The Origin Story of Gin Told Through Historic Brands: 11 Things You Should know!

Gin spirits are all made from juniper and come in an abundance of different styles and strengths. But did you know the original Dutch spirit was invented to treat medical ailments like gout, heartburn and gallstone pain in the 1500s? Or, that the classic gin & tonic was invented to fight malaria? Gin lovers, get ready! 

Here are 11 things about gin that might surprise you, including the origin story told through historic and award-winning brands.  

Wine & Spirits Journal: Top 11 Things About gin that Might Surprise You!

11) Gin must contain juniper to be called gin, but there is no standard or minimum amount. 


The essential plant-based ingredient used for making gin, known as juniper, is derived from a coniferous tree or shrub from the cypress family. The juniper is native to the northern hemisphere, including the United Kingdom and most of continental Europe. 


Juniper berries are known for their medicinal properties and give gin that sharp, piney flavor with hints of citrus. The Juniper berry can be used whole in gin production, or milled and gently crushed to release more of the oils.


A Juniper berry is not a berry at all, it is a seed.

Juniper berries are actually seeds with fruit-like scales that resemble a blue berry in both shape and color. A juniper tree will hold berry-seeds at every stage of ripeness, so they have to be picked a few times a year. A juniper tree can live for up to two hundred years.

10) The origin of the word “gin” is from the Dutch word for juniper: genever.

The Dutch word for juniper is genever and the root of the English word gin. Genever, also known as Dutch Gin, is a traditional style of gin making that originates in the Netherlands and spread by Dutch traders. 


Genever is crafted by distilling malt wine with juniper to 50% alcohol by volume.


9) The difference between genever and gin. 

Similarities still exist between genever (Dutch gin) and gin, including the juniper ingredient, along with the use of citrus and other spices. However, to be called genever it can only be made from malted grains, including rye, barley and corn. Genever also has a heavier mouth-feel. Whereas gin can be distilled from any base ingredient, including sugarcane, grapes, rice and more. 


Also spelled jenever, genever, geneva, genievre, the names can only be used for distilled spirits made in accordance with the Protected Designation of Origin for Belgium, the Netherlands, two northern French areas and two German federal states.


Ancient genever brands

There are two basic styles of genever: jonge (young), and oude (old). They differ in the use of botanicals and the amount of malt wine they contain. 

Broadly speaking, the range of these two expressions fall somewhere between neutral spirits laced with botanicals to unaged whiskey, or combination of the two. 

Genevers that contain a higher percentage of malt wines are considered more authentic. Learn more.

Bols is known as the world's oldest distilled spirit brand. Based in Amsterdam since 1575. The original genever recipe has 22 unique botanicals and a smooth and complex taste.
Bols is known as the world's oldest distilled spirit brand. Based in Amsterdam since 1575, this original genever recipe has 22 unique botanicals and a smooth and complex taste.

8) Gin was once considered medicine. 

Monk's making gin for medicine

The early versions of genever (gin) were made by monks and alchemists for medical purposes. The original taste of genever was known to be unpleasant due to the lack of refined distilling techniques. Herbs and citrus were later added to mask the unpalatable taste. 

The first written reference that described how to add parts of the juniper tree to a distilled spirit made from malted wine is mentioned in the book, Der Naturen Bloeme, published in 1266

Later in 1522, the Antwerp based doctor, Phillipus Hermanni, wrote an original recipe for genever that also described how to mix crushed juniper berries and the way to distill it.

7) Plague doctors stuffed juniper seeds in their beeks to stave off bubonic plague.

plague doctors wore masks with beaks full of juniper berries to prevent plague infection.

During the Black Death in the 14th Century, plague doctors wore masks with beaks full of juniper berries and other botanicals to mask the unpleasant smells they would encounter treating the sick. They believed that juniper stopped the spread of the disease and they were right. Bubonic plague was often spread by fleas and juniper is known to be an effective, natural repellent. 

6) Why gin also known as Dutch courage?

British soldiers who witnessed the effects genever while fighting alongside the Dutch during the Thirty Years War in the 17th century.

