From Salerno to Schiedam: the incredible history of jenever

Translated from the Italian by Federico Campanile

It is not an understatement to consider Dutch jenever as the father of modern gin. Father, in fact, not twin brother because the methods of production and the type of grain used for the base differ greatly between the two. Moreover, a gin must contain a high percentage of juniper among its botanicals, while a Jenever only needs one berry to be named so.

Jenever was originally produced from the distillation of malt wine (“moutwijn” in Dutch); what was obtained would not have a great taste due to the lack of advanced distilling techniques, so the distillers chose to add different spices and herbs to mask the taste better. Among these was the juniper berry, jeneverbes in Dutch (the name comes from the Latin Juniperus which means “to give birth to cows”) for its beneficial effects. Hence the name jenever (from which derives the English gin).


And think about it, in the 16th century, this drink was even a medicine (at least they sold it as such). As for its creation, the most famous version attributes its birth to Dr. Sylvius who, during his teaching at the University of Leiden, had conducted research on the distillation of medicines with juniper berry oil. However, none of his writings contain references to jenever. Moreover, in 1606, the Dutch already levied taxes on jenever and similar liqueurs that were sold as alcoholic beverages, proving that it had not been used as a medicine for some time.

The Flemish people, for their part, do not stand by and allow the Dutch to take credit for the creation of the liqueur. The Hasselt National Jenever Museum in Belgium unequivocally states that it was created in the plains of Flanders during the 13th century. This version is reinforced by the writings in “Jenever in de Lage Landen” by Prof. Dr. Eric Van Schooneberghe.

Shall we give the Belgians what they want?

Although the Flemish contributed to the evolution and diffusion of the liqueur, surprisingly, between the two contenders, it is Italy that wins: particularly Salerno. Thanks to their close contact with the Crusaders, the Scuola Medica Salernitana – the first and most important medical institution in Europe in the Middle Ages (9th century) – acquired knowledge of distillation techniques already widely used in the Arab world. In particular, alcohol’s carrying properties. In fact, it is not digested by the body but reaches the liver that filters it and releases it into the blood. Consequently, thanks to alcohol it was possible to increase the effectiveness of various treatments since it allowed a faster spread of medicine throughout the body.


In the meantime, the plague arrived in Italy because of the merchants of Genoese fabrics who brought rats and mice back with them during their travels. Juniper then became one of the most used plants thanks to its abundance in Salerno. One of the first symptoms of the plague appeared on the urinary tract and it was thought that juniper was indicated to treat this. In actuality, the only ability of juniper was to keep the rats and mice away. In any case, the conviction of its medicinal properties led to the birth of “juniper spirits” – or rather juniper liqueurs. Through the ecclesiastical channel, the “juniper spirits” spread in Europe following the path of the abbeys, reaching Flanders where “brandewijn”, burnt wine, usually flavoured with spices including juniper was produced.

English and Dutch shot brothers

This drink, although less famous than its offspring, had its moments of popularity in the recent past. So much so, in fact, as to become the most consumed brandy in England and the colonies. What is known for certain about the history of jenever is that it spread to England after the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). British and Dutch soldiers fought side by side against the Spanish and French, and soon the British adopted the habit of drinking jenever to gain courage before the battles. For this reason the drink was nicknamed “Dutch Courage”.


Jenever as national pride

Today, the tradition of jenever in the Netherlands is carried on by historic producers, who keep the interest in it alive thanks to sustained domestic consumption. Moreover, it seems that even non-traditional markets are starting to pay attention thanks to competitions and competitions financed mainly by Bols. Bols also runs a museum of jenever where its history is well told. To better appreciate the evolution of this spirit, however, it is recommended to go to smaller distilleries near Schiedam. Unfortunately, with the advent of the alcohol multinationals, this small fabric made of family micro-products has suffered hard blows.

Despite everything, in recent years great attention to jenever seems to have taken hold even among young Dutch people. On the basis of the false belief that jenever is a Dutch invention, a nationalistic drinking culture has been consolidated around it. It is usually drunk straight, but can also be used to create cocktails. It is served in artistic tulip-shaped glasses, which are filled to the brim, encouraging drinkers to lean their heads over the counter as they drink their first sip.


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