Being interested in history means I like to research the historical background of most things I love – and my favourite alcoholic drink is no exception! It’s no secret that gin has become THE drink of the past decade, with countless gin bars and micro distilleries popping up country wide, making a gin loving gal like me utterly spoiled for choice. Coincidentally, gin is also the history lover’s drink – it’s roots, particularly in London, make for fascinating research. From it’s debauched 18th century reputation, right up to it being Queen Elizabeth II’s favourite tipple, I thought I would share a little snapshot of the history of this wonderful beverage. To make it a little more fun, I’ve popped in a gin pairing for each fact, to make it an all encompassing historical gin tasting experience! It’s also nice to have an excuse to share some of my favourite gins with you, and I wouldn’t share any I haven’t previously tried and enjoyed so you can rest assured they are worth indulging in. So, pour a G&T, and enjoy a little history of gin.
A Very British Origin
Gin Pairing: Gin Bothy’s Gingerbread Gin. Serve 50ml of gin with ginger beer, ice and an orange slice.
Contrary to popular belief, gin as we know it originates from England, not Holland, which is often credited as the “Birthplace of Gin”. This misconception comes form the Dutch production of a drink called genever, which although made from juniper berries, (the one ingredient lawfully required to make gin), it is a malted spirit so is actually more of a whisky with added juniper. When Dutch native, King William III ascended the throne of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1689, popularity of genever grew, especially in London. It was in the English capital that genever was modified and distilled into a much purer spirit. The earliest known food pairing with gin also derives from London, where in 1731, sales of “gin and gingerbread” became increasingly popular – a tradition which still exists in areas of England today.
From Classic Mixers to Toxic Concoctions
Gin Pairing: Ableforth’s Bathtub Gin Negroni. Mix 25ml each of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari in a cocktail shaker. Serve over ice and garnish with orange peel.
I am the first to champion prescribing a good gin and tonic as the antidote to any ailment, and in my defence, there is evidence to back it up – the faithful G&T does actually have a medicinal background. Granted, it was largely to ward off malaria carrying mosquitos (not a common malady in Cardiff), but facts are facts. Tonic water gained popularity in the British Colonies due to its aforementioned mosquito deterring properties – this largely comes from the quinine, bark from the cinchona tree, present in the water. The tonic water on its own is highly bitter and not to most tastes, however it was discovered that mixing it with gin made the concoction far more appealing, and voila! The great gin and tonic was born. But gin mixing wasn’t always for the greater good. When Prohibition hit the United States in 1920, the illegal production of alcohol became rife throughout the country. The distilling of high strength spirits for black market selling and stocking up the countless illegal speakeasy bars became a lucrative business, and the need for gin was more desired than ever. Underground distillers took to producing the drink by any means possible – resulting in the birth of “Bathtub Gin” (yes, alcohol was literally distilled in household bathtubs and yes, I have also googled how to do it). However, these bathtub concoctions weren’t always all that they seemed; with the desire to turn as big a profit on a strict production budget and limited ingredients to hand, it’s probably unsurprising that Bathtub Gin was generally more toxic than tipple. Methanol was often used to make the “gin”, despite it having a profoundly lethal effect on the drinker – resulting in poisoning or even blindness. A heavy price to pay for your favourite libation.
Beware of Gin Lane!
Gin Pairing: Edinburgh Gin’s Cannonball Navy Strength Gin. Serve 50ml of gin with premium tonic, ice and a lemon peel garnish.
By the early 18th century, London was in the midst of a “gin pandemic” (which at the moment, sounds far more palatable than the current pandemic we are experiencing). It’s estimated that in 1721, Britain consumed a whopping 3.5 gallons of gin and by 1726 there were over 6,200 establishments selling gin in London alone. Many claimed it to be safer to drink than the murky London water – prompting many mothers to even administer it to their children. This fact, along the belief gin had a profoundly bad effect on women, leading them into a life of sin and ill-repute, gave gin it’s famous moniker “Mother’s Ruin”. Unsurprisingly, the government soon decided to wage war on this largely considered demon drink, and the theme of gin drinking soon became topical in all walks of society; even prompting artist William Hogarth to produce one of his most famous satirical etchings – “Gin Lane”(1751). This piece wasn’t designed to show the ills of drinking; it was fully intent on showing the ills of GIN drinking (spot the gin induced mother blissfully unaware of her child falling to it’s demise from her arms. Too drunk on sweet Mother’s Ruin to care). “Gin Lane” was produced with a contrasting piece – “Beer Street”, which in stark comparison, shows the upstanding London beer drinkers as healthy, civilised and virtuous.
The Gin Act of 1751
Gin Pairing: Plymouth Gin. Serve 50ml of gin with a premium tonic and garnish with orange and lemon peel.
The first “Gin Act” passed in London came in 1736, which involved heavily taxing gin suppliers and increased licencing prices – ultimately resulting in a rise of illicit gin distilling, much like what was later seen in Prohibition era America. These “gins” were often dangerous to drink and production was occurring on a mass scale all over the city. With the gin craze growing despite reforms, the government brought in a new “Gin Act” in 1751, which lowered the price of annual licence fees, allowing respectable businesses to boom and almost eradicated the need for bootlegging (although it did still occur – “Old Tom” gin being one of the most famous types). Small scale production of gin was still illegal, however the gin reforms of 1751 also brought us some of the large distillers we still enjoy today: Greenalls in 1761, Gordons in 1769 and Plymouth Gin in 1793. London’s relationship which gin changed forever, and the reputation of the drink began to grow favourably again.
The Gin Renaissance
Gin Pairing: Sipsmith Sloe Gin Spritz – Mix 50ml sloe gin with 10ml port and 75ml lemonade. Top with prosecco and garnish with blackberries and lemon peel.
It is no coincidence that we have seen a rise in the popularity of small batch gin distilleries over the last decade or so. The fact of the matter is, the 1751 Gin Act prohibited the production of small batch gin in London not only in the latter half of the 18th century, but for over 250 years! The act was only overturned when gin lover, and all round hero, Sam Galsworthy entered into a legal battle to overturn the act in 2008. Goldsworthy won, and ultimately got the act revoked (God bless that man). As a result, he started Sipsmith distillery in London; and it’s resounding popularity (the distillery welcomed over 30,000 visitors in 2017) encouraged dozens more wannabe gin distillers to follow suit. The boom in small batch gin production quickly spread from London to all round the U.K, with distilleries now found in every corner of the country. Gin tastings, distillery tours and even gin making have become a beloved British past time – trading it’s “Mother’s Ruin” reputation for one of style and trendsetting. If that isn’t the biggest “glow up” in history, then I don’t know what is?
Please follow the links below for all of the gin’s featured in this post, along with some premium mixer suggestions.
Gin Bothy: https://www.ginbothy.co.uk/
Ableforth’s Gin: https://ableforths.com/
Edinburgh Gin: https://www.edinburghgin.com/
Plymouth Gin: https://www.plymouthgin.com/en-EN
Sipsmith Gin: https://sipsmith.com/
Tonic and Mixers
Franklin & Sons: https://www.franklinandsons.co.uk/