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The History of Gin

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Gin, in the way we think of the word, is English. Its roots lie in Holland.  Those Dutch roots in turn lie in what monks in monasteries did in the Middle Ages, and that takes us back to southern Italy. Wrapped around all that are countless stories and legends.


Before gin there was distilling – the art (and science) of ‘concentrating’ the alcohol created by the fermentation of any juice with some sugar in it, whether corn, vegetables, fruit or milk.

I know we all think alcohol etc goes back to the Islamic word of the 800s CE, as the words we use, like alambic and alcohol itself, are Arabic. It simply isn’t true: the Muslim world retained the knowledge, literature, medicine, science etc that Christians simply lost or threw away in the bonfire of their competing dogmatic and fundamentalist ideologies. Where there was beer and wine there was, eventually, distillation.

The basic principle is easily understood: distillation is the controlled evaporation of liquids into containers.  The practice goes back at least to 1200 BCE in Mesopotamia, from there into Persia and Hellenic lands, then to the first century CE in Roman held Egypt (Zosimos’ design of an alambic survives in a copy of a copy of his manuscript), and to both India and China shortly thereafter.

This was a very niche ‘craft’ industry, focused on using alcohol as an element in medicine and in cosmetics (al-kohl essentially means eye liner). It was a medium, a purifier and an astringent. By the 800s CE, the use of alcohol was well known in the Middle East and Byzantium as a component in medicine, with Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan, creator of the alembic pot still, and Rhazer both writing on distillation in the period. The poet Abu Nuwas described a wine that “has the color of rainwater, but is as hot inside the ribs as a burning firebrand.” Interestingly, alcohol got a kick in the 1000-1200s CE, just as there were great wars in the Near, Middle and Far East.

The first records we have of distillation in Europe come from references around the mid 1000s to a monastery in southern Italy, the Scola Salernita. Why there? Because it was a regional “med lab”, in an area that had long absorbed Islamic customs, was actively trading with the Levant and north Africa, and was the jumping off point to, and from, the Crusades. The herb gardens surrounding the monasteries provided botanicals for special healing concoctions in their infirmaries.

The monastic system being a great network, many years later (everything took soooo long back then), and with each monastery doing its own thing, Alberto of Modena, bishop of Köln (Albertus Magnus) is the first European to write down, sometime in the mid 1200s, how to distill spirits.

The Catalan Arnau de Vilanova (Arnaldus of Villanova), the first documented physician in Europe to use alcohol as an antiseptic, coined the term ‘aqua vitae’ (water of life) a little later. This was a brandy, touted as a cure-all medicine that this learned and celebrity doctor surely sold.

Distillers of aqua vitae were in Italy by 1378, its noble houses employing them in their courts. A hundred years later in 1477 the first printed book on producing distilled waters to treat a variety of ailments went on sale in Germany.

Juniper is a medicinal plant

Deep in history Greeks and Romans used aromatic branches of juniper as part of their religious rituals to purify and heal things (this custom is ancient, and still practiced in Nepal). A Coptic text from the 200s CE found in Egypt may indicate that a botanical mixture of juniper, saffron and cinnamon was infused into a distillate, which would make it the first known ‘gin’. That’s what those monks in their apothecary in Salerno did, apparently, just about a thousand years ago. For medical purposes, of course.

We get a reference to juniper+alcohol based medication in Der Naturenbloeme (Nature’s Flowers), written c. 1269 by Jacob van Maerlant, a Flemish monk from near Bruges, who essentially translated a slightly earlier work by Thomas van Cantimpré, also a Flemish monk, called the Liber de Natura Rerum (Book about Natural Things).

That puts the basics of a medicinal ‘gin’ in the area that became Belgium and Holland. Apparently this concoction was used to ward off sickness during the Black Death of 1348-51, with one surviving juniper tonic recipe written by Johannes van Aaltier in 1351. It didn’t work, of course, its only success being to convince ‘doctors’ to stuff juniper berries into their famous long masks.

Jenever is a drink (almost)

Distilled spirits made for consumption (fun) are documented from the end of the 1400s. These spirits were wine based, literally ‘burnt wine’ or brandtwin – brandy-wine – and came from the monasteries (yes, them again) in Cognac, famous for its wines long before its ‘cognac’. The spirit spread: Chartreuse and Benedictine in Normandy, and the first juniper based version in Flanders with “Om gebrande wyn te maken” (How to Make Burnt Wine), published in 1495. Later on, in 1522, Antwerp based Dr. Phillip Hermann wrote down his recipe for jenever.

More than a century and one religious revolution later, when monks and monasteries were no longer in fashion, Dr. Franz de le Boë (Franciscus Sylvius) of Hanau in Germany but who lived and practiced in Leiden, came up with and published the his version of ‘juniper and spirits’ – for medicine in 1550. For many, he is regarded as the inventor of gin. Not really. It would have been jenever, already established in Flanders, and not for fun drinking (officially, anyway).

Gin comes to England

The English get their hands on Dutch jenever either (take your pick):

  • As Protestant volunteers and mercenaries fighting on the side of Hollanders rebelling against their Catholic overlords between 1580 and 1640
  • Fighting the Dutch in the time of the Commonwealth and later reign of Charles II in the 1650s to 1670s
  • Welcoming Protestant William, Stadtholder of Holland, as he and his wife Mary Stuart overthrow Catholic James II (Mary’s father) in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-89

Depending on which story you read, Dutch Courage is what Dutch soldiers felt when drinking jenever before meeting their enemies, or what English soldiers felt before meeting theirs (including the Dutch).

By the looks of things, jenever may have already been available in pharmacies in London by the 1640s, as Charles I granted some merchants a monopoly on distilling spirits. On October 10, 1663, Samuel Pepys knocked back a glass of “strong water made of juniper” to counter his constipation. It worked.

Gin really begins when Dutch William of Orange, now William III of England, granted permission for anyone to make the spirit in their home (think poteen/moonshine), while at the same time imposing heavy duties on imported wines and spirits. The new Corn Laws not only were a protectionist measure, they also offered tax breaks for using grain over grape, which is when gin moved away from a wine base to wheat mash for distillation, changing its flavour forever.

Gin Crazy

By 1721 England was quaffing over 14 million liters of gin annually, with a gin still in a quarter of all households. Gin became so common that wages were sometimes paid in it – something the British Navy eventually did for officers and the British Army did for its soldiers. By 1736 the social effects had become a national scandal, much as opioids are now. Gin distillers required an expensive license to operate and gin shops were taxed. The heavy hand didn’t work and the law could not be enforced; gin production simply moved to the back of the house and into the bath tub.

Seven Gin Acts of Parliament later, the Gin Act of 1751 reformed regulation: lower license fees for production, with gin sold only to licensed retailers, and higher sales taxes. Demand for a better quality product from rising middle class offset the loss of revenue from poorer people, who went back to their beer. Just as the merchants who paid Hogarth to make his famous print wanted. Madame Geneva, as the wicked drink was called, was vanquished.

The last step on the way to the gins we know was when Aeneas Coffey invented his continuous still in 1832. This made distillation a much more efficient process, cutting costs and increasing production. The industry was on its feet, with no looking back (except for a Prohibition or two).

Read about the Indian origins of Gin and Tonic here.

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