Did British Gin Come from Dutch Genever After All?
August 24, 2022
If you attended Tales of the Cocktail - virtually or in person - you have access to some recorded seminars. I watched and this post reports on one of those seminars:
From Usquebaugh to Aqua Fructum: The Early Modern English Origins of English Gin
By Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller of Mixellany and Sipsmith
I am not sure if you can view them on a web browser or if you can only watch on your phone, which is a shame since the screen is tiny and the horizontal video was shown vertically and I couldn't seem to rotate it. But if you installed that Whova app, scroll down on the home screen for Tales of the Cocktail to the "videos" link and you'll find it.
It is now streaming on YouTube.
The central argument of this talk is: Despite pretty much every history of gin stating that British gin came from Dutch genever and that the Brits put their own spin on it later, the British had a tradition of making gin (or juniper spirits anyway) that predates the reported influence from the Anglo-Dutch wars and William of Orange (from Holland)'s rule that began in 1689. Dutch genever was an independent style of gin from British juniper spirits.
I found this to be interesting, because in my seminar at this year's Tales of the Cocktail, I read and reported on many of the same books they used to reach their conclusions. I did note all the times juniper was used in recipes for distillates and how most did not look exactly like gin, but they make one important distinction between the styles of juniper spirits we'll get to in a second.
Throwing Doubts on the Accepted History of Genever -> Gin
- The first references to genever coming to England with William of Orange, and of the origin of the phrase "Dutch courage" supposedly learned from Dutch soldiers when fighting alongside them in battle, are not references from those time periods but from much later, so they should be treated with suspicion.
Case for Independent British Gin Recipes
- Distillation was known in the UK - early references to aqua vitae in the 1200s and 1300s. So didn't need to learn distilling from Dutch, learned from monks.
- Michael Puff Von Schrick – 1476 – from Austria, published in Germany – first distillation book - recipe for brandy with juniper berries recipes (written in 1455)
- Hieronymus Brunschwig's 1527 English translation of the Virtuous Book of Distillation has a juniper water (But this book was originally in German) This book was the second most popular printed book after the bible
- 1565 – The new book of distillation, or Treasure of Euonymous – contains recipe for distillate that sounds more and more like gin – published in England
- - Hugh Platt – Delights for Ladies – 1602
- This is when recipe books for women head of households became published and they included distillation recipes. This one included at least one with juniper but doesn't look like gin.
- The Distiller of London 1639 – has a recipe that looks like modern gin at the time when genever was supposed to have come from the Netherlands, not England. The recipe for Water of Fruits contains juniper, quince, pypppin pairings (?), lemon peels, orange peels, nutmeg, anise, and cloves. This is distilled then strawberries and raspberries are added.
- John French The Art of Distillation 1651 - some juniper but nothing that looks quite like gin
My conclusions from this section:
- Distilling books that contained recipes with juniper often came from Germany, which borders the Netherlands where genever is from. The fact that they were later translated into English maybe says that juniper spirits were still a German/Dutch affectation that manifested in a different way in England
- Juniper was in a lot of things, that doesn't mean gin evolved from the London Distiller recipes specifically
- In my seminar, I noted how all of the recipes in the Distiller of London start with a neutral base spirit and add things to it; nothing was infused into wine and beer and distilled.
- The last sentence above is important: Brown and Miller conclude that Dutch genever was typically distilled from wine or beer infused with juniper berries and other botanicals, while British gin was usually distilled from pre-distilled aqua vitae, as it is today. This they cite as to why British and Dutch juniper spirits were independent.
- In my seminar I noted that earlier distillation books used infused wine and later beer as a base for infusions that were then distilled, and then the practice generally transitioned to a neutral base spirit that was infused and redistilled. But I didn't look country-by-country, just over time generally.
- A 1495 Dutch recipe for something like gin was distilled from a mixed beer and wine base.
- The books they cite that confirm this suspicion (that Dutch genever was distilled from infused beer rather than spirit) and say that directly were from the 1700s and 1800s, rather than 1600s. (It's possible that I missed earlier references to Dutch genever being distilled form beer/wine in their talks though.)
My doubts, or things I'd like to see fleshed out more:
We've established that there were recipes for spirits that included juniper in England before Dutch influence, but there were also a lot of recipes for things that did not become popularly consumed beverages as gin did.
So we might propose that the British style of gin (or just juniper spirits) may have been present in England before Dutch influence, but is it possible that William of Orange's influence and familiarity with genever from his homeland helped made British gin a popular local style of genever? Was it the influence of the Dutch that drove the popularity of juniper spirits?
Basically did British gin really evolve independently, or was it an interpretation of Dutch gin? I think Brown and Miller are stating that "existing juniper spirits evolved into British gin independently of Dutch influence."
I conclude from the same evidence so far "spirits with juniper and a neutral base existed in Britain before the Dutch may have had influence on England's drinking culture," but not that the popularity of gin is independent of Dutch influence.
Fascinating stuff to think about!
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