Established in 1575, the Bols Distillery in Amsterdam, Holland remains the world’s oldest surviving distillers, producing juniper spirits for almost 350 years.
Originally a Flemish, protestant family by the name Belsus, they shortened their name to Bols after fleeing religious persecution from the Hapsburg rulers of the Holy Roman Empire. After a brief stint in Cologne where it is said they learned the skill of distillation, the newly named Bols family ending up in the outskirts of Amsterdam establishing a small distillery named Het Lootsje (“The little shed”) from where they produced local brandewijn (brandy). By 1664, the family began focusing on the popular barley based spirit genever from which the medicinal botanical juniper was macerated. Born in 1652 during a golden age in which the Netherlands exploded in technological, economic and military advancement – a young Lucas Bols would become responsible for evolving his family name into a brand synonymous with sailors and colonists everywhere. At the heart of this success lay his 1679 investment into one of the most powerful organisations in Europe’s history, the Dutch East India Company (or “V.O.C.” – Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie). Governed by a group of shareholders known as Heeren XVII (“Masters Seventeen”), Lucas’s new association allowed him to become the exclusive supplier of “fine waters” to the company, their merchant vessels and holdings in both the East (Indonesia) and West (Caribbean) Indies. Using his newly acquired influence and resources, Bols collected fruit, herbs and spices from throughout the traded colonies using them in many new products – such as the popular Orange Curacao [see: Curacao: Island of oranges and slaves].
While today genever is regarded the official spirit of The Netherlands, its heritage is derived from a collection of lowland provinces which included much of Flanders. As such, genever also remains the official spirit of Belgium. Its important to mention at this stage that genever is not a style of gin but rather the other way around. Genever’s defining taste profile comes from the use of both corn and rye as a predominant base spirit compared to the neutral grain used in modern English gins. While both gin and genever utilise botanicals in their final blends, genever use an average of three times the number than that of their English counterparts of which juniper has to be the predominant flavour – but not genever.
After reaching its peak during the mid 19th century, genever lost much of its reputation and recognition after mass production methods influenced the spirits traditional quality. One of the major influences in the drop in popularity of genever was an invention which many years later would inadvertently save rival English gins from their ruinous reputation. Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Cellier Blumenthal published the first patent for a continuous Column Still in 1813. With distillation up to this time utilising the much slower and labor intensive pot still, Blumenthal’s invention would give the world the first process for the mass production of high alcohol compounds. Initially built around a single column, the still allowed the fermented mash (barley beer) to be continually added to the still during operation keeping a constant outflow of distillate instead of the batch processing needed in a pot still [note: Today the Column Still is also known as the Coffey Still after Irishman Aeneus Coffey patented and popularize an improved version of Blumenthal’s design]. Blumenthal’s invention caught the attention of the King of Belgium, Leopold I, who convinced him to promote both his still and the use of nationally grown sugar beet (Beta vulgaris) in replacement of the traditional and expensive barley. As such, many genever took on a new flavour ill enjoyed by general consumers
Today however genever has regained much of their distilling pedigree and are once again producing spirits of outstanding quality. In recognition of this, the category was rewarded an AOC (Appellation ‘d’Origine Controlee) in 2008 which safe guards the quality standards of all locally produced genever in the provinces which defined the Low Countries of their heritage. In essence the category is defined by five core styles;
- Genever (Jenever): A juniper flavoured spirit with a minimum of 30% ABV (60 proof) by blending of neutral alcohol and malt wine
- Grain Genever (Graanjenever): A genever distilled from 100% grain
- Old Genever (Oude Jenever): Genever containing a minimum of 15% malt wine
- Young Genever (Jonge Jenever): Genever containing a maximum of 15% malt wine
- Fruit Genever (Fruit Jenever): Young genever infused with fruit
While both The Netherlands and modern-day Belgium were fighting to hold the Spanish Hapsburgs at bay during the Dutch War of Independence (1568–1648), England had already been producing juniper spirits as early as 1572 from what were called Strong Water Shops – the first commercial liquor retailers. The earliest shop on record belongs to the aptly named Aqua Vitae House (“water of life”) located between two popular taverns, the Ram’s Head and Mother Mampudding’s, near Petty Wales and the Tower of London. These new establishments helped transform social drinking habits away from low alcohol beverages such as wine and ale into high alcohol distillates, all generically referred to as brandy from the dutch term for “burnt wine” – brandewijn . Up to this point, Londoners only imbibed distillates in the form of rudimentary tonics and tinctures produced by groups such as the Worshipful Company of Barbers, were patrons could receive a haircut, some bloodletting and a spirituous dram, all in the one sitting. Quality.
