Jenever: gin’s mad grandad, by Tristan Rutherford

Tonic, October 2021 

Before the 16th century, Europe’s alcohol selection was tighter than a Puritan’s cocktail cabinet. High brow imbibers sunk wine. Common classes sipped low alcohol ale. The latter was considered safer to drink than water, as the brewing process knocked out cholera and other deadly microorganisms. The medieval drinking scene was, quite literally, ‘small beer’. 

 

Windmills blew that away. The genesis of high-powered liqueur came when grain milling was popularised in 15th-century Holland. The mashup of corn, rye or barley was fermented, then distilled into spirit form. Alcohol levels could touch a slap-the-table 50%. 

 

There was just one problem. The first Dutch distillations were rougher than teenage home-brew. Botanicals were needed to mask the flavour. They were easy to come by in the 1500s. Holland was entering the Dutch Golden Age when sawmills (again powered by wind) spawned Europe's largest merchant fleet. Ginger, lemongrass and black pepper arrived from South East Asia. Most appropriate were juniper berries, or genever in Dutch. The spirit now had a name. 

 

Jenever was a hit. English soldiers fighting in Holland during the Thirty Years' War would consume valour alongside intoxication. Hence the term ‘Dutch courage’.  The spirit poured into the ports of Bristol, Plymouth and London. Jenever’s herby aroma smacked of medicine. It was originally treated as such. London diarist Samuel Pepys drank some "strong water made of juniper" to cure constipation. Sailors thought the spirit could stave off scurvy. Jenever sailed even further and the term became anglicised as gin. It entered the English lexicon as alongside other salty Dutch words like booze, cruise, tattoo and yacht.

 

In 1688 jenever got political. The Glorious Revolution was England’s last successful coup. It essentially replaced a French-sympathising Catholic king, James II, with a Dutch protestant one, William III of Orange. Which had the side effect of kickstarting four centuries of sectarian conflict. The revolution’s result was a trend for all things Dutch. Including jenever. And a blockade of enemy French brews. Notably brandy. 

 

Sadly the small beer Brits weren’t used to Dutch naval power. Britain’s Gin Craze got punchy. One magistrate declared gin “the principal cause of all the vice and debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people”. Satirical cartoonist William Hogarth drew Gin Lane. This London street parody showed bone-thin imbibers, eat-dinner-with-a-dog ruffians, pawnbrokers, suicides and breastfeeding parents dropping babies after drinking ‘mother's ruin’. The Gin Act of 1751 curbed unlicensed production. While lighter gin distillations were created to suit effete English tastes. 

 

Gin’s mad Dutch uncle went unreformed. Full strength jenever was poured into tulip shaped glasses (what else?). Traditionally drinkers leant over their glass to lap the first sip of the spirit. Before picking up their glass to savour the smokey tang like vintage whisky. With Dutch mercantile savvy, jenever was exported with gusto as genever, genièvre and Ginebra di Holanda among other monikers. The National Jenever Museum in Schiedam near Rotterdam hosts 100,000 jenever labels. Each is a Dutch master. Most hand-painted labels showcased strength. A roaring lion’s head. A crown. A condor on an Andean peak. 

 

A century ago conflict altered the jenever recipe once again. During World War I a restriction in malt encouraged molasses from sugar beet to be used instead. This less aromatic - but equally potent - spirit was nicknamed jonge jenever, which means young jenever. The old stuff became oude jenever. No translation required. 

 

Jenever both jonge and oude is still distilled to 50%. (As opposed to 40% for London gin.) A few snifters can turn the brain into a kaleidoscope of endless canals in the windmills of your mind. New traditions hark back to the spirit’s humble roots. A beer with a jenever chaser is called a kopstoot, or headbutt. A shot dropped into a pint is called a duikboot, or submarine. Jenever makes a killer cocktail too. Such as a William of Orange, which features a blend of jenever, Bénédictine, Aperol and orange bitters. Proost. 

Tristan writes about the history of food and drink for easyJet Magazine and the South China Morning Post.