A brief chequered history of gin

Gin cocktails

Many will have heard gin described as ‘mother’s ruin’ and it is clear to see why this phrase was coined if we look at its history.

Gin’s principal ingredient is the juniper berry and as far back as the 11th century, Italian monks were using juniper berries to flavour distilled spirits. During Black Death, this drink was believed (incorrectly!) to have medicinal qualities and was used as a remedy.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that real ‘gin’ was invented by the Dutch physician, Franciscus Sylvius. Its name is derived from the Dutch jenever, meaning juniper. Soon, numerous small Dutch and Flemish distillers were producing drinks with malt spirit or wine distilled with juniper and various other herbs or spices. These were sold in chemists and used to treat ailments such as kidney problems, lumbago, gallstones, and gout.

Dutch troops fighting alongside the English to ward off the attack of Louis XIV drank Genever heavily before going into battle and were deemed to be excessively brave.

The English troops decided to also drink Genever before going into battle and noted they had imbibed the Dutch’s courage, hence the term ‘Dutch Courage’.

During the time of the war, English troops would take their Genever rations home with them and the juniper flavoured spirit soon became vastly popular, especially with the poor. The name ‘Genever’ was too much of a mouthful for some and was eventually shorted to ‘gin’.

In England the gin gained in popularity with William III, also the ruler of the Dutch Republic, actively encouraging is distillation. Anyone could now distil by simply posting a notice in public and waiting just ten days. The Government allowed unlicensed gin production and at the same time imposed a heavy duty on all imported spirits.

Thousands of gin-shops sprang up throughout England, a period known as the Gin Craze, and many households were producing their own. At a time when clean water was hard to come by, gin was seen as a safe alternative and consumed by many, including children, causing huge social problems. The gin obsession was blamed for misery, rising crime, madness, higher death rates and falling birth rates. Gin joints allowed women to drink alongside men for the first time and it is thought this led many women to neglect their children hence gin becoming known as ‘Mother’s ruin’.

The government was forced to take action. The 1736 Gin Act taxed retail sales at 20 shillings a gallon and made selling gin without a £50 annual licence strictly illegal. But over the next seven years, only two licences were taken out meaning reputable sellers were put out of business, and bootleggers thrived.

Their gin, which went by colourful names such as ‘Ladies Delight’ and ‘Cuckold’s Comfort’, was more likely to have been flavoured with turpentine than juniper and was often poisonous.

In 1751 the Gin Act was passed and a change in the economy also helped turn the tide with a series of bad harvests forcing grain prices up, making landowners less dependent on the income from gin production. Food prices consequentially went up and wages went down, meaning the poor were no longer able to afford gin and by 1757, the Gin Craze was all but dead.

Fast forward to the days of the British Empire and gin makes a return. When mixed with quinine (or tonic) it was a successful anti-malarial drug. Churchill famously said, “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives than all the doctors in the Empire”. Gin was even endorsed by the British aristocracy (including the Queen Mother herself) adding a much-needed lacquer of glamour and gloss to the notion of fixing yourself a G&T. But gin’s mid-century heyday came to an abrupt end. The late 70s and 80s saw it ousted by vodka, newer spirits and wine.

Over the last ten years, however, gin has seen a huge resurgence, with many craft distilleries producing new varieties and flavours, and is a far cry from the mother’s ruin of the past.




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