Remarkable in their day, but you might not bat an eyelid now
Buried within a wealthy Dutch merchant’s household guide is the world’s oldest gin recipe. Handwritten in 1495, the recipe is a rich man’s boast of a drink. Among the ingredients listed are several herbs and spices that would have been prohibitively expensive for Europeans at the time, but they are also still widely used by gin distillers today. In fact, if you saw this 1495 botanical bill utilised by a modern gin producer, it would likely go without remark. Tastes have fluctuated far less than the prices have, and 1495 would have been a particularly expensive moment to enjoy this beverage.
A lucrative spice trade existed along the Silk Road for centuries. Constantinople, by virtue of its central location, was an important hub along the route. The Ottoman Empire took control of Constantinople in 1453, and began levying heavy taxes on spices headed Eastward. This inspired European merchants to pursue alternative trade routes that they could control. In 1498, Portuguese fleet leader Vasco da Gama sailed around the tip of Africa and landed in India. He was the first European explorer to land in Asia via this route and upon his return to Portugal, an era of spice and trade driven colonialism would hence begin.
In between these dates, spices were highly taxed and Europeans had no alternatives. A drink distilled from French wine and ginger, galangal, clove, cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg would have truly been a luxury. There were three other less expensive ingredients in the 1495 recipe. Grains of paradise was already a cheaper substitute for black pepper sourced from Western Africa. The other two, sage and juniper, grew locally and would have been easily and inexpensively sourced.
The “first” gin botanicals?
Recipes for wines redistilled with juniper were not uncommon in medical or apothecarial texts; however, this recipe stands out as it appeared within a cookbook and not in the medical sections of the book.
For the sake of understanding gin as we know it today, spirits historians differentiate between medicinal spirits that bear a resemblance to spirits we know today, and those made explicitly for recreation. This 1495 recipe is the first concrete evidence that these drinks were moving out of the apothecary and into other parts of Renaissance life.
The recipe was discovered in the Sloane manuscripts and first referenced in Eric van Schoonenberghe’s 1996 text Jenever in de Lage Landen. Phillip Duff re-discovered the recipe in the mid-2010s re-created the recipe in partnership with EWG Spirits and Wine. Two versions were made – one “Verbatim” exactly as the recipe is written and a second “Interpretatio” which riffs on the style and is designed for a modern palate. Both were produced in very limited quantities, released and auctioned for charity. However, since they were able to tweak this 500-years-old recipe and create a modern gin underscores the most striking aspect of this recipe. It would be easily recognisable as a gin today. The botanicals have endured as co-companions to juniper for over half a millennium and have appeared consistently in gins throughout that time.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale)
Ginger (along with black pepper, saffron, cinnamon and cloves) was one of the most popular spices in European culinary tradition. One researcher found ginger as an ingredient in one out of every four medieval English recipes.
Ginger grows as the root or rhizome of a tropical flowering perennial, native to Southeast Asia. Its exact birthplace isn’t known because it was domesticated and widely transported by Austronesian peoples settled in the South Pacific nearly 5,000 years ago. Its appeal was so universal, that the spicy piquant root would make its way via the spice trade into European cookeries. There’s a Roman recipe for something similar to haggis, liberally spiced with ginger and other spices.
A brief timeline of ginger in gin recipes*: Gordon’s Distiller’s Cut (2004), G’vine Floraison (2006), Iron Balls Gin (2016), Crows Gin (2019), Old Curiosity Distillery x Ruby Bhogal Christmas Gin (2019)
Galangal (Alpinia galanga)
So closely related to ginger, that to the untrained eye they might easily be mistaken for one another, galangal is a rhizome native to Java and modern-day Indonesia. It’s widely used in Thai cuisine. Flavour and aroma wise, it can be differentiated from regular ginger by its slightly more camphorous and piney aroma, with round black peppercorn facets.
Galangal first began appearing in Europe around the ninth century C.E. Although it appeared with regularity in English cookbooks in the middle ages; it’s relatively uncommon in European culinary tradition today. In many Western markets, the only way to find galangal is to find a store that specialises in Southeast Asian ingredients.
Of the ingredients in this old gin recipe, galangal may be the most obscure; however, it’s far from unheard of in gin. Several distillers in the 2000s have included it among their botanical bills.
A brief timeline of galangal in gin recipes*: DH Krahn (2006), Comb 9 Gin (2012), Spring 44 Old Tom (2013), Nginious! Swiss Blended Gin (2014), D. George Benham’s Sonoma Dry Gin (2016), Gawky Galangal Gin (2018), Marston’s Bespoke Maharaja Gin (2018)
Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum)
Cardamom is a perennial tropical plant that grows up to three or four metres in height. It takes a few years before the plant is big enough to flower. When it does, the flowers are butterfly shaped with white, fuschia and sometimes gold colours. It is native to the monsoon forests of Southeastern Asia, which include parts of modern-day Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and India.
Cardamom’s history as a spice dates back to at least 2000 B.C.E. where a Sumerian recipe describes a bread and soup made with ground cardamom. In the first and second centuries C.E. cardamom made its way into Europe by way of the Greeks.
Widely available today, Guatemala is the world’s largest cardamom producer. It is often sold as pods, either green or white (i.e. bleached). Breaking the pods open reveals tiny black seeds with a resinous, earthy and creamy aroma that is intense and quite unlike anything else. Many people think of it as a key part of the aroma of Chai tea or Swedish Christmas cookies.
