A Brief (But Fascinating) History of Gin

Juniper berries
Juniper berries for the win!

Gin is made from juniper.

No one is really sure who invented gin, or rather, who first discovered that juniper berries could create such a tasty concoction. Historians are still battling to make that discovery. Some claim that monks created it as a medicine of sorts- the current winner is Belgian theologian Thomas van Cantimpre. However, Galen was writing about juniper berries and their health benefits as early as the second century AD.

Juniper springs from the ancient cypress family. It appears juniper berries made their initial debut in the Triassic period, some 250 million years ago. This is the same time that Pangaea existed—the single land mass that then split into the continents we now have—and explains why a single species of Juniper (Juniperis communis) can be found in Europe, Asia, and North America.

Having been around so long, it is natural that several sub-species of juniper berries have evolved. The juniper that is used most commonly in gin is actually J. communis communis. Gin distillers usually prefer berries from eastern Europe, Morocco, and Tuscany. Most juniper is still wild-harvested in places like Herzegovina, Albania, and Bosnia- which produce over 700 tons of juniper berries per year.

The Dutch were distilling gin for reasons other than medicine when they revolted against the Spaniards in 1566. It was on these battlefields that the British learned to enjoy gin as well and where the term “Dutch courage” arose. Of course, once the British discovered gin, it became something they produced as well.

Missologist | Set of classic cocktails of gin tonic with orange, with lime and mint leaves in glasses

Gin is really nothing more than flavored vodka whose main ingredient is juniper. The base spirit is usually a mixture of wheat, corn, barley, and rye. Some American distilleries are experimenting with local junipers, such as Bendistillery in Oregon.

Oddly enough, Juniper berries are not easily obtained in England today due to a failure to replant older stands and a loss of habitat.


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