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The dubious Leiden roots of genever and gin

Dutch people are proud of the fact that genever, their national drink, was the prototype for gin, the now so fashionable British spirit. And Leiden people are proud of their Professor Sylvius, who invented genever in the seventeenth century. But is this really true?

Franciscus Sylvius

If we listen to the company that makes the modern Leyden Gin, the story is perfectly clear. Genever was first created by the physician Franciscus de le Boë Sylvius, who was born in 1614 in Hanau, Germany and from 1658 until his death in 1672 was a professor at Leiden University. His name still lives on today, in the Sylvius Laboratory.

Diuretic medicine

The story goes that around 1650 this Professor Sylvius concocted a diuretic medicine, using ingredients from the Hortus Botanicus. The inexpensive potion was used as a remedy for various stomach and kidney ailments. Exactly how effective it was is unknown; but many of those who consumed it will have experienced at least a temporary alleviation of their symptoms.

Genever became gin

So that completes the tale of genever’s genesis. The pleasant taste meant that the drink’s purpose changed from medicinal to recreational, and Dutch people were delighted with their new beverage. Their stadtholder William III is said to have also seen its potential. After becoming King William III of England in 1689, he started to import the Dutch drink to that country. Local imitation soon took place: this product became famous as gin.

Alternative route

However, the Encyclopaedia Britannica article on gin gives an alternative route for the drink’s journey to England, saying that it was introduced by soldiers returning from the Low Countries, although without specifying when this happened. Interestingly, the encyclopaedia also mentions Franciscus Sylvius as the inventor of genever; but it only says that its origin is ‘attributed to’ him, cautions Janko Duinker of the Hortus Botanicus. This can therefore not be seen as real proof.

The indigenous juniper berry

In fact, genever’s precursors had been popular for a very long time in the Netherlands and throughout Europe, says Duinker. The juniper berry – the main flavouring of genever – is indigenous to the Benelux and is therefore not an illogical addition to a drink, for flavour or for its medicinal properties. As early as 1270, the Flemish writer Jacob van Maarlant, in his book Der Naturen Bloeme (The Flower of Nature), refers to a medicine made from juniper berries boiled in wine.

Perfected by Sylvius

So the genever that became popular in England at the end of the seventeenth century was not a recent creation that appeared out of the blue at Leiden University. But Duiker thinks that Sylvius probably did actually perfect the recipe for genever, and he certainly made the drink more famous.

Gin from Leiden

Today, genever is nowhere near as popular as when Sylvius was around. However, its British cousin gin, in combination with tonic, has suddenly become very trendy again in the second decade of the 21st century. A Dutch drinks producer spotted the commercial opportunities, and in May 2016 the new Leyden Gin was launched. Among its ingredients are cinnamon, lemon and figs, which – as in the time of Sylvius – come from the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden. And juniper berries, of course.

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