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Gin: A Global History

A Global History
by Lesley Jacobs Solmonson

Reaktion Books, 2012

A history of the enigmatic liquor known as gin belongs as much in a library of herbal medicines as it does at the bar. Derived from the aromatic juniper berry, which has been a curative for all manner of ills dating back to the ancient Egyptians, gin (or its more potent ancestor, genever) was being prescribed as a preventative for scurvy, headaches and other disorders more than 400 years ago.

"Where modern gin is essentially flavoured vodka, genever is headier stuff, having more in common with fine whisky than the clear-coloured aromatics of English gin," food writer Lesley Jacobs Solmonson explains.


”I must get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.”

Published in The Edible Series of Reaktion Books, Solmonson's history of the liquor cabinet staple is full of surprises and insights, covering the beverage's medicinal origins, the gin craze that hit Britain in the 18th century, its decline in popularity in the 20th century, and its recent renaissance.

The types of gin are compared and described, from London Dry’s juniper-forward Tanqueray or Beefeater to the more citrus-forward gins such as Bombay Sapphire or Tanqueray 10 and the new craft gins like Hendrick’s and Aviation. A dozen or so classic cocktail recipes are included along with a brief directory of today's available gins.

Modern Dry Gins
Where classic London Dry or dry gins are defined by botanical focus on juniper, modern day gins - while still employing juniper - playfully break the rules, both botanically and in terms of distillation.

Print advertisement for Booth's High & Dry London Dry Gin

Junipero Gin (USA): Released back in 1998 by Anchor Distilling, this was the first of the new crop of gins. While still relying on juniper as the predominant botanical, Junipero has a subtle spiciness that comes from various proprietary ingredients.

Martin Miller's Reformed London Dry (UK): This gin, named after its wealthy and famous founder, is made in England with traditional botanicals. It is then shipped to Ireland, where the soft, glac ier-fed water of Selyri Springs reduces the spirit's proof, producing a smoother taste


Also known as jenever, junever, genièvre, Holland gin, square gin and many other nomens, this is the juniper-flavored liquor from which gin evolved and where gin cocktails began.

 Its origins as a distilled juniper-flavored distillate date to 16th century Holland, a world power at the time. A maker of juniper-laced tonics, Dr. Franciscus Sylvius, has been erroneously identified as "the Father of Dutch Gin," according to author Lesley Jacobs Solmonson:

"While he was indeed serving up genever as a medicine for kidney complaints and for the tropical fever attacking Dutch settlers in the East Indies, a true inventor he was not... In 1623, when Sylvius was just a lad of nine, we find what is thought to be the first printed reference to genever as a recreational drink."

Whatever its origins, genever spread across the globe with Dutch trading ships and consumption in the Netherlands and Belgium was prodigious. From there, it spread to Great Britain and America.

Distilled in pot stills from malted barley, genever was derived from a rich distillate much like unaged Scotch whiskey. This distillate was then flavored with juniper and spices to produce a liquor sometimes referred to as korenwijn (corn wine).

New styles of genever emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the more efficient column stills replaced many pot stills, and as wartime rationing limited the availability of barley. The modern genever was referred to as Jonge (young) genever and the traditional was known as Oude (old). The Oude style of genever is malty and sweet, with a high percentage of korenwijn, cut with neutral grains. The Jonge style is lighter and drier, with more of neutral alcohol in its mix and less korenwijn.

Traditional genever remains popular in the Netherlands and Belgium, where  European Union regulations specify that only liquor made in these two countries, two French provinces and two German federal states can use the name. 

"The growing American interest has led the Dutch company Bols and the American producer Anchor Distilling to cater to the US market," Gin
A Global History reports. Available genever and genever-style gins include:

  • Genevieve Gin (USA). The first modern American-made genever.
  • Bols Genever (Holland). In the model of an old-style genever, this newer product is distinctly whisky-like with a pronounced malt wine character.
  • Filliers Genever (Belgium). Uses a traditional corn, rye and barley mixture.
  • Old Schiedam Genever (Holland). Uses 100% malt wine and is 40% alcohol with the judicious use of juniper as the only botanical.
  • Zuidam Genever (Holland):  A triple-distilled enever whose base grains are equal parts malted barley, corn and rye. The botanicals include juniper, liquorice root, whole vanilla beans and marjoram.

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1957 ad for Gordon's Gin Martini
1957 ad for Gordon's Gin Martini

There is no official date or place recorded for the first dry marini, nor is there any record of what dry gin was used. The 1880s, bartender William Mulhall of the famed Hoffman House in New York noted that both sweet and dry Martinis were popular, suggesting that some sort of dry gin was indeed available.

Handcut Crystal Gin and Tonic Glasses
Handcut Crystal Gin and Tonic Glasses

Juniper Berries
Juniper Berries

Oude Genever Ernest
Oude Genever Ernest

Franciscus Sylvius
Franciscus Sylvius

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