It was, it must be said, somewhat like a scene out of the Da Vinci Code. The group of scholars (and great drinkers) huddling around an ancient manuscript which even the British Library had trouble finding in its archive. Who could tell when eyes had last set their eyes upon the old Dutch text - written in 1495 and still sparklingly bright after 519 years. We were clustered around this book which was originally commissioned by a rich merchant from somewhere between Arnhem and Appeldoorn because of a recipe contained in the household section.
To paraphrase, it gives instructions on how to take wine infused with nutmeg, ginger, galangal, grains of paradise, clove, cinnamon and cardamom and distil it once. Then how to redistil the mixture with a bag containing nutmeg, sage, clove and juniper suspended in the neck of the still.
It's the final botanical which makes this an important text, as this is the earliest record of juniper being used in a potable beverage, the first record of a proto-gin. For spirit hounds, it is texts like this which inch us further towards answering that vexed question - when was the first beverage spirit made?
Medical texts from the mid-13th century mention juniper (boiled in wine) as an efficacious medicine for "the pain", but the location of this recipe in the book points to its use as a pleasurable potation.
The date of its creation is only one year after Friar John Cor took delivery of eight bolls of malt to make his aqua vitae which, we are all told, was medicinal. It would be years, whisky historians tell us, before whisky would be drunk for pleasure, ignoring the fact that in 1526, we have Hector Boece of Aberdeen University saying that when his ancestors were 'of a set purpose to be merie' they would flavour their aqua vitae.
If you're on the trail of gin, all roads lead to Holland and Belgium. This in turn means Schiedam, which in the late 19th century was home to 400 malt wine and jenever distilleries, as well as malt houses, millers and glassblowers, is a must-visit.
The ground floor of the town's excellent Jenever Museum still contains a working distillery. Cylindrical brick fire pits glowing with coals, heating a small still on the top, the distillate running slowly through a worm tub into a spirit receiver. The fermenters open, the mashbill malted barley and rye. Hang on … this isn't gin, this is whisky. Jenever is based on a triple-distilled 'maltwine', made by distillers from malted barley, rye, and maize which was then taken by jenever distillers and redistilled with botanicals. It could be argued that in the 19th century, Schiedam was making more whisky than any town in Scotland.
Seen from this perspective, it's clear that those early Dutch and German 'whisky' distillers in America weren't making straight rye, but New World jenever. The mystery is since jenever was being exported globally before any other spirit, that it didn't become the standard whisky style. Despite juniper wood being used extensively by illicit distillers in Scotland or Ireland due to it giving off very little smoke, the adding of its berries never became fixed in whisky-making recipes - perhaps the Scottish distillers, seeing jenever's dominance, decided that they had to try something different.
In the distillery, hearing about jenever's (and Schiedam's) decline and fall, I can't help but think that bar some quirk of fate there's every possibility that you would be reading Jenever Mag and not Whisky Mag and that whisky as we now know it might only exist as a weird jenever variation rather than being the other way round.
To find the roots of whisky, we therefore have to explore the world of jenever. It puts Dutch distiller Patrick Zuidam's whisky in a new light - it could become jenever, just as his jenevers could be whiskies. His rye is reclaiming the grain for its home, his 10 year old Corenwijn is a subtle, wood-aged spirit that whisky lovers should rush to try - and he is not alone. Seek out any of the great Dutch and Belgian Corenwijns and prepare to be amazed.
Jenever shows us where it all started. It is the great 'what if?' spirit.