The rise and fall of Gin: Part I

03 March 2015

Gin is arguably the most divisive tipple. For some it’s the drink they associate with older ladies who lunch, for others it’s drank with caution, assumed to bring out the melancholy that they’re normally able to conceal, and yet for others it’s their favourite spirit to sip. Unlike popular spirits such as vodka or whiskey, gin cannot trace its history to antiquity; indeed its origins are quite hazy. gin 1

Created by a Chemist

There are moments of clarity in the fog of gin history which help us pinpoint the Genesis of gin to the modern Netherlands in the early 17th century. It is first referenced in literature in the “Duke of Milan” by Phillip Massinger in 1623, where a spirit known as genever is mentioned.

Sylvius de Bouve, Dutch physician, is the individual most associated with the development of genever towards modern gin. He formulated a highly-alcoholic medicinal concoction featuring the essential oils of juniper berries, which the physician believed could improve circulation and cure other ailments. The berry, deriving from a small coniferous plant, had long been treasured for its medicinal properties, including its use during the plague. isylviu001p1

A war across the continent

During this period, the Low Countries was a region at war as the locals fought to wrest control away from the Hapsburg Dynasty. It was this war which encouraged genever to become the seed from which our modern gin grew.

When the Catholic ruler of the Spanish Netherlands, Phillip II, raised taxes to finance his war against the Ottoman Empire in the 1560s, his Protestant subjects pressed their tenants into an uprising and a war which would last on and off for 80 years, with theatres of conflict as far afield as Chile and Indonesia, involving soldiers from every nation in Europe.

Europe’s only Protestant Kingdom at this time was England and Queen Elizabeth I was impelled to send troops to help the Dutch against their Spanish overlords. The English soldiers developed an affinity for the locally brewed spirit while on garrison duty in Dutch towns and cities and nicknamed the drink “Dutch courage,” but the name that stuck was gin. It was these returning soldiers who brought gin to England and from there, through the British Empire in the following centuries, the world. juniper berry

A growing thirst

The Dutch Wars ended in 1648 and forty years later another Dutchman was integral in the exponential growth of gin’s popularity. In 1688 Stadholder William III of Orange-Nassau (popularly known as William of Orange) seized the English throne from King James II in what became known in Britain as the Glorious Revolution.

Victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 secured the crown for King William III – victory for James that summer’s day in Meath could have meant a very different story for gin – but by this time William’s new kingdom was already at war with France in the New World.

Although the fighting in this first colonial war took place in North America it was the economic effect of conflict in the New World which contributed to an unprecedented boom in the popularity of gin.

Gin slowly became more popular during the 17th century – Samuel Pepys wrote in 1660 of curing a case of “colic” with a dose of “strong water made with juniper” – it was statutes introduced by William III which directly led to gin becoming the first ‘opium of the masses’.

gin 2William moved to discourage the importation of brandy from France by setting high tariffs. As a replacement he promoted the production of grain spirits by abolishing taxes and licensing fees for the manufacture of local products such as gin. Anyone could now distil by simply posting a notice in public and just waiting ten days.

It wasn’t long before long gin was becoming so popular that was distributed to workers as part of their wages, it’s safe to assume this didn’t increase the worker’s productivity!


By Anthony Ryan, Rustic Stone

Part II to follow...

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