The Fascinating (and sometimes Torrid) History of Gin

Quite of few of us are partial to a refreshing G&T but do we know much about this ubiquitous drink? Last year I visited a fantastic artisanal distillery just outside Stratford Upon Avon in Warwickshire and had the best time hearing all about the fascinating history of gin.

Here’s how it got into our glasses… are you sitting comfortably?

In the very, very olden days

It was almost certainly the Arab alchemists in the 700-800s that perfected the first alembic stills for distillation – indeed the word al-kohol is Arabic. At this time distillation was very much used to make perfumes and medicines and Benedictine monks in the 11th century AD were distilling juniper in wine spirit to make medicinal tonics at their famous medical school in Salerno.

Fast forward to Tudor times

Distillation during the early Tudor period was the province of the monasteries, who would distil herbs, spices and flowers to preserve their essence in alcohol and use as cures for all sorts of conditions. After Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries it became easier for the general public to distil themselves and they discovered that they could make some very tasty concoctions to drink and be merry.

Gin arrives in Britain

Recipes similar to that of gin can be traced back to the late 1400s. The Dutch were the first to drink juniper-based spirits recreationally in any great volume, producing a drink called Genever (Yeh-nay-ver), the pre-cursor to gin.

In Shakespeare’s time, English distillers were starting to dabble with juniper as flavouring for spirits and were selling it in Strong Water shops. By 1600 there were 200 of these in London alone.

17th century: War & tax increase gin popularity

The Brits supported the Netherlands during the Thirty Years War (1618-48) against the Spanish. It was during this time that the term Dutch courage was coined, as the Brits would see their Dutch comrades knock back a tot of Genever before engaging in battle.

18th Century: Death by gin

By 1720, 90% of English spirits were being distilled in London and most of it was gin. Around 70 litres of gin was being made for every man, woman and child in the country per annum. It was cheap, strong, imitated the ‘Hollands’ that the gentry were drinking and was easily available from taverns, public houses, coffee houses and grimy alleyway gin shops.

People queued up in front of Puss and Mew devices (the first ever vending machine) where by the sign of a cat, patrons whispered “puss”. On the response of “mew” the patron placed two pennies in the drawer or slot, and a dram was dispensed through the lead pipe under the cat’s paw.

Drinking gin had become an act of civil disobedience and magistrates gave up trying to impose the law. London was in crisis. The city’s birth rate fell between 1720 – 1750, while the death rate rose, with infant mortality at 24%. Hence Mother’s ruin.

In 1751 another Gin act was passed that finally appeared to work. It became too expensive for any one other than inns, alehouses and taverns to sell gin. Consumption started to fall.

Gin Lane by William Hogarth

19th century: gin palaces

In 1825 duty was slashed and gin became cheaper than beer. Consumption of cheap gin rose. There was also a new place to drink it – the gin palace. Glass fronted and brightly lit, with long bars and barrels of gin, they were fitted out at great expense and lit by gas lights. They were thought to be vulgar at the time, but they were hugely popular.

Realising their mistake the government removed duty on beer in 1830, prompting the rush back to pubs, who taking influence from gin palaces, but adding seats, gives us the look of the Victorian pub seen today.

The majority of people were drinking Old Tom, the sweetened gin named after Old Thomas Chamberlain of Hodge’s distillery. Tanqueray and Beefeater tapped into the demand for the unsweetened style, akin to the new ‘dry’ champagnes. It was during this period that the London Dry method was created – which is still used to this day. Essentially it means you need a good quality base spirit and the flavour can only be obtained through distillation, you cannot add flavours and sugar afterwards, as was the case with many distilleries at the time to cover up the horrible taste.

This period also saw gin being used to dilute medicinal concoctions. Navy officers cut their dose of antimalarial Angostura Bitters with Plymouth Gin, thereby creating Pink Gin.

In order to prevent scurvy, all vessels had to carry limes which were most easily transported in the cordial form created by Rose in 1862. Taken with gin, a drink named after the Navy’s surgeon general, Sir Thomas Gimlette was invented.

Even the army got in on the act, offsetting the bitterness of their antimalarial tonic waters  by mixing them with gin – creating the G&T.

20th Century: time for cocktails

Cocktail culture in America and then Britain post WW1 got underway, with cocktail parties filling the crucial early evening hours, once occupied with dressing for dinner. Many of the classic gin cocktails such as the Negroni were created in this period at the end of prohibition.

21st century: the birth of craft gin

In 2009 Sipsmith’s successfully challenged HMRCs interpretation of the law that a still had to be at least 1800 litres in size before the granting of a distiller’s licence. This was effectively a barrier to entry for small businesses as such a huge still was very expensive and needed large premises to house it. Accordingly a new gin craze began as small distilleries around the country were able to operate and now we are lucky enough to have a plethora of artisanal, botanical gins to choose from.

Thanks to the Shakespeare Distillery for letting me abridge their history of gin and to the artist Greg McLeod who produced the witty blackboard illustrations. If you are planning to go to Stratford Upon Avon anytime soon, do plan a visit to the Shakespeare Distillery – you will not be disappointed.