By the start of the 17th century, spirits could be purchased from more than two hundred recorded strong water shops throughout London. In 1638, King Charles I granted a Royal Charter for the Worshipful Company of Distillers (WCD) to regulate and supervise the production of strong waters in England while also supplying “those that be aged and weak in time of sudden qualms and pangs” and the “King’s ships and merchant ships for use shipboard and for the sale to foreign nations”. An English rival to that of Lucas Bols and his ties to the VOC. Today the WCD are still a livery company based out of Westminster, London playing an essential role in the training, networking and development of the spirits industry.
A mere five years after the establishment of the WCD, spirits were produced in volume enough for the House of Lords to impose England’s first tax on imported and locally produced spirits. With the introduction to coffee house society after the opening of the first European café in Oxford in 1651, England experiences an awakening of the modern bar as a spirituous domain for social and intellectual engagement. That said, it is still an engagement built around a society well learned in the practice of intoxication.
Despite her position enjoyed alongside brandy as the beverage of the English aristocracy, genever or simply Hollands Gin would suddenly and severely dive to the depths of societal destitution, becoming a queen amongst the poor, weak and depraved. Personified by her moniker Madam Genever, the beverage formally known as English Gin would be more commonly referred to by her many pseudonyms, Blue or Mothers Ruin, Ladies Delight, Cuckholds Comfort or Strip Me Naked – to name a few. Gin’s sudden and absolute plunge from the enlightened coffee houses and private rendezvous of the elite to the slums of St Giles, falls somewhat unfairly on the shoulders of one man – William III of Orange (Prince of the Dutch Republic). William or King Billy as he was known by the Scots and Irish, ascended the throne of England in 1689 becoming King and joint monarch (alongside his native bride Queen Mary II) thanks to a parliamentary coup known as the Bloodless or Glorious Revolution. That same year one of England’s most important constitutional documents would be passed – the Bill of Rights – opening up freedom of speech and limiting the powers of the sovereign monarchy. Unfortunately for William, he would be better remembered for what happened next.
William III began his reign by imposing high taxes on the import of many luxury foreign goods while banning French brandy outright as it represented his lifelong enemy King Luis XIV not to mention the previously deposed monarch and Catholic sympathiser, James II. Primary to the Williams plan lay tax benefits for local English subjects to distil their own spirits from, “good English corn” in an attempt to increase the sale of national produce. It is also argued that while on paper Williams legislation offered opportunity for economic growth, many of the Members of Parliament who helped orchestrate the coup placing William on the throne, were also the landlords for many of the farms which produced the nations corn and wheat.
One of the first major errors of judgement in Williams campaign, arrived with the Distillers Act of 1690 which disbanded the role of the Worshipful Company of Distillers and any regulatory systems they controlled. The act also opened the rights for private distillation where citizens wishing to do so were only required to display a notice of their intent for ten days before distilling as much as they like without any need for a license. The second major error came with the passing of the Bank of England Act in 1694 which raised the duties and taxes imposed on the production of beer, ale and the other liquors under the pretense of supporting the war against France. The effects of which made fortified gin cheaper to buy by volume than common beer. The implementation of the Distillers Act also came about at a time when London was at one of it’s most impoverished in history with a supposed one in ten families living below the bread line. Add to this, the terrible levels of hygiene, quality of drinking water and the Great Winter of 1739 in which the Thames froze over halting major trade for three months – and gin became the place to turn. As a distilled spirit it was healthier (at least from bacteria), cheaper and easier to acquire than clean water and a mental barrier against the cold.