Though genever may have been introduced to England by Flemish Protestant refugees fleeing Antwerp in 1570, the rise in popularity of gin has long been attributed to British soldiers who witnessed the effects genever while fighting alongside the Dutch during the Thirty Years War in the 17th century. 

Dutch soldiers would sip Dutch gin from hip flasks and proceed to fight with great bravery. British soldiers adopted the practice, renaming genever, Dutch courage and brought the spirit home to England where it grew in popularity.

What was once a blessing soon became a curse.

Juniper began appearing in English distillery recipes in 1639 with unlicensed manufacturers producing a gnarly, toxic gin that would soon replace beer as the drink of choice. 

Between the years 1720 and 1757, a surge of women became hooked on gin, which led to the mistreatment of their children and a rise in prostitution, earning gin the dubious nickname, ‘mother’s ruin’.

5) Navy strength are gins historically made with higher alcohol content, and measured using the gunpowder test as “proof”.

British royal navy serving gin on deck

Before the Sykes Hydrometer was invented, there was only one way to prove alcohol concentration. The gunpowder test involved soaking gunpowder with gin, if the powder still lit, it proved the liquid was above 57% ABV (100+ proof) or proven navy strength, meaning the gin would not ruin the gunpowder’s explosiveness if spilled.

Plymouth has been navy strength gin for the British Royal Navy for almost 200 years. The Black Friars Distillery in Plymouth, England has making producing gin from the former monastery prior to 1793, making it the oldest working distillery in England.
Plymouth has been making navy strength gin for the British Royal Navy for almost 200 years. The Black Friars Distillery in Plymouth, England has been producing gin from this former monastery prior to 1793. It is the oldest working distillery in England.

4) The gin & tonic was invented as a better tasting way for British soldiers to fight malaria.

Europeans learned from Spanish conquistadores that indigenous tribes of Peru had long used the bark of the cinchona tree to treat a variety of illnesses including fevers.

Cinchona found its way to Europe in the 1700s and became a lifesaver for British troops. The Scottish Doctor, George Cleghorn discovered the active ingredient in cinchona bark, called quinine, was effective in treating and preventing malaria when crushed and administered in powder form.

Unfortunately, the powdered bark was extremely bitter, which led to experimentation to make it more palatable. Mixing the powder with other ingredients, including sugar and soda resulted in a sweeter, bubblier liquid called cinchona bark tonic. The concoction would be used by British soldiers stationed in India to fight malaria.  

British soldiers stationed in India drank gin & tonics to fight malaria.

Tonic water today is still bitter when drank on its own. In the 1800s, high ranking British soldiers would tinker with the tonic potion even further, adding a measure of gin, then lemons and limes to fully mask the bitter taste. So, if you are a fan of gin & tonic, you can thank malaria for this life-saving cocktail. 

As Winston Churchill once declared, “The Gin & Tonic has save more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire. 

Today, the amount of quinine in most tonic waters produced is minimal. Still, there is no known cure for malaria.

London dry gins are known for their dry, crisp flavor.

The London Dry Style gin, Tanqueray has a clean, refreshing taste and is made with few additives. To be called London dry, the botanical ingredients must be distilled together. A London dry gin is suited for a wide range of classic and modern cocktails.

3) The most popular gin in the world is a Dutch style gin made in the Philippines.

First produced in 1834, Ginebra San Miguel is an 80 proof Dutch style gin from the Philippines made from select grains, botanical extracts and juniper. The name Ginebra San Miguel is a combination of the word genever and the archangel Michael. 

Ginebra San Miguel is the Philippines leading gin and the most popular gin by volume in the world. The brand is known historically to have revolutionized gin production with the introduction of mechanized bottling, after the facility was heavily damaged during World War II. 

2) The urban legend that  Seagram’s Gin is an aphrodisiac.  

1) The ways of making premium gin continues to evolve. 

There are dozens of varieties of gins, including Dutch styles made from grain with minimal additives, those made at higher proof, and others that are infused with exotic fruits, including the award-winning Awayuki Japanese strawberry flavored gin that can be enjoyed clean, on the rocks. 



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