“Buried within a wealthy Dutch merchant’s household guide is the world’s oldest gin recipe”
Clearly, cardamom’s history as a botanical dates back to at least 1495, but today it is one of the most frequent supporting botanicals gin distillers use. It even had a brief moment during the early 2010s where its prominence as a gin botanical rose to almost fad-like proportions, appearing in botanical lists left, right and centre. Its popularity endures even today and it is now a part of the botanical bill for many major brands and small producers alike.
A brief timeline of cardamom in gin recipes*: Hammer & Son Old English
Gin (1783), Plymouth Gin (1793), Seagram’s (1857), Pickering’s (1947), Citadelle (1996), G’vine Floraison (2006), Opihr Gin (2013), Piger Henricus Gin (2013), Drumshanbo Gunpowder Gin (2017), Downpour Scottish Dry Gin (2019).
Clove (Syzygium aromaticum)
Cloves are the flower buds of a 17 metre tall evergreen tree native to Moluccas or spice islands in what is now modern-day Indonesia. As a member of the Myrtaceae family, they’re more closely related to the Australian lemon myrtle than any plant than anything native to Europe. The tree has broad green leaves and deep ruby efflorescences. They’re relatively slow growing as well – it takes at least six years before they first flower.
They began making their way into China around 300 BCE. The emperor demanded that anyone who requested his audience chew a clove before addressing him; naturally, for fresh breath. In the 7th and 8th centuries, cloves began making their way around Europe. Like many spices that would become staples, these buds had both medicinal and culinary appeal. Clove oil is an effective analgesic, and eugenol has been observed to have some antiseptic properties. One 13th century physician might have planted the seeds for a characterisation that persists to this day. A sauce made of spices ‘proper for winter’ will balance the body – ginger, pepper, cinnamon and naturally, of course – cloves.
Bonus: at the end of George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984, Winston gulps down a glass of clove-flavoured gin.
A brief timeline of cloves in gin recipes*: Tanqueray Malacca Gin (1839), Pickering’s (1947), Magellan (2003), Tru2 Organic Gin (2008), Knickerbocker Gin (2008), Spirit Hound Gin (2012), Bertha’s Revenge Irish Milk Gin (2015), That Boutique-y Gin Company’s Yuletide Gin (2017), UPEND Navy Strength Gin (2019)
Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans)
Nutmegs are the seeds of an evergreen tree native to the Moluccas of Indonesia. Despite growing in such a distant part of the world, the seeds found their way across the Asian and European subcontinents by 1000 B.C.E. In the 1300s, you could grab a pound of the spice in Germany for only the cost of “seven fat oxen.” Nutmeg could do it all – from cure the plague to make a delicious meal. It’s very possible that the biggest boast in the entire Gin 1495 recipe was that it began with 12 whole nutmegs.
In some senses, the spice was too valuable to Europeans. New Amsterdam became New York because of nutmeg – the British traded a tiny nutmeg rich island to the Dutch for Manhattan. The Dutch were so bent on controlling the nutmeg trade that they committed genocide and enslaved the Bandanese people who originally inhabited the islands.
A century later, the Dutch nutmeg monopoly would be broken by a botanical smuggler. A Frenchman spirited away nutmeg seedlings and planted them on a French-colonised island far from the Moluccas. Prices then fell. By the late 18th century, nutmeg had become a middle class luxury as opposed to the private domain of the wealthy. In other words, it wasn’t cheap enough for Charles Tanqueray to put it in his everyday gin,
but it was affordable enough that he was able to experiment with it in some of his other recipes.
A brief timeline of nutmeg in gin recipes*: Hammer & Son Old English Gin (1783), Tanqueray Malacca Gin (1839), Boodles Gin (1845), Hayman’s Gin (~1860s), Martin Miller’s Gin (1999), Knickerbocker Gin (2008), Blackwood’s Vintage Dry Gin (2012), Bombay Amber (2015), Privateer Tiki Gin (2018), Tamworth Garden Dutchess Gin (2019)
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum various.)
Cinnamon is one of the world’s oldest known spices and is commonplace today. Mummies in Egypt were embalmed with cinnamon; the world’s oldest known perfume had cinnamon in it too and Sappho wrote poems about it. In Europe during the Middle Ages, simply having cinnamon was a status symbol.
Furthermore, the spice was the source of the longest con-job in recorded history. For centuries, the Arab traders who transported cinnamon to Europe told fantastical stories about the spice’s source. Images of giant vicious birds making nests out of cinnamon branches haunted the minds of Europeans who were none the wiser. It has been said that this secrecy helped the traders maintain a monopoly on the cinnamon market in Europe.
While technically only Ceylon cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) is identified as true, or just cinnamon – many other closely related species are also referred to as the same. Vietnamese Cinnamon, Indonesian Cinnamon and cassia are all distinct species native to different regions; however, historically all have been referred to as simply ‘cinnamon’ at one time or another. Even in modern times, the cinnamon in European and American grocers and foodstores is actually cassia. Especially in older recipes, it can be nearly impossible to discern which variant was used – though due to its wider availability and relatively inexpensive price, cassia is usually a good guess.
A brief timeline of cinnamon in gin recipes*: Damrak Gin (~1750?), Hammer & Son Old English Gin (1783), Broker’s Gin (~1820s), Hayman’s Gin (~1860s), Citadelle (1996), Tru2 Organic Gin (2008), Blackwater No. 5 Gin (2015), Devil’s Bathtub Gin (2016), Scuttled Gin (2019).
* Where known, the estimated recipe date is included in parenthesis, otherwise the release data is as specified.