The History of Gin

Estimated Reading Time:  Under 10 minutes – enough time for a swift G&T

The ancient world knew of the virtues of the oil of the juniper berry. The Romans called it juniperis which could be translated as ‘youth giving’.

Der Naturen Blome – National Library of the Netherlands

The ‘Father of Gin’ is often incorrectly identified as Franciscus Sylvius, a 16th century Dutch physician.  However the earliest known written reference to genever appears in the sumptuously illustrated 13th century encyclopedic work Der Naturen Bloeme, with the earliest printed recipe for genever dating from 16th century work Een Constelijck Distileerboec.

Some time before this improved spirit percolated into public trade, English soldiers, seafarers and traders had discovered the rough spirits of the Netherlands.  They were not accustomed to alcohol, except as ale or cider; and were impressed by its enlivening qualities – even though it probably tasted absolutely vile.  It was particularly fortifying before the perils of battle; the phrase “Dutch Courage” can probably not be attributed to local valour, but to local alcohol!

Samples of the new Netherlands spirit were brought to England, and found enough popularity in ports for a few brewers to start to pioneer the distillation of a form of geneva.  Pronounced in English as “Gineva”, the term was soon shortened to “Gin”, (although many also believe the word gin derives from the Italian ginevra).

Although gin was know and made in England in the early 17th Century, it was regarded as more of a cure all than a social drink; those that could afford it drank French brandy, much of it smuggled, and the ordinary fork stuck to their traditional beverages.  Gin might have remained in the periphery except for the dramatic events of 1688:  James II lost the throne and fled to France, and the joint monarchy of Mary and William of Orange commenced, it is claimed the extraordinary rise of gin’s popularity is due to King William having come from it’s homeland.  However it is simply because one of the earliest Acts of the new reign gave total freedom to anyone to distill from English grain.  This was designed to stem the flow of brandy from a hostile France – and to encourage native farmers to grow more cereals.  It did not effectively stop the imports from across the Channel, but to the call to produce an English ‘brandy’ was met with great enthusiasm.

In the large cities of Bristol, Portsmouth, Plymouth and notably London small distilleries proliferated.  A thirst for gin ran alongside growing production.  Gin was not only cheap, it was a patriotic drink; the combination of inebriation and flag-waving was irresistible in a country noted for it’s sobriety.

Queen Anne’s reign saw further stimulation – the Distillers Guild was temporarily suspended – they alone could exercise some form of quality control in the City of London.  This created an unbridled permissiveness which eventually led to an estimated one in five houses in the Cities of London and Westminster retailing gin in one way or another.  In 1722, an estimate 50 million litres of gin was produced in London; it was in the capital that the gin era was due to reach its extreme limits.

The ruling classes became alarmed.  It was right for members of Parliament to lie (in both senses of the word) drunk in the house, and no-one much noticed that ‘magistrates often appeared on the bench heated with wine’, but it was quite another mater if labourers were too sozzled to do their work properly.  The first of the Gin Acts was passed in 1729 with the notion of trying to tax gin, licence retailers and generally curb the traffic of the spirit.  Gin was for the first time defined.  The act did not cover unflavoured spirits, which was at once produced in enormous quantities: Cockney wags referred to this derivative as Parliamentary Brandy.  The next Gin Act tried to remedy this situation; it also prohibited the sale of gin except from dwelling houses, so every residence became potentially a pub, and in fact a great may did.  In 1736 laws were passed which, could they have been implemented would have deprived gin to all but the wealthy (who did not drink it).  The law could only be enforced by using informers who went in justified fear of their lives, and juries were reluctant to find the offenders guilty – as these were laws that the jurors themselves had little regard for.  Evasion was much the order of the day, and analogies can be drawn with the Prohibition Era in 1920’s America.

Another set of regulations were promulgated in 1743 that did encourage reputable distillers, yet the flood of cheap, illicit gin continued.  It is estimated that in 1743 London produced nearly 91 million litres of gin.  The capital’s population at the time was around 500,000… so for every head over 3.5 litres of gin was being consumed per week – not much gin produced in London was being sent elsewhere.

Hogarth’s Gin Lane

The gin era begin to slowly draw to a close in 1751, with sensible taxation that encouraged legal distilling.  However the horrors of the era lingered.  Hogarth’s Gin Lane had not yet been painted.  From this period dates the much-quoted sign from a Grog Shop in Southwark, on the other side of the Thames from the City of London.  The notice read “Drunk for a penny, dead for tuppence, clean straw for nothing”.  What is most surprising that the apparently permanently gin-sodden proletariat, intoxicated merchants and inebriated rulers were all in the process of building what was shortly to be the world’s premier commercial, industrial, and furthest flung Empire.

Through the Industrial Revolution, Napoleonic Wars, the long Victorian years, the metropolitan masses sopped up their gin by the bucketful.  The Scots and Irish had their own preferred intoxicants, and for the most part the bucolic population remained faithful to ales, beers and cider – gallons of them.  Let us not think that only gin was drunk in the cities; it was dominant.  Gladstone rallied against it – he tried to halve the taverns and was opposed in the House of Lords.  Speaking there “I would better see England free, than England sober” sad one Bishop.  When defeated at the next election Gladstone exclaimed “I was borne down in a torrent of gin”

Meanwhile gin had was no longer simply an opiate of the masses.  Much admired Bristol blue decanters with “Hollands” in gold made their way into well-heeled homes.  It may have been considered a feminine drink and its consumption ascribed to medicinal usage, but men were not immune to its delights.  Lord Byron praised it and later in the Century Mrs Beeton included a recipe for a Gin Sling in her famous book of household management.  At the height of Victorian prudery there were decanter labels reading “Nig” to avoid the name of a lower-class grog defiling a righteous home.

Yet gin could hardly be an entirely feminine drink when officer of the Royal Navy were downing their pink gin.  Overseas, imperial governors were taking ‘quinine water’ with gin, and on returning to England initiated stay-at-homes into the pleasures of gin and ‘tonic’.

Gin had been exported from London in small quantities in the early part of the nineteenth century, though not duty free until a private Act of Parliament initiated by Sir Felix Booth, the greatest distiller of his day that permitted this practice.

In 1830 Aeneas Coffey introduced his continuous still which produced a purer alcohol that could be re-distilled with herbs and spices.  The was created a purer alcohol that forms the basis of the unsweetened, subtly aromatic liquid known as London Dry Gin.