Gin transformed from royal elixir to sawdust-filled poison in England, eventually giving way to the craft spirits of today. Celine Bossart traces the history and transformation of English gin in this feature.
Of all the various spirit categories that make up the dynamic culture of drink around the world, gin has arguably the most storied past. Its English heritage tells the story of British aristocracy, class warfare, technological innovation, the maritime industry, and more.
Let’s go back to the very beginning, shall we?
First Comes The Dawn
“[Gin’s] core ingredient, juniper, has been combined with alcohol as far back as… 70 A.D.,” Simon Ford, co-founder of The 86 Co. (Fords Gin, Caña Brava Rum), says. At that time, a physician named Pedanius Dioscorides published a five-volume encyclopedia about herbal medicine. “Within his papers is a detailed description of the use of juniper berries steeped in wine to combat chest ailments,” Ford says. “In 1055, the Benedictine Monks of Solerno, Italy included a recipe for tonic wine infused with juniper berries in their ‘Compendium Solernita.’”
Ford laughs, adding, “I think they were onto something here.”
Fast-forward to the 16th century, when the Dutch began producing a spirit called “genever.” It essentially consisted of a malt wine base and a healthy amount of juniper berries to mask its harsh flavor. It was, of course, a “medicinal” liquid like its predecessors. By the 1700s, it had taken on a new form: gin.
“The first known written use of the word ‘gin’ appears in a 1714 book called ‘The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Publick Benefits’ by Bernard Mandeville,” Ford says. “He wrote: ‘The infamous liquor, the name of which deriv’d from Juniper-Berries in Dutch, is now, by frequent use… shrunk into a Monosyllable, intoxicating Gin.’
“What I take from this is that the British were too drunk to pronounce genever so they abbreviated the word to ‘gen,’ which eventually gets anglicized to the word that we use today.”
Everything pretty much went downhill from there.
The Gin Craze
The late 1600s were pivotal for the upswing of gin in England, and not in a good way. William III of England, a Dutchman originally known as William of Orange (“Sounds very ‘Game of Thrones,’ doesn’t it?” Ford says, rightly) became King of England, Ireland, and Scotland in 1689.
“He began his reign by implementing trade-war and protectionist-style economic tactics against France that might make some modern politicians jealous,” Ford laughs. “He enforced blockades and introduced heavy taxes on French wine and Cognac in an attempt to weaken their economy.”
At the same time, William III instituted The Corn Laws in England. These decrees provided tax breaks on spirits production, resulting in what Ford calls “a distilling free-for-all.”
“This led to a period in England that is often dubbed the ‘Gin Craze,’ a period where a pint of gin was cheaper than a pint of beer,” Ford says.
Sound like a dream? Sure. But with it came a new set of problems.
England’s poorest people began drinking more gin less responsibly (a futile lack of social mobility can do that to a person). Meanwhile, royalty and high society sipped tamely as more of a fashion statement than an emotional or psychological release.
According to Jared Brown, master distiller at Sipsmith, the “gin and gingerbread” phenomenon began in 1731. “Whenever the weather turned, crowds would gather to explore the stalls and tents selling hot gin and gingerbread that popped up along the frozen River Thames,” Brown says. “Enterprising Londoners looked to make a quick shilling out of what became known as the London Frost Fairs.” Sounds innocent enough, but stay with us.
Five years later, the government started to realize that society had a problem on its hands. The people of England began to either go totally insane or just die. Gin distillation was, again, a free-for-all, with things like turpentine, sulphuric acid, and sawdust going into the juice.
As a means of getting the country’s gin-obsessed drunkards to tone it down a bit, a distiller’s license was introduced. The price tag was £50, an exorbitant cost at the time, and the industry plummeted. Only two official licenses were issued in the next seven years. The business of informing, however, boomed in tandem. Anyone with information on illegal gin operations was compensated £5.
