For the first decade of its existence, New Amsterdam was a rough place. Located on the tip of Manhattan Island, it was a haven for pirates and smugglers. Many of the earliest rules and regulations were an attempt to control the unruly citizens of a backwater outpost, but officials proved unable to lay down the law. Intemperate drinking was one of the problems.
In 1640 permission was granted by Willem Kieft, Director of the New Netherland Colony, for liquor to be distilled on Staten Island – in contemporary Dutch: Staaten Eylandt – where what is believed to have been the first commercial distillery in North America was built (today Staten Island is home to the Booze History Museum).
Settlers from the Low Countries distilled a New World version of their native jenever, a grain-based gin with local botanicals like hops and juniper berries. New Amsterdam developed a rich tavern culture – a home away from home. In the same year 1640, Amsterdam city officials first mentioned the name of Pieter Jacobszoon Bols as a distiller on the Rozengracht.
Jenever was first mentioned in Flanders around 1270 by Jacob van Maerlant in Der naturen bloeme (The flower of nature). The tale that Franciscus Sylvius mixed the drink at Leiden University in 1650 as a cure for stomach disorders is a (persistent) myth.
Originally, people used stale beer or waste products from the wine trade to produce their own brandy (in addition to imports from France). By the end of the sixteenth century, home-made distilled brandy (koren brandewijn: burned malt wine), based on distilling a fermented grain wash of barley, rye and malt, was widely imbibed in the Low Countries. The spread of the drink was encouraged by an active intervention policy of the government.
One of the vital herbs added to make the spirit more palatable was the juniper berry (Juniperus communis or “jenever bes”) which gave the spirit its name. At the time, the juniper was a common shrub in the Low Countries and there was a strong belief in its medicinal properties (a cure for pneumonia; burned juniper berries were used to disinfect plague-infected rooms). People soon found out that this “aqua vitae” had not only health-restoring, but also euphoria-inducing qualities. Schnapps is a similar clear distilled spirit that was produced in German-speaking countries.
During the sixteenth century, the relatively tolerant rule of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V led to the economic and cultural expansion of the Southern Netherlands. Under the dictatorial reign of his son Philip II of Spain who set out to be the “saviour” of Catholic Europe, the Low Countries fell apart. Reports in 1567 that the Duke of Alva’s army was marching towards Antwerp caused an exodus of non-Catholic merchants, artists, printers, publishers, and intellectuals. Brewers too took their skills elsewhere. As most refugees settled in Amsterdam, Haarlem, Leiden, and other northern cities, the process shifted the balance of power. Building on Flemish expertise, the Dutch created a commercial and artistic empire that was unrivaled in Europe.
In 1601, the Archdukes Albrecht and Isabella implemented a ban on distilling in the Spanish Netherlands (which would stay in force for 112 years). The brewers and distillers who had remained were forced to leave their premises. Others had moved away long before, including members of the Antwerp Protestant Bulsius family. Having shortened their name to Bols, they settled in Amsterdam where they founded a distillery outside the city walls in 1575.
By 1640 Pieter Jacobszoon Bols was officially documented as operating a distillery in Amsterdam. He started the production of jenever in 1664. Bols is considered the world’s oldest distilled brand.
When Elizabeth I sent troops to assist the Dutch in the war against Spain, English soldiers were stunned by the bravery of local fighters. It was assumed that “Dutch courage” was fired by a potent spirit. English soldiers soon joined the jenever habit. Having anglicized the Dutch word to “genever,” they later transformed it to Geneva (the drink was referred to as “Madam Geneva”).
From Philip Massinger’s play The Duke of Milan (c. 1621/3) we learn that the phrase “in Geneva print” was slang for being drunk. For many, the “un-English” word genever seemed to refer to the Geneva Bible and, by association, to the small roman typeface that was used in the mass produced pocket-bible that Protestant soldiers carried with them. Geneva was eventually shortened to the mono-syllabic word gin.
In August 1689 William III of Orange (“King Billy”) banned all trade between England and France. At the time, French brandy and wines were popular in England and the ban sparked a huge increase in smuggling. Low levels of duty on liquor distilled from malted corn and ciders established by statute in 1690 were introduced in an attempt to encourage native alternatives to French wines. William also promoted the distilling of Dutch jenever as a substitute. Labeled as “Hollands,” it was sold in stoneware bottles.
The Southern Netherlands lifted its distilling ban in 1713. Jenever production began again, re-starting the competition with their ever-expanding counterparts in the north. Britain remained a major export destination. In most English cities, gin was cheap and available on every street corner. Dutch jenever brought about London’s gin addiction.
In 1736, Parliament unsuccessfully tried to stem the flow of gin (and lethal surrogates thereof). The Gin Act caused riots in the streets, but the concern about alcohol abuse remained. The drinking of “Geneva” had become excessive in parts of the population, blamed for destroying the health of many people, and rendering tens of thousands unfit for work.
Gin was the rage of the poor parts of London. At its height there were over 7,000 licensed retailers in a city of 600,000 people, plus thousands more street vendors peddling a spirit far rougher than today’s gin. The availability of so much alcohol proved devastating. William Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane (1751) is an image of chaos by presenting a mother so drunk that her baby falls from her arms.
