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Gin - The English Spirit?

Gin is quintessentially British, right? Not quite. Gin is about as English as Single Malt Scotch. It’s eternal synergy with London is down to the quality designation ‘London Dry Gin’ on bottle labels, not because we invented the world’s greatest spirit. So who can claim the title? Some say the Italians, but here at The Heath we feel we’ve got the Dutch to thank. Although the spirit we all know and love today is far removed from its modest beginnings on the continent it did indeed begin across the English Channel.

Gin & Where It All Began?

A form of juniper-based distilled spirit is documented as far back as the 11th century when it was rumoured that Italian monks used juniper berries to flavour their distilled spirits. However, the general consensus is that a Dutch physician, Franciscus Sylvius, created the spirit genever or jenever in 1550; a malted grain-based spirit flavoured with juniper berries which was popular as a diuretic potion and a treatment for a variety of ailments including stomach pains, and gout. As such, Dutch ‘genever’ is widely regarded as the ‘mother of gin’ and the reason gin’s story began in the Dutch republic in the sixteenth century.


The Bols Distillery


Before anyone had toyed with the idea of mixing gin with tonic and ice, the Dutch has established their very own distillery making juniper-flavoured spirits, a distillery that still exists today. The Bols distillery was set up in Amsterdam in 1575 and as a product that’s still consumed across the globe today makes it the longest running spirits brand in history. Pretty impressive stuff.


Bear in mind that this is not a gin as we know it. Bols is classed as genever and is a world away from the gin we distill here at The Heath. Like many recipes, gen, as cheap, freely-available gin variants flooded the market. More on this in our forthcoming words on Gin Mania, which you can read here.n Gin Mania, which you can read heren Gin Mania, which you can read hern Gin Mania, which you can read hen Gin Mania, which you can read hn Gin Mania, which you can read n Gin Mania, which you can readn Gin Mania, which you can rean Gin Mania, which you can ren Gin Mania, which you can rn Gin Mania, which you can n Gin Mania, which you cann Gin Mania, which you can Gin Mania, which you cn Gin Mania, which you n Gin Mania, which youn Gin Mania, which yon Gin Mania, which yn Gin Mania, which n Gin Mania, whichn Gin Mania, whicn Gin Mania, whin Gin Mania, whn Gin Mania, wn Gin Mania, which you can read here.




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Genever's arrival in London was down to Britain's role in the Thirty Years' War (1618 - 1648) when 113,000 British soldiers signed up to support a protestant cause on the continent, mostly fighting alongside the Dutch, the Danish, and the Swede's. The Thirty Years’ War was a harrowing three decade conflict where more than 5 million died in an orgy of violence between Protestants and Catholics. It's little wonder it was remembered as the moment when God deserted Europe.


While these British troops were stationed in Europe, they did what any dutiful soldier would do and discovered a rather exciting new spirit with a charmingly unique flavour. It’s effects proved particularly popular too. This spirit was of course, Dutch genever. The soldiers took and instant shine to genever, and even realised a cheeky tot before battle was the ultimate way to calm their nerves and boost bravery. It was this period and the use of the juniper-flavoured spirit as fortification before fighting which gave rise to the term ‘Dutch Courage’.


Back To Blighty


The British soldiers fighting in the Thirty Years War loved their newfound spirit so much they hocked it back over the channel to Britain. By the mid seventeenth century, after all these soldiers and sailors brought genever back to English shores a whole host of variants soon began to appear.


We won’t digress into the historical how’s and why’s (otherwise you’ll be here all day) but by 1689 a Dutchman, William of Orange, became the King of Britain. The nobles realised a quick-win in the brown-nosing department would be to champion his native spirit, genever, so in a shameless plea to gain the new monarchs favour genever became an overnight sensation in England. This along with its simple production process is how Dutch genever gained a foothold in English drinking culture, and would evolve into English gin we handcraft here at The Heath Distillery.


Gin, As We Know It

William III was in a trade war with France, so to give England the upper hand he not only relaxed legislation on the distillation of spirits but also imposed tax duty on French imported spirits like brandy (the most popular drink in England at the time). Parliament saw an opportunity in this and brought in new legislation to create a new market for low-grade corn. Genius, but devastating for British society in the long-run.


The government heavily increased the duty on imported spirits and opened the spirit industry to the public, without any license or control through the 1690 Distilling Act. This legislation encouraged anyone who fancied their chances of distilling the spirit to be allowed to do so. Anyone who wanted to have a crack at distilling need only stick a notice on their door ten days before production, giving fair warning to the surrounding community, and that was that. Safe to say, every man and his dog picked up the mantle and so began the wicked history of ‘Bathtub Gin’ or ‘Mothers Ruin’, but thats a tale for another day.


The result was an explosion of experimentation, trying new methods of distillation and ingredients, and the relaxed rules also allowed the use of English grain in distillation, including low-quality barley that had been rejected by the beer brewing industry. Within a few years, 7,000 dram-shops sprang up all over England. As brewers tried to protect their trade, the number of ale-houses also multiplied. By 1740 more than 15,000 of the 96,000 houses in the capital sold drink, about 9,000 were gin-shops.


Between 1695 and 1735, hundreds of small gin-distillery operations set up as a result – sparking a problematic drinking epidemic among the poor, known as Gin Mania, as cheap, freely-available gin variants flooded the market. Read our forthcoming words on Gin Mania

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