For many of us the idea that there was a time in the world without gin seems preposterous. But tucked away in the little Dutch town of Schiedam is the heart and soul of juniper’s true purpose. Come with us to the birthplace of gin.
It’s humbling to stand in a place that’s changed the course of human history.
The site of the great battle in Hastings, England. Philadelphia’s Hall of Independence where the American Constitution was signed. Queen Beatrix International Airport, Aruba, where Bernard D Sadow came up with the idea of putting wheels on a suitcase.
You get the same humbling feeling standing on the canaled streets of Schiedam in the Netherlands: the place where gin first grew legs.
By 1900, Schiedam – on the outskirts of the city of Rotterdam – was already home to over 400 distilleries. At that time that meant a distillery for every 67 residents.
But these distilleries weren’t making gin. They were all producing jenever. Jenever – the Dutch word for ‘juniper’ – is the predecessor of gin and has lived in Dutch and Belgian drinks cabinets since perhaps before the 1400s.
This juniper-heavy concoction is still made the traditional way in a couple of museum distilleries in Schiedam today.
What makes jenever jenever?
There are many rules and regulations that restrict what can and can’t be called jenever. Alcohol content, percentage of malt wine and where it’s made are mainstays in whether it’s real jenver or not.
The process is complex.
First a mash is made with milled grain – the same way you make whisky. Then ‘malt wine’ is made by triple distilling the product of the mash. Finally – after oak barrel aging – it’s blended with distilled juniper spirit to create jenever.
The whole process can take over 3 years to complete.
There is also a newer (late 1800s) method that’s similar to how gin is made today.
When did jenever become gin?
The process of evolution from jenever to gin is a complicated one, but in the 1600s English troops in the Thirty Years War experienced jenever whilst fighting in the Low Countries and brought the recipe back to London (which is where the phrase Dutch Courage comes from by the way).
From there, the English transformed jenever into the gin you and I enjoy today.
The whole history of jenever and gin is hugely complicated, fascinating and lengthy. If you want to read more, here’s a massive 8-part account that goes back to the 1100s!
Or here’s a very cute 1-minute cartoon you might like instead.
Can you still buy and drink jenever?
Jenever is still made in a few parts of Europe – the Netherlands, Belgium, and 2 parts of France and Germany. In fact it’s seeing something of a comeback, perhaps thanks to the recent popularity of gin.
To get real traditional jenever, the only place to go is Schiedam’s Jenever Museum, which is on the site of the old De Gekroonde Brandersketel Distillery and uses the Old-Dutch Method to make jenever.
Old Schiedam Jenever Museum and Distillery
Only 20-25 minutes on the 24 or 21 tram from central Rotterdam will find you strolling the pretty streets of Schiedam.
On the banks of the Lange Haven canal is the National Jenever Museum. It’s still a functioning distillery and makes jenever the old traditional way and even uses grain milled by one of the few operational windmills in Schiedam.
For €8 or €9 you can explore the three-storey museum, the history of jenever and gin, collections of antique bottles and see the workings of the old distillery.
And for another €4 or €5, you can have a tasting of the museum’s jenever – though you must buy a museum ticket too. You can’t just do the tasting.
There’s a bottle shop here too, where you can buy your own jenever to take away with you, but we’d recommend a tasting first. Jenever, after all, is not gin. In fact it’s unlike any other spirit I’ve tasted. In a good way.
Old Schiedam Jenever Museum & Distillery
€8.50 museum entry for adults*
€4.50 jenever tasting*
Lang Haven 74-76
*Prices correct at time of publishing
If you want to find out more about Schiedam and Rotterdam, you should check out these stories we’ve published:
11 reasons to put Rotterdam on your Euro itinerary
Next stop Rotterdam – design, innovation and food
Have you been to Rotterdam or Schiedam? Have you tried jenever? Tell us about it in the comments.