Gin's Beginnings: From Juniper to Genever
The history of gin starts with the traditional use of juniper as a medicinal herb. Juniper bushes are stubby evergreens related to the cypress. They grow almost anywhere and can be found across North America, Europe, Northern Asia and Japan. The fruit of the juniper bush is the juniper berry or juniper "cone." When ripe, they look like small blueberries, purplish blue in color and nearly spherical.
In antiquity, juniper berries were a popular herbal remedy. The Ancient Egyptians wrote about juniper as a treatment for headaches and tapeworms. The Roman philosopher and naturalist Pliny the Elder published what might be the very first recipe for a gin-like cure-all in 77 C.E. that was used to treat stomach pains, convulsions, uterine cramps and more. The recipe was simple — boil some white wine with a handful of juniper berries, and enjoy!
The first stills arrived in Italy in the 11th century brought by Muslim traders. (The distillation process was pioneered during the Islamic Golden Age and used by alchemists to isolate the pure "spirits" of various substances. The word "alcohol" has its roots in Arabic.)
Italian monks began experimenting with distillation to create various "aqua vitae" or "waters of life." They made these elixirs by distilling wine with local medical herbs and plants like rosemary, heather, laurel and of course juniper.
Sahti, one of the oldest styles of beer in the world, is the traditional alcoholic beverage of Finland and is flavored with both hops and juniper berries and branches. It dates from the 14th century.
But if you're looking for an old-school beverage that really set the stage for modern gin, that would be genever (pronounced like "believer").
Genever is a traditional distilled spirit from Holland (it's the Dutch word for "juniper"). In the 13th and 14th centuries, Dutch apothecaries were experimenting with medicinal tonics made from distilled spirits flavored with curative herbs, juniper among them. But what distinguishes genever from other proto-gins is that the Dutch didn't drink genever to cure stomach aches; they drank genever to get drunk.
Genever was one of the first popular recreational spirits made with juniper, which is why it's seen as the most direct precursor of gin.
Traditional genever is brewed like whiskey. The base spirit is made by taking local grains like malted barley, wheat and rye, grinding it in one of those famous Dutch windmills, mixing it with water and letting it ferment into a kind of beer. That beer is then distilled into a higher-alcohol "malt wine" that retains some of the mailty grainy flavor and color of the source material.
The final step to making genever is to re-distill the malt wine with the addition of juniper and sometimes other "botanicals" in the still. The result is a lot like an unaged whiskey with a juniper kick. Since genever was often brewed from low-quality, cast-off grains, the base spirit sometimes had a funky taste, which distillers tried to cover up with more botanicals and lots of sugar.
Genever is the original "Dutch courage." In 1585, Queen Elizabeth I sent British troops to help the Dutch fight for Independence, where they knocked back shots of genever in preparation for battle. English mercenaries also enjoyed a dram of "Dutch courage" when they fought alongside the Dutch in the 30 Years War.
Coming home to England in the late 17th century, British soldiers brought back a thirst for Dutch genever, which they called genever, geneva, Hollands and for the first time, gin. In 1674, the end of the Anglo-Dutch War opened made it legal to import genever by the barrel full. The first "strong water shops" opened in London and the very first British gin distillery opened for business in Plymouth in a former monastery and debtor's prison.