to create gin by combining spirit with juniper was originally thought to be Sylvius de la Boe, a sixteenth century professor of medicine at the University of Lieden in the Netherlands. Couple of problems with this. Firstly, Italian monks were mixing juniper with distilled wine in the eleventh century. Secondly, poor old Sylvius didn’t actually exist. He’s a kind of mash-up between professor Sylvius de Bouve, a Dutch chemist and apothecary at the university in the late 1500s, and German doctor Franciscus Sylvius, born Francois dele Boe Sylvius, who worked there some 90 years later.

De Bouve added oil of juniper to grain spirit as a stimulant, and a treatment for back pain. He also commercialised this concoction. So while De Bouve is the closest thing we have to an inventor of gin, we know he was drawing upon methods already in existence.

For the sake of simplicity, we can loosely say that gin made its way into the history books in late 16th century or early 17th century Holland. Spirit and juniper, when combined, would give one another safe passage into popular culture. It helped that they both had a long history of having medicinal value. And while spirit brought the intoxicating properties, juniper brought the palatable flavour, and the name - genever. Genever is Dutch for Juniper, and was later shortened and anglicised to become gin.

Gin drinking in Britain

Gin made its way over the England in the mid-1600s, when soldiers returning from the Thirty Years War had developed a taste for Dutch courage - that is, the juniper-flavoured spirit known as Genever. 

The Netherlands was becoming an imperial superpower, raking in unimaginable riches via The Dutch East India Company - also known as the VOC. This was the Facebook or Google of its day, described perfectly by American philosopher Graham Harman as an ‘efficient monster’. Dutch ships laden with ‘pagan’ herbs and spices from slave colonies brought sexy, exotic, ill-gotten new flavours to the taste buds of this newly-independent, chilly protestant nation. 

The diarist Samuel Pepys gives us an early account of gin drinking. In 1663 he took some strong water (i.e. spirit) made of juniper, to make himself, and I quote, ‘break wind and go freely to stool’.

This tells us that gin was being consumed as a medicine around this time. It soon made its way into taverns, helped along by William of Orange, who was keen to offer a helping hand to the land-owning classes by liberalising grain distilling.

Distilleries started springing up in London. Down in Plymouth, an old prison was converted to a distillery to meet the growing demand. And so we see the beginnings of the gin craze, which would change the course of British social history. 

Sarah Donnelly