William III Wins the Battle of the Boyne and Gives the Protestants a Drink

The armies of James II and William III were squaring off across the River Boyne near Drogheda, Ireland. Roman Catholic James II was making a push to regain the throne, from which William had deposed him the year before. James’s 23,000-strong army was mostly made up of Irish Catholics, but he had several regiments of French soldiers, as well as Scottish and English Jacobites. His soldiers were armed with outdated muskets and his Irish soldiers were mostly pressed into service and poorly trained; some were armed with scythes.   

But there was brandy. According to John Stevens, a soldier at the Boyne, there was perhaps too much brandy. It was meant to calm the nerves of the untested men, but was so effective that more than 1,000 of them passed out drunk in the fields.    

On the other side, Protestant William III (William of Orange) had 36,000 troops, half of which were British, the rest were made up of soldiers from Denmark, the Netherlands, and France. They were better trained and equipped with more modern weapons. We don’t know if William’s soldiers were drinking, but they won. (Irish Catholics never win.) In the aftermath, James II ran off to France, where he would spend the rest of his life presumably eating cheese and bitching about French employment laws. His flight earned him the nickname within Ireland of Séamus a’ chaca (James the Shit), so we probably wasn’t in a rush to put that on a customs card anyway.   

Though not a decisive win, William’s victory had important implications. William was fighting to keep Protestant control over Ireland and to forestall future Jacobite (et al) attempts to restore James to the throne. James II had put forth the Declaration of Indulgence, granting freedom of religion for all of Ireland – which just about everyone saw as a sneaky way to reestablish Catholic rule. Victory at the Boyne helped William establish Protestantism in Ireland because his supporters were both Protestants and zealots. They were victorious, they needed a drink, and that drink need to be “Protestant.” But what?

Since the 16th century, apothecaries in Italy and Holland had been using the juniper berry to make medicines for various ailments. Dutch distillers, surely noticing that those medicating with juniper ended up giddy, horny, and walking into walls, developed a spirit from it called jenever. As an intoxicant, jenever had the same effects on people as it had as a medicine, but nobody needed their insurance providers to sign off. Dutch sailors used it to stave off ailments like seasickness, kidney issues, and knowing-they-had-syphilis. In the Eighty Years’ War it had been used to steady the nerves of soldiers about to go into battle, which gave birth to the term Dutch Courage.   

Meanwhile in Britain, alcohol was used daily by men, women, and children. This was in part due to unhealthy water. Running water was rare in cities and still water was often stagnant and would make people dead or so ill they wished they were dead. Thus, drinking alcohol (which had been boiled) was safer. Showing the stiff upper lip for which the Brits have become famous, they dealt with this grim reality by waking up in the morning, dusting off their goblets, and drinking until they went to bed. What they drank depended on how much money they had. The rich could afford better wines and brandies. The lower classes drank ale and beer. Spirits were a thing for the rich, and even then they were not so common. Everyone was waiting for the invention of a water purification system or a drink that packed a punch, whichever came first.

The drink came first, in the form of jenever (bastardized to genever and, later, gin). Dutch seamen and British soldiers who’d fought alongside the Dutch first brought jenever to Britain in the 16th-century. But jenever really took off in Britain after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which James II (loser at the Boyne) was deposed, and his sister Mary and her husband William (winner at the Boyne) took the throne. When William won at the Boyne he made jenever the Protestant drink. So if you were a good patriotic Brit, you drank Dutch gin. Why? For a few reasons, the main being that Dutch gin wasn’t French brandy.

William not only wanted to defeat all French-aligned forces on the battlefield, he also waged an economic war against the French, who were backing the Jacobites and who were his sworn Catholic enemies. He wanted to destroy any influence they had on British society. To accomplish this, he put a huge duty on French brandies and wines coming into the country. He also made distilling gin subject to very few regulations and licensing. Subsequently, British gin distillation exploded overnight. Gin helped the economy because it created a use for the low-quality or damaged grains that were unusable for beer, while also putting land to use and therefore making landowners richer and happy. William had his way, the French were out and gin was in.  

Madam Gin (aka Queen Gin, Mother Gin) became the respectable Protestant mother of getting hooched up in Britain. Every level of society took to gin with relish: the military, the upper-class, poor people, and women. Upper-class women loved the fashion of gin and boasted its health properties, a thing which has guided upper-class booze choices for 400 years (see also: White Claw, Michelob Ultra, cocaine). The poor loved gin because it was cheap and strong enough to make them forget they were poor for a while. Also, for the first time in history they could drink what the king was drinking. Whether it was William’s goal or not to make gin an integral part of British society, that’s just what happened. Over the next years, gin became Britain’s drink.  

Today we celebrate William’s Boyne victory and his genius in outmaneuvering the French with booze, which we can all get behind. We do this by drinking Dutch Genever. We recommend Bokma De Vijf Jaren, which is constituted of three parts: moutwijn (malt wine), a mash of malted barley and distilled wheat and rye, and a botanical-flavored spirit. All of these are aged separately before being blended. In short, it will do the trick. After two or three, it will do other tricks.

Genever is based on this heavier spirit, so do not expect gin. No lime. No tonic. No texting. Dutch custom suggests drinking it from a tulip glass and pouring the genever to the very rim, allowing the surface tension to retain the liquid. It should be served at room temperature and enjoyed as a digestif. And today it should be drunk to William III, to Madam Geneva, and to Séamus a’ chaca.

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