Fell On Black Days
Things took a turn for the weirder in 1751, hallmarked by a series of very dark etchings (read: propaganda) by William Hogarth. “Beer Street,” displayed on the left side of the top of this article, depicted the relative safety of beer drinking.
“Gin Lane,” on the other hand, on your right, shows a rather depressing scene of people losing their literal minds to gin. In “Gin Lane,” a gin-drunk mother drops her baby over the side of a staircase, an inebriated man beats himself over the head with some bellows while toting a baby impaled on a spike, a suicidal barber, lots of syphilis sores, and other charming moments.
These etchings came in response to stories like that of Judith Defour, a silk-thread spinner from Spitalfields. Defour was supposedly driven so utterly mad by her gin addiction that, in 1734, she took her 2-year-old daughter Mary to a field with a friend named Sukey. The two women removed all of the toddler’s clothes and abandoned her in a ditch. The pair then proceeded to sell the clothing for money to purchase a quartern of gin. Poor Mary died and her mother was promptly sentenced to death by hanging.
“During the 18th century, gin was by and large the most heavily vilified spirit,” Erik Delanoy, New York brand ambassador for Oxley Gin, says. “It was blamed for the death of thousands by overconsumption, murder, negligence, and insanity, which incited measures to outlaw its production and consumption, but to little avail.”
Then came the Gin Act 1751, a parliamentary measure intended to crack down on spirits consumption. It raised taxes and fees for retailers and made licenses more difficult to come by. In addition to beer, the consumption of tea was promoted as well.
“By 1830, beer became cheaper than gin for the first time in over a century,” Brown says. “England became, for a few minutes, a nation of beer drinkers once again.”
The Gin Road to Redemption
In 1830, things finally started looking up for England’s gin scene. A French-born Irishman named Aeneas Coffey introduced a new still that modified the existing continuous column still and essentially revolutionized liquor production around the world. Gin producers quickly embraced it, celebrating its capability to produce a much cleaner, purer spirit than ever before. Out with the sawdust-infused gin, and in with the crystalline elixir.
Another category boost came courtesy of the British Royal Navy. England’s sailors often found themselves traveling to destinations where malaria was prevalent, so they brought quinine rations to help prevent and fight the disease. Quinine tasted notoriously awful, so Schweppes came out with an “Indian Tonic Water” to make it palatable.
London Dry gin accompanied the sailors on these voyages. It was in fashion at the time and made for better cargo than beer, as the latter quickly spoiled in the sweltering bellies of ships. So, like true Englishmen, eventually the two liquids were combined to form what is now the classic gin cocktails. Limes were added due to their anti-scurvy properties, thus birthing the term “limey,” a moniker for sailors.
Cordials were made to preserve the limes, and a lime cordial and gin were inevitably combined (hello, Gimlet).
“During World War II, while the Germans were bombing London in the Blitz, they were also bombing Plymouth because of the large British Royal Navy base there,” Robby Nelson of Plymouth Gin says. “Plymouth gin was so beloved by the Navy that, when the fleet was notified that Plymouth had been bombed, one sailor said, ‘Well, Hitler just lost the war!’”
Such was the esteem the English had for gin at the time. “Bombing London was bad enough, but attacking the home of the navy AND their gin was completely unacceptable,” Nelson says.
Things really calmed down throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Gin consumption today is not deadly or mania-inducing. Instead, it’s been re-embraced as a cult and craft cocktail ingredient.
In 2008, after several years of lobbying, Sipsmith was granted England’s first official gin distiller’s license since 1820. A gin-lover’s paradise, The Distillery, recently opened on Portobello Road. A boutique hotel and gin destination, The Distillery has a working distillery, three guest rooms, two restaurants, and an interactive museum hosting gin history classes.
After centuries of ill repute, English gin is back, in all its polarizing glory.
Gins to Try
With gin at the top of its game now, many brands are celebrating modern technique while paying homage to the category’s illustrious history. Some notable brands worth trying include Sipsmith, Fords, Oxley, Plymouth, and Gin Lane 1751, which draws its name from … well, now you know.