The Industrial Revolution is rarely remembered fondly, mostly with good reason. It may have brought great progress for humanity, but from William Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” to Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England, the Industrial Revolution was the loss of innocence that sank the poor into a man-made hell. Creating an underclass crammed into inhumane conditions in insanitary city slums.
Walking Schiedam’s picturesque streets today, it seems implausible that during the Industrial Revolution it earned itself the nickname Zwart Nazareth, or Black Nazareth, thanks to the filth created by industrialisation. Unlike much of the Netherlands, Schiedam’s ‘Golden Age’ came not in the 17th Century but in the 18th Century when the making of jenever, or Dutch gin, flourished.
There were hundreds of distilleries in Schiedam, all producing the – in my opinion – horrid tasting jenever. The thick smoke from the distilling of gin gave the town its nickname, and I imagine the smell must have been a similar hazard. English troops, allied to the Netherlands in the 18th Century, didn’t mind though. They got jenever to stiffen their nerves before battle – the original Dutch Courage.
Celebrating this boozy history is the National Jenever Museum, located in one of the old distilleries alongside the main canal. It’s a small, informative museum, which includes a well stocked bar just in case you fancy a quick taste test. It may be the ancestor of gin, one half of the refreshing G&T beloved of England, but it tastes nothing like it. I’ve tried both ‘young’ and ‘old’ jenever, neither is very pleasant.
In the Netherlands I’m definitely in the minority. It’s one of the nation’s most popular drinks, and there is fierce rivalry with Belgium for bragging rights to who makes the best version. Although there are a couple of areas in France and Germany that make jenever, it’s the national drink of both Belgium and the Netherlands.
The Dutch market it as “essentially Dutch”; the Belgian’s as “the spirit of Belgium”. The Dutch say it was a Dutch doctor, Franciscus Sylvius, who invented the drink while working in Leiden in the 1700s; the Belgian’s claim it was invented in Flanders a century earlier.
The Belgian jenever creation myth claims that were it not for the German occupation in the First World War, which brought jenever production to a standstill, and a misguided ban on the spirit after the war, it would be known globally as a Belgian drink. The implication being that the Netherlands cheated by not being occupied by the German army.
In Schiedam they care little for Belgium’s claims, proudly referring to the city as the jenever capital of the world. Towards the end of the 18th Century, the Dutch were exporting 4.2 million gallons of the stuff annually. At that time there were over 200 distilleries in Schiedam and they sent their juniper tinged spirit to every region of the world.
There’s a festival every June celebrating the spirit, with over 5,000 people visiting from around the world. Of course, there are ‘rival’ jenever festivals in Belgium, including a big one in Hasselt every October. The EU might have to intervene at some future juncture to settle matters. Although this would most properly be resolved in a good old-fashioned bar fight.
The legacy of jenever’s popularity over the centuries is evident in the old warehouses and beautiful town houses that line the canals of Schiedam. There was definitely money in jenever. The Dutch barges that still line the canals are reminiscent of the days when vast quantities of grain would arrive by boat to feed the distilleries. Bottles of jenever would head in the opposite direction.
This is a lovely little town, well worth a visit. Perhaps in June when the gin festival’s in full swing!