Of all the various spirits that make up the plethora of drink culture around the world, Gin is the one that can be called the most quintessentially English. Its history tells the story of British aristocracy, class warfare, the maritime industry and technological innovation!
The core ingredient of Gin, juniper, seems to have been combined with alcohol as far back as 70 A.D. or at least, as far as written record seems to tell when a Roman physician recommended, among other herbal treatments, juniper berries steeped in wine to combat chest ailments.
A record of Benedictine Monks from Solerno, Italy dating to 1055 included a recipe for a tonic wine infused with juniper berries. Perhaps they were on to something!
In the 16th Century the Dutch began producing a spirit called “Genever” which essentially consisted of a malt wine base and a large amount of juniper berries to mask its harsh flavour. It was still, at that time, intended as a medicinal drink, as many such spirits began their lives.
The first record of the written word “Gin” appears in a 1714 book written by Bernard Mandeville who wrote; “The infamous liquor, the name of which derived from juniper-berries in Dutch, is now by frequent use shrunk into a monosyllable, intoxicating Gin.”
The prevailing thinking is that that British were too drunk to correctly or coherently pronounce the Dutch word Genever and instead abbreviated it to Gin. And hence the name was born.
In 1689 William III became King of England, Ireland and Scotland. William III was of Dutch birth, originally known as William of Orange and thus united the two nations in a common Royal relationship.
Almost immediately he began a trade war with France, levying heavy taxes against their wines and cognacs in an attempt to weaken their economy. At the same time, he declared The Corn Laws in England. This provided tax breaks on the production of spirits. The result, a period known as the Gin Craze began and led to a pint of Gin becoming cheaper than a pint of beer.
However, the freedom of distillation began to cause a problem of its own.
With no checks or measures and cheap, easy access to Gin a drinking problem began to emerge. Distillers had been found to add turpentine, sulphuric acid and sawdust to their mixes in order to produce an intoxicating effect. People went mad from the drink or simply died as the problem became more acute.
In 1736 a distillers licence was introduced at the exorbitant price tag of £50 – almost unaffordable to anyone at the time. Only two licences were issued in the following seven years. In addition, a reward of £5 was offered for anyone who gave information on illegal non-licenced Gin operations. In no time at all the industry was greatly retracted.
The drink was further demonised when in 1751 a series of propaganda-style dark etchings were released named “Beer Street” and “Gin Lane” by the notable painter William Hogarth.
Whereas “Beer Street” showed a group of happy and merry people enjoying their days. “Gin Lane” showed a scene of squalor and debauchery; Women dropping babies over bannisters and men wielding impaled infants on spikes, people covered in syphilis sores and others committing suicide.
The idea was apparently inspired by an incident in 1734 when a woman, whom had become driven mad by her addiction to Gin, had taken her two year old daughter out to a field, removed all of her clothes and left her there taking the clothes to sell for money with which to buy more Gin. The child had sadly died, and the mother had been sentenced to death by hanging.
In the same year as the painting’s release, parliament released the Gin Act which was a measure intended to crack down on the consumption of spirits. Taxes and fees were levied against the purchase and manufacture of the spirits and licencing restrictions were also introduced.
At the same time, the drinking of beer and tea were actively encouraged.
Redemption through En-gin-eering
It was not until the 1830’s that things began to start looking up for Gin again.
A French-born Irishman, Aeneas Coffey, developed a new still that modified the existing continuous column still and revolutionised liquor production across the world.
With it’s capability to produce a far cleaner, pure spirit was celebrated and Gin producers quickly embraced it, soon being able to produce a crystalline elixir which had thus far been beyond their reach.
Gin’s popularity was given a further boost by the Royal Navy.
At the time Britain was the leading sea power in the world, with the largest navy and merchant navies in existence. With so many thousands of men sailing the world, Gin became the drink of choice aboard the vessels.
They were often travelling to destinations where malaria was prevalent, and they would take quinine with them to aid the fight against the disease. Schweppes provided “Indian Tonic Water” to make the harsh liquid more palatable.
London Dry Gin was kept in ration on the ships as it didn’t spoil (as beer did) in the deep hulls which were often in sweltering heat. The sailors soon began to combine the drinks and the Gin and tonic was born. British sailors also added limes to the drink as the citrus fruits had fantastic anti-scurvy qualities.
Cordials were developed to preserve the limes and Gin and cordials then became popular. The industrial revolution and Britain’s imperial endeavours gave Gin a new lease of life.
Today, Gin is recognised as a classic, sophisticated drink to be sipped and enjoyed in nice bars or before dinner.
After centuries of ill repute, English Gin is back in all its glory and it looks set to stay.