Needless to say, the new acts had their desired effect. By 1721 English Excise and Revenue accounts noted that approximately one-quarter of London’s residents were employed in the production of gin, equating for almost 2 million gallons (9.1 million litres) of tax free product a year. While the vast majority of this spirit was moved outside the city, if all gin remained inside its population of 640’000, it would equate to 1.6 cups of over proof spirit, per person of all ages, per day, for a year. And this was just the beginning. It’s important to mention at this time that King William III only remained the monarch until 1702 when he died of pneumonia after falling off his horse. Joint sovereign Queen Mary II had already passed away in 1694 and for the remaining fifty years, England would be ruled by a succession of short term monarchs until held by King George II (1727-1760). As such the true power lay with the House of Lords and in their greed for personal revenue, the nation would fall into what was recorded as a “well-documented drunken stupor” [For further reading see: Madam Genever brings madness to England].
According to Gin: A Global History by Lesley Jacobs, the common spirit of this period was sold at an average alcohol-by-volume of 80% (160 proof) compared to the 40%-45% marketed today. Add to this the occasional use of cheap toxins such as vitriol (sulfuric acid) and turpentine (distilled resin) to cut the mixture into further parts and you had a poison capable of rendering it’s users blind, crippled or dead. In 1751, satirical social art critic William Hogarth created an engraving entitled Gin Lane which remain one of the most honest and graphic visual representations of the effects of gin during this time [see: Gin Lane and Beer Street].
Gin consumption finally began to decline after the passing of the Gin Act of 1736 – it was the eighth attempted act to do so. Key to its success were a series of controls on the production and retail of spirits, an increase in excise on taxes and importantly supplying the manpower to enforce both. The Gin Craze did however see women and men drinking in bars side by side for the first time, unfortunately their children were often also alongside them, equally drinking, equally drunk and equally addicted. It was estimated that 9000 children in London alone died of alcohol poisoning this same year.
With so much starvation, poverty and drunken excess, the popular gin shop phrase;
“Drunk for a penny, Dead drunk for twopence, Clean straw for nothing”.
– became all too real with some shops reserving a straw lined room out back to store the bodies of patrons when they pass out. Whether they awoke again was only a matter of time. The phrase “saved by the bell” is believed to be descended from this period when many of the public became so paranoid about being buried alive after a big drinking session that they would write the use of Safety Coffins into their wills. These coffins utilised a bell or observation device to draw the attention of a cemetery night-watchmen should a buried body awake from a merely long intoxicated coma. It is also commonly believed that the practice of a 24 hour “wake” before burial also stems from this same period of paranoia although there is little to substantiate this. Fear of being buried alive became so common after the gin craze that many safety coffin designs were submitted for patents and continued throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The earliest on record was for Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick before his death in 1792. Laid to rest inside a tomb, the Dukes coffin involved a window for light, a tube supplying air into the box and a latch operable from the inside via pocketed keys for both the coffin and tomb.
Dr. Adolf Gutsmuth believed in his patent so much he buried himself alive more than once in demonstration of his 1822 design during which he enjoyed a meal of soup, sausages and even ale delivered to him through the coffin’s feeding tube. A further patent in 1829 by Dr Johann Gottfried Taberger, involved a system of strings attached to the limbs and head of the deceased leading to a bell housing which would ring to alert the night-watchman who in turn would insert a bellows and pump air into the coffin until further help could arrive. The problem with dead bodies is their tendency to swell during decomposition and therefore often moving in their place. As such, more than one false ringing was made albeit scaring the hell out of whoever was on shift at the time, let alone the experience of exhuming a bloated and semi decomposed coffin in mock rescue.
- Gin: A Global History, Lesley Jacobs Solmonson, 2012
- Gin: The Much Lamented Death of Madam Geneva, the Eighteenth Century Gin Craze. Patrick Dillon, 2004.
- Distillerie de Biercée – Website
- Nationaal Jevevermuseum Hasselt: Website
- Genever: Belgium’s Traditional Spirit for Over 500 Years – Website
- Project Gutenberg – The Works of William Hogarth: In a Series of Engravings With Descriptions, and a Comment on Their Moral Tendency, Rev John Trusler – 1833 (page 67)
- Internet Archive – Heads of the People: Portraits of the English, Kenny Meadows and writers – 1840
- The Worshipful Company of Distillers – Website
- British History Online – Statutes of the Realm: volume 6: 1685-94
- Bank of England Act 1694 – PDF
- London Online: The Winter of 1739-40 – History Blog
- Google Patents: Improved Burial-Case [US 81437 A], Franz Vestee – 1868