If one does a brief check of the internet in order to discover who “invented” gin, the first thing one encounters is a vast series of misinformation and misunderstanding. At least three different people get credit for creating gin, and there’s little evidence to support any of them. However, in the interest of fairness, I’ve decided to list them all here, and tell you who has the better shot of being credited with the popularity of the storied spirit.
- Franciscus Sylvius - 17th Century: Born in Germany but lived in the Netherlands, Sylvius is often the first person given credit for gin’s creation. He’s also the less likely to actually have done so. An anatomist by trade, he is rightfully credited for defining and mapping parts of the brain.
- Sylvius de Bouve – 16th Century: Certainly a better candidate than “Brainy” Sylvius, de Bouve was a Flemish alchemist who actually worked with distillation and created a series of concoctions as medicine with this technique.
- Jacob van Maerlant – 13th Century: Another Dutch, van Maelant documented juniper based medicine in his series Der naturen bloeme, a 20 volume manuscript detailing the natural world.
Here’s the thing – None of these guys likely “invented” gin, any more than the John Montagu invented the sandwich*. Out of the three candidates above, only Sylvius de Bouve worked with distillation on a regular basis (although Franciscus Sylvius had access to labratories). The nature of the world back in the 1500′s and 1600′s was that the majority of people, including alchemists, were students of the oral tradition, and only the wealthy had access to books and manuscripts, and only the wealthy and upper middle classes had the resources to learn how to read.
Alchemy, from which genever very likely evolved, would have been known by more than a few people, and juniper was a common adjunct at the time, and added to various concoctions, including beer. Being a society based on the oral tradition, juniper infused alcohol that had been distilled could have occurred anywhere from Scotland to Switzerland. In fact, there is evidence that the whiskeys of the time (the unaged, white-lightning variety) were often flavored with one type of herb or another, up to and including the aforementioned juniper.
So why do I think de Bouve deserves some credit? Because it is very likely that he was the first to write a variation of the recipe down, and then sell his concoction to great popularity. Similar to the case of Montagu, de Bouve became the de facto person known for an already established product.
History is rarely as clean and tidy as having one person be responsible for the discovery of any one thing. Solo efforts are the exception, not the rule. The history of gin follows that same rule.
(*NOTE: Nothing is sillier to me than the idea that Montagu invented putting meat on bread and then eating it by hand. It discounts so many different cultures, including the history of Middle Eastern cuisine, that it surprises me that so many people accept the “invention” of the sandwich as fact.)