Gin Part 1: The Myth of Dr. Syvius

Gin, people have a love/hate relationship with it.  Some people hate that they love it so much, others just simply love to hate it.  And if you’ve ever dropped a dice on the floor while playing bar dice in Wisconsin, you learned to loathe the very thought of it at times.  Turns out Gin has an amazing storied history, it’s not just a stuffy spirit drank by the elite English Aristocracy.  While the English may have popularized it, and damn well fell in absolute love with it, there are more than one type of “Gin.”  In this five part series of posts, we will discover the origins, stories, horror stories, truths and myths behind this storied spirit.

“Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine”

– Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca, 1943


The Myth of Dr. Sylvius 

While this lively spirit has gone by many names over the past few hundred years, Mother’s Ruin & Dutch Courage, to name the most popular.  The word English “gin” itself comes from the word “jenever” deriving from the Dutch word “jeneverbes” meaning juniper berry.  The berry itself was added to the original spirit made by distilling malt wine to 50% ABV, because the initial product was positively unpalatable due to unrefined distilling techniques.  It is long believed that jenever was the invention of the Dutch chemist Franciscus Sylvius de Bouve (b. 1614, d. 1672) a and that it was sold for medicinal purposes in the late 16th century.  Problem is, Dr. Sylvius was born in the 17th century.  Not to mention in the early 1600’s the Dutch had placed taxes on Jenever and other spirits that were sold as booze, making it clear that they had figured out it really wasn’t medicine, that was 8 years before he was even born.  They are many other factors that also prove the fact that this dear alchemist didn’t in fact invent what would be the predecessor to gin.  The reality is, Dr. Sylvius “medicine” is more myth than fact, it is just the story many know and believe.

Back to the subject at hand though, where did it all begin?  First off, the origins of genever or jenever, depending if you are Dutch or Belgian, was the predecessor to what we now call “gin,” a blend of grain spirits and juniper berries with other botanicals.  The National Jenever Museum of Belgium (yes that is a real place) says it was first produced in the 13th century in Flanders.  It was indeed first contrived as a medicinal tonic, but it sure wasn’t long before it became a recreational beverage.  Yet again, specifics can’t be placed, although looking at artwork from the time, it certainly gives the image of the farthest thing from a health drink.

The earliest reference to jenever appears in the 13th century work “Der Naturen Bloeme” an encyclopedic book of Dutch poetry written and illustrated by Medieval Dutch poet, Jacob van Maerlant. The first printed recipe for genever as a distilled spirit flavored with juniper can be found in the 1552 writings of Philippus Hermanni, in his work “Een Constelijck Distileerboec.”  While this is the earliest printed recipe, the fact of the matter is most people at this time were illiterate, and most recipes were passed word-of-mouth.

So let’s just look the other way, and let the good Dr. Sylvius R.I.P and be the Santa Claus to our tonic’s partner in crime.  In the next part to our story on gin, things takes a little turn now, with the influence of the English.