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17th century medicine
Gin is a colourless spirit distilled from a grain mash with flavour added from juniper berries and sometimes herbs. It was invented in the Netherlands by Franz Silvius (1614-1672), professor of medicine at Leiden University, as a diuretic for urinary disorders - a cheap alternative to juniper oil. The name comes from the French for juniper berry, "genièvre", "genever" in Dutch/Flemish, shortened to "gin" in English. Gin became popular throughout the Low Countries as a cheap alcoholic drink in the 17th century.

Monopolies, royal privilege, and smuggling
When Louis XIV made adjoining parts of the Low Countries French in the late 17th century, they came within French law.
King Louis XVI sold royal monopolies on various products to raise money for the cash-strapped royal treasury. The monopoly on spirits was sold to the producers of armagnac and cognac brandies, which were first distilled commercially (from grape wine) in the 17th century. Before the French Revolution in 1789, gin could not be legally produced in France - but was often smuggled in.

Smuggling to England
Cheap gin was introduced to England by English soldiers returning from fighting in the Low Countries in the 1740's. Distilleries opened in London, but when the British government put a heavy tax on luxuries like gin and brandy, it became lucrative for
smugglers to bring in barrels of French and Low Countries' spirits across the channel in the dead of night.

Napoleonic Wars
French Revolution ended royal privileges for brandy producers, and brought the Low Countries back under French rule. Napoleon ordered a boycott of trade with Britain, but encouraged English smugglers - not only for their gold coins, but also for the information and French spies carried on the smugglers' boats.

Supplying the English smugglers
Napoleon set up warehouses to supply the cross-channel smugglers - first in
Dunkerque, then (because the English smugglers were so rowdy) on the beach by Gravelines. This encouraged the gin trade, and some new distilleries were set up in northern France. Distillerie Persyn near St-Omer, founded 1812, still survives.

Hogarth's Gin Lane 1851
"Gin Lane" in London - Hogarth's print (1751) showing the social effects of heavy drinking of cheap gin amongst ordinary people in Britain in mid-18th century, after it was introduced by English soldiers. The British government put a tax on gin as a response - and also to raise money for fighting wars in the North American and Indian colonies.

Stills at Distillerie Persyn, Houlle near St Omer

Gin is aged and blended in oak barrels: Wambrechies Distillery near Lille

After the Napoleonic Wars
After Napoleon's defeat in 1815, the demand for gin was boosted by the return of emigré arostocrats and the foreign troops who occupied the North for 3 years. There was also a growing local demand in North France from workers in the new textile mills and coal mines.

Cross-channel smuggling continued in peacetime, because British import taxes remained high, and for many unemployed soldiers and sailors returned from the wars to Kent and Sussex, smuggling was the only way to make a decent living.

More distilleries opened in northern France, including Wambrechies Distillery near Lille in 1817, which still has its original machinery working today. They were usually near canals, for cheap transport by barge of all the grain they needed.

How you make gin in a still:
Gin still -diagram
The herby-mash liquid - a mixture of crushed rye and barley grain and juniper berries - is piped into the still and heated.

Alcohol boils at a lower temperature (78.5 deg.C) than water (100 deg.C) With carefully controlled heating, the steamy vapour rising up the neck is concentrated alcohol. The distilled spirit is led off down a pipe to the right, where it cools, condenses as gin liquor and is stored in oak casks.

The process was originally invented to concentrate wine for export, to save shipping space - with the intention of watering it down again at the other end.

Miners' drink
The North developed massively as an industrial area in 1850-1950. For tens of thousands of coal miners and textile mill workers in the North, a "bistouille" (tot of local gin in coffee) was a popular breakfast to help them through the rigours of a hard day's work. Gin and beer were the popular drinks in the local bars - "estaminets" - for working people; gin was equally popular amongst the North's middle classes, enriched by the
Industrial Revolution. a regional tradition
The peak of genever production was in the 1930s. As jobs in heavy industry and mining disappeared, so distilleries closed. Today, there are just three left. But these are thriving with new interest in regional traditions. You can visit any of the region's three distilleries, sample their products, and buy some to take away. You will also find the local gin served in the North's restaurants as an aperitif or after dinner, like brandy.

In the bad old days of the 19th century, coal miners' wagers were paid in the local estaminet - often owned by the mining company.

Emil Zola & the life of coal-miners


Places to visit:
Distillerie Persyn (founded 1812) - Houlle on River Aa near St-Omer
Wambrechies Distillerie (founded 1817) - by the River Doule nr Lille
Estaminets of Flanders

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