While never-before-seen bottlings are launched seemingly every week, sometimes you can’t beat a classic. And considering distilled spirits date back to the 13th century, there’s no shortage of recipes to choose from. We interviewed three distillers making modern gin according to ye olde recipes from days of yore – or at least, closely modelled on them – to find out how they came to be the guardians of flavour history…
If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to come across centuries-old hand-written artefact – letters, diaries, notebooks, ledgers – perhaps at a museum, in the visitors’ centre of a distillery, or as part of an antiques fair, you’ll understand the remarkable feeling of seeing a relic from the past with your own two eyes. These documents are the raw material of history, Irish Distillers archivist Carol Quinn told MoM back in April. “There’s nothing like a handwritten letter to really give you a connection with an individual,” she said. “They’ve touched that page, they’re folded it with their hands. It’s a very different experience and I find it very visceral.”
Searching for the world’s oldest gin recipe: Gin 1689
For the spirits industry’s creative minds, such artefacts can be a unique source of inspiration. Other times they bring an historical spirit back to life, as Patrick van der Peet, co-creator of Amsterdam-based Gin 1689 – said to be the world’s oldest gin recipe – attests. “The story behind our brand starts over 300 years ago, when William of Orange and his wife Queen Mary II came to the throne in the United Kingdom during the Glorious Revolution and introduced gin-making to the broader public,” he explains. “Soon, production started to exceed the volume of wine, ales and beers.”
Co-founder Alexander Janssens came across a reference to an original recipe dating back to that era in a book about gin history. Determined to locate the full recipe, he uncovered snippets in the rare book section of the British Library. But the original 17th century recipe book, The Distiller of London, was nowhere to be found. After 18 months of searching, “it turned up in a private collection of a wealthy American book collector who resided in Los Angeles, long since dead,” van der Peet explains. “With permission of the trust we bought the copyrights of the recipe and went to work.”
Compiled and licensed under the command of the Dutch King, the book was published in 1698 for the explicit use of the Company of Distillers of London. “The recipe we used, number XXXIII, made use of a number of very special botanicals – especially for that time,” he continues, since spices were expensive. To recreate the recipe, Van der Peet enlisted the expertise of one of Holland’s oldest distilleries, Herman Jansen, which has made gin in Schiedam since 1777. They launched Gin 1689 (named for the year William III took to the throne) in 2018.
Bringing a family legacy to life: Bashall Spirits
Among many other distillers, the historic link is especially close to home. Lancashire-based Bashall Spirits, established by Fiona McNeill, creates its range of gins using family cooking recipes from a set of books that date back to the 18th and 19th centuries respectively. Her family have lived in the village of Bashall Eaves for more than 200 years, and so bringing these old recipes to life is a true labour of love.
“The first book is dated 1750,” says McNeill. “There’s no name written in the book, but the family has always related that it was written by Anne Taylor, who is my great*8 aunt. Her and her husband John were the first of the family to move to Bashall. The second book was written by Jennet Worsley, my great*5 grandmother, around the middle of the 19th century. In those days there were no commercial recipe books, so women would gather the recipes that they and their friends used to pass on through the family.
“Some of the recipes are quite topical – for example, Jennet has one inspired by the Great Exhibition – and they tend to focus heavily on locally-growing produce and things that could be foraged for, which gives them a lovely local flavour. They used a lot of the same sort of ingredients that we use now, but a lot of other ingredients which are not used so commonly, many of which are easily available.”
McNeill picked 12 recipes from the books to experiment with, whittling down the selection to create nine flavoured gins. At present, there are three gins in the range, two of which hail from the 1750 recipe book. “Orange & Quince Gin, inspired by a marmalade recipe – or ‘marmalet’ to use 18th century terminology – Damson & Elderberry, which is inspired by a fruit wine recipe, and Parkin Cake Gin, a rich Lancashire and Yorkshire cake flavoured with treacle and ginger,” she says.
Resurrecting national history: Diplome Gin
For other distillers, resurrecting a forgotten recipe provides a unique opportunity to celebrate hyper-local history. When World War II ended, the US army remained in Europe to provide security and assist with rebuilding allied countries. Among them, 62,000 American soldiers and 1,250 civilians were stationed in France.
“The US army contracted distilleries across France, Italy and Great Britain to provide gin to its GIs,” explains Betegnie. “A distillery in Dijon won the exclusive French contract to supply gin to the US Army.” When the American forces were asked to leave France in 1966, the distillery stopped producing the gin – but they kept the original recipe safely in their archive, he says.,
In the 2010’s, Betegnie set out to find the distillery and bring the gin back into production. To his delight, he was given express permission by the owners to recreate the recipe using identical tools and methods. “The recipe they made in 1945 remains the exact same to this day,” he says. “Time is very important for the process – it takes more than four days to make it. Most new gins are made in less than one day. That is a big difference, and the taste shows it.”
From hand-written family cookbooks to historically-significant spirits, these modern distillers have captured flavours from the past and made it possible for everyone to enjoy a taste of spirited history. And what’s more, they’re far from the only distillers to do so. Next time you order a bottle of something delicious, take a look into the brand’s past – it might just surprise you.