Gin-spiration: The rise, fall and rise again of England's signature spirit
Over the years, we’ve had a tempestuous relationship with alcohol. Some cultures have embraced it where others have shunned it. People have seen it as an elegant indulgence, and also dismissed it as the refuge of the poor and degenerate. While our complicated affair has ebbed and flowed for centuries, there are few drinks whose ride has been as dramatic as gin's. Though today the spirit is a staple of drinks cabinets and cocktail bars all over the world, gin has - to say the least - endured a mixed history.
The creation of gin is a topic of some contention. Most historians agree that it began life in the Netherlands in the early 17th century, where it was regularly prescribed for medicinal purposes, though some have said that it actually originated even earlier in Italy. Wherever it came from, there can be little dispute that the nation that became most closely associated with the drink was Britain. British soldiers discovered the tipple whilst fighting in the Low Countries during the 30 Years War. The spirit was handed out to warm the troops in cold, wet and miserable conditions and gave rise to the term “Dutch Courage” for the false-confidence it inspired. The drink proved so popular that, before too long, it had made its way across the Channel.
Gin quickly established itself as the poison of choice for Britain’s poor. By the time the Dutch prince William of Orange ascended the throne, production was already taking place across the country. Apparently a fan of readily available popular liquor, one of William’s first acts as monarch was to drop taxation and licensing on distillation. This meant that almost anyone could legally distil and sell dodgy booze. The industry exploded. Over the next few years, gin sales outstripped both beer and ale, and bibulous employers even distributed the drink to their workforce as part of weekly wages.
All this resulted in aggressive levels of gin consumption across the country, causing the period between 1720 and 1751 to become known as the “Gin Craze”. During this time, it is estimated by some that one private dwelling in four distilled and distributed their own gin. In 1730, London alone had nearly 7,000 shops that dealt exclusively in spirits. Clearly, quality control was non-existent, meaning that each brand of “Old Tom” was uniquely disgusting. To disguise the abject taste of second-rate spirits, distillers would add sugar, turpentine and even sulphuric acid in a desperate attempt to make the drink palatable, not that the objectionable taste did anything to curb Britain’s enthusiasm. Low prices and high potency meant that the drink was a favourite of the working classes, with average adult gin consumption during the period estimated at half a pint a day. Children, it is said, were not far behind the grown-ups.
The drunken degeneracy of Britain’s poor was not going unnoticed. Works by renowned artist William Hogarth such as “Gin Lane” depicted London’s thoroughfares as pits of debauchery, where men were hung, women ruined and babies impaled. Though he may have been slightly over-zealous in his representations, the establishment nevertheless thought it was time to take action. In September 1736, Parliament passed the Gin Act, designed to make the drink prohibitively expensive by increasing the price of a retailer’s license. Naturally, everybody rioted. After the so-called Gin Riots had finished, the new legislation was basically ignored. Within the first six years of the Gin Act being passed, only two new distilleries purchased licenses, yet production still increased by over 50 per cent.
This early attempt at legislation was finally recognised as unworkable in 1743. Lawmakers returned to the drawing board and introduced a new policy in 1751 which resulted in reasonable license fees, reasonably high prices and reasonable levels of spirit consumption. It was all very reasonable. This spelled the end of the “Gin Craze”. The change resulted in gin becoming more exclusive, as distilleries were forced to up the quality of the liquor to justify its newly inflated price tag. The drink was, for now at least, moving away from its original market.
Part of the reason for this move was the huge surge in popularity of a key competitor. As the 18th Century became the 19th, beer was becoming an ever more favoured drink. There had always been a pronounced divide between the supposed vices of gin and virtues of beer. Hogarth’s “Gin Lane” print was originally paired with another entitled “Beer Street” - depicting the contrasting gaiety and frivolity that was allegedly brought on by beer against the avarice of the gin drinkers.
The brewing industry had always taken issue with gin, and consequently at various points attempted to discredit the drink, to little avail. However, the new legislation and the changing nature of gin distilleries gave beer advocates the opportunity to exploit a gap in the market. They did so to great effect. The “Beerhouse Act” of 1830 allowed anyone to purchase a beer brewing and selling license at a greatly reduced rate. Officials had clearly learned little from William of Orange’s 17th Century regulations. Over the next eight years, an astonishing 45,000 beer shops opened up across the UK at a rate of more than 15 per day.
The gin makers needed to adapt to survive the beer tsunami. Displaying perhaps surprising ingenuity, retailers came up with a novel concept to save their burgeoning industry. In the 1830s, the Gin Palace was born. Far removed from Hogarth’s depictions, the Gin Palace was designed to be a brightly lit and luxurious environment in which to enjoy exceptional examples of the spirit. By 1850, about 5,000 “palaces” had been opened in London alone - highlighting how gin had transformed itself into something far more socially acceptable.
The 19th Century saw other unexpected PR boosts for gin advocates. The establishment of the British Raj in India in 1858 brought with it a seemingly never-ending duel against malarial mosquitoes. A traditional remedy for malaria involved an extract from the chinchona, or “fever” tree, which contained the bitter component quinine. The addition of water and sugar not only made the extract more palatable, but also gave rise to the first “tonic” water. It was only a matter of time before someone put gin in their tonic and inadvertently gave birth to perhaps the world’s most ubiquitous cocktail. So popular was the drink, that the G&T became known as the “saviour of the British Empire”.
Though the spirit had come a long way from the days of “Old Tom”, it was not all good news for gin lovers. The temperance movement had been around in England since the early 19th Century, but really began to build a following in the 1850s and 60s. Due to its reputation, gin remained a particular object of ire for the abstinent. The drink became known by the moniker “Mother’s Ruin” and was blamed for many of the problems that continued to afflict the poorest in society. This led to a call for stricter legislation, and in 1869, a new act that introduced licensing for wine and beer in addition to spirits was passed. However, the movement quickly ran out of steam when, two years later, they attempted to lobby for a new bill that would have halved the number of public houses in the country. This proposal was, unsurprisingly, angrily rejected by almost all quarters of British society. As a result, gin continued to grow as an industry, catering for clientele from across the social spectrum.
Today, the gin business has been transformed exponentially from its unseemly roots. The drink has secured a global reputation through both historic distilleries, such as Gordon’s of London, and a host of smaller artisan breweries, who have taken the drink to new and complex heights. Such is gin’s versatility that many hundreds of expertly crafted and constructed flavours are now available to the discerning shopper. Around the world, gin festivals bring enthusiasts together in celebration of this fantastic drink.
It is in many ways remarkable that gin has been able to so successfully shake its unsavoury reputation. It has had such an inconsistent relationship with British society that the idea of universal acceptance would have seemed ridiculous even up until a few decades ago. However, so entrenched is our relationship with this drink that there is almost an inevitability that it would come to be appreciated rather than maligned. For all the ups and downs, gin is unquestionably here to stay.