History of jenever
Juniper berries
Production process

At the origin of jenever,
grain alcohol and juniper berries

The alembic and grain alcohol

The alembic is an Egyptian invention in 3000 B.C. It was used to make perfumes and make-up (khôl : eye shadow). The alembic was used for "serious" purposes (alcohol being used as medicine) in the 3rd century A.D. The invention spread over Europe by religion.

The Irish learn from the Egyptians the procedure of distillation and the use of the alembic. Then, Irish monks transmit their know-how to the Dutch by St Patrick and St. Colomban in Holland. At the same time, the Arabs introduce the procedure from Spain to the rest of Europe. That is the origin of the spelling and the pronunciation of the two words:

AL AMBIK : the vase, or alembic.
AL KHÔL : alcohol.

Juniper berries

The juniper is a shrub that belongs to the conifers and can reach a height of 3 meters. It has needles and is very common and growing in the wild in Europe... More info

Jenever, several centuries old

The origin of jenever

Distilled grain alcohol was very popular in Holland in the 16th century. Jenever, as we know it now, was born in the pharmacy office of Sylvius de Bouve, a chemist, alchemist, renowned scholar and professor at the University of Leyden. Sylvius reduced the rate of alcohol in the grain jenever and added the flavour of juniper berries. He sold the beverage under the name Genova, as a remedy against lumbago muscular pain (1595).

At the end of the 16th century, the Bols distillery in Holland starts with its production. In countries without vineyards, jenever and beer are substitutes of wine. In the 16th century, jenever ceases to be a basic medicine and becomes a commonly consumed beverage.

The Genova arrived in England, but was severely taxed and remained therefore clandestine until the end of the 17th century. Jenever was diluted with turpentine and other "toxic substances" to eventually become what we call gin. That alcohol has nothing in common with the Dutch jenever and even less with the French pure grain jenever.

Jenever in France

Since 16th century, distilleries linked with the agriculture of cereals were mentioned in the regions crossed by the Schelde. Those distilleries used barley, rye, and wheat as raw materials. In the 17th century, the jenever from "Schiedam" was imported into Flanders. In the 18th century already, sailors from Dunkirk and Boulogne were eager to make a stop in one of the Dutch ports "to taste and purchase vast quantities of the Schiedam beverage, which had the reputation of being so digestive".

In 1775, the first jenever distillery was created in Dunkirk, France. In the early 19th century in that region, there were 11 jenever distilleries and 31 alembics of 30 hectolitres each; their swill fed 1000 heads of cattle (which produced enough dung for 500 hectares of land).

The Claeyssens distillery was founded in 1789, first in Lille in the rue du Marais, then at Wambrechies in 1817 on the present production site (and replacing the oil mill). The 19th century was a period of growth for the jenever distillation, and the number of distilleries increased with giant steps in the North of France.

That expansion can be explained by the success of the beverage and by the sales of swill to the breeders; and that regularised the jenever production. The consumption of milk in the cities increased strongly after 1850; that increased the number of milk cows fed by swill.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a number of distilleries in the Nord-Pas de Calais produced a jenever with juniper flavour. After a couple of years, it had become the favourite drink of the textile workmen and of the miners. It was a very popular product, mainly consumed at dawn to find the courage to go to the mill or to descend in the mine.

As early as 5 in the morning, the workmen took it in their coffee as a "bistouille" :

  • either the workman emptied his glass of "g'nieff" in one movement to attenuate the heat of the coffee
  • or he drank half of his coffee and then added the jenever
  • or he did some "rinsing" by pouring the jenever on the dregs of his coffee


Now, at the beginning of the third millennium, only three jenever distilleries are left in the Nord de la France. The jenever production has decreased considerably due to the textile and coal crisis and diversifies now to high-class products (Pure Malt and Old Malt), and completes the production of classic jenever, such as at the Claeyssens distillery according to the traditional method of 1817.

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