Rye Whiskey on Staten Island
To early Dutch pioneers in America brewing figured high on a list of priorities. Around 1633, there appears to have been a brewery amongst the first colonial buildings in New Amsterdam. It was inevitable that Dutch and Flemish distilling skills were put to use from the start.
When Willem Kieft permitted distilling on Staten Island, producers made use of an abundance of rye which they distilled with juniper berries and hops, creating a potent liquor. The making of rye whiskey subsequently became popular in areas of Dutch and Germanic settlement, including the “Pennsylvania Dutch.” Beam, Overholt, and Shenk were all early distillers from the Pennsylvania area who descended from Germanic settlers.
Samuel McHarry’s The Practical Distiller was first published in 1809 and describes the methods for making whiskey from the 1600s onward. The book contains a significant recipe on “How to Make Resemblance of Holland Gin Out of a Rye Whiskey.” Native American Indians acquired a taste for the “Dutch rye” spirit which caused a whiskey war between local inhabitants and incomers. The clash led to destruction of the “Oude Dorp” (Old Town) settlement near what is now South Beach on Staten Island.
The Dutch had a reputation for booziness. The verb itself was derived from the Middle Dutch “busen,” meaning to drink heavily (used in 1590 by Edmund Spenser in his description of “Gluttony” in The Faerie Queene). When in 1647 Peter Stuyvesant was appointed Director-General of New Netherland, he made it his mission to restore law and order by fighting drunkenness. In his first Edict issued in May 1647, he condemned intoxication and prohibited the Sunday sale of alcohol in the colony. Stuyvesant may have been a pioneer of Prohibition, but he was unable to reverse a drinking culture.
New York kept distilling alive, albeit on a modest scale. In the early nineteenth century Hezekiah Pierrepont, a major land developer in Brooklyn, acquired a distillery at the foot of Joralemon Street in Brooklyn Heights and began producing Anchor Gin which, for a while, was distributed widely. By 1819, however, Pierrepont had abandoned the business. Other distilleries included a company headed by William Johnson at 16th Street and 9th Avenue, Manhattan, but punishing taxation made the profitable running of a distillery in New York difficult.
Dutch-speaking Martin Van Buren served as the ninth Governor of New York before, in 1837, becoming the eighth President of the United States. A hard drinker, he was known by the nickname “Blue Whiskey Van.” His favorite tipple, however, was “Schiedam” which he consumed in large quantities. He was not the only one.
At a time of mass migration from the Netherlands and Germany to the United States, demand for “home” spirits rose sharply. An enterprising wine merchant came up with a brand that would entice both immigrant markets.
Schiedam Schnapps in Beaver Street
Grain is jenever’s main ingredient. As a North Sea port located at the mouth of the river Maas, the city of Schiedam profited economically by the handling and processing of grain that was transported from the harvested fields of northern and central Europe.
Schiedam rapidly developed as a distilling hub. Windmills were built close to the port and distilleries (captured in an 1897 lithograph by Joseph Pennell). Botanicals for flavoring were supplied by the Amsterdam-based Dutch East India Company. By exporting jenever worldwide, the city’s name became synonymous with the product.
In 1774, Jewish merchant Benjamin Wolfe moved from Germany to London. Two years later he settled in Richmond, Virginia, served under George Washington, and fought against the British in the War of 1812. Around 1824, his son Joel moved to New York where he established himself as a wine and spirit importer in Beaver Street, Manhattan. His younger brother Udolpho joined him there.
In 1839, the brothers commissioned the Schiedam distillers Blankenheym & Nolet to work on their behalf (the latter had been established in New York since 1691). In 1848, the firm advertised a new brand. Labelled Aromatic Schiedam Schnapps, it was medically endorsed by “chemists and physicians.” Schiedam was promoted as a curative to combat gout, rheumatism, obstruction of the bladder and poor blood circulation.
Wolfe’s Aromatic Schnapps was a phenomenal success. By the 1870s, at least one million bottles were sold around the world. Schiedam was the liquor centre of the world. In 1858, a roasting house was built in the city’s harbor area. Named “New York,” the structure reflected the special (liquid) relationship between the two cities.
When by the 1890s the malt wine industry came under increasing pressure from the competition of jenever produced more cheaply from molasses spirit (made from waste originating from the sugar beet industry), the traditional distillers united in a Brandersbond (Malt Distillers’ Association). The aim of this alliance was to preserve and protect the original distillers’ craft.
Until the late nineteenth century, most American bartenders mixed their cocktails with jenever. During the First World War, Belgian producers were hit when German invaders confiscated the copper stills and used the metal to produce ammunition. Prohibition was a further blow to the producers as the export of jenever to the United States dwindled.
As the Netherlands remained neutral during the World War I, its international trade suffered but the distilling industry survived. World War II changed all that. The Nazi occupation of the Netherlands completely halted production. Post-war competition with more fashionable English gin brands started a “spirit war” in which jenever lost its international appeal. The hangover was severe. It led to the demise of many distilleries in the Low Countries.
Illustrations, from above: An early nineteenth century English print of “A Dutch Gin Merchant” (Library of Congress); traditional stoneware jenever bottles; William Hogarth’s “Gin Lane” (1651); lithograph of Joseph Pennell’s “Windmills, Schiedam, 1897” (Library of Congress); the former 1858 roasting house “New York” in Schiedam; 1893 Wolfe’s schnapps advertisement; an original Wolfe’s Schiedam Schnapps bottle.