A musing on Gin for World Gin Day

Mother’s Ruin. Cuckold’s Comfort. Madam Geneva. Cream of the Valley. Or as you might know it better: Gin.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock these past few years, you couldn’t have failed to notice that gin appears to be taking over the entire world. It’s everywhere and in everything. Which is grand. Actually, it’s better than grand, because here at Prohibition, we bloomin’ love gin. And to celebrate World Gin Day on 9th June, we could think of nothing better than mixing together an ice-cold G&T, and inviting you on a gentle stroll down the long history of Gin Lane.

Now whilst you may have already heard of William of Orange, you might not be aware that he was responsible for the first influx of gin into England. In his home country of what is now the Netherlands, the most popular spirit back in the early 18th century was Jenever – a juniper-flavoured malt based spirit not unlike a light whiskey. In fact, Jenever takes its name from the Dutch for juniper. But when William of Orange took control of the English Crown, he wanted to rid England of all those fancy-pants French influences, and introduce a little bit of his homeland to the ale-drinking English. So he imposed hefty duties on all imported alcohol, including French brandy and wine, and gave all of England free reign to distil their own spirit, in the hope they would take to Jenever. What could possibly go wrong?

The problem here was that England simply didn’t have the distilling expertise of William’s compatriots, leaving gin production in England both unregulated and in the hands of amateurs, and therefore ripe for exploitation. Cheap, discarded grain, unfit for beer production, was eagerly seized upon, mashed with juniper berries and distilled. Sometimes with sulphuric acid. Sometimes with turpentine. It was cheap and it was plentiful. And it probably wasn’t that good for you. Actually, it definitely wasn’t that good for you.

But its price, compared with other booze available at the time, ensured that it was destined to become the populist drink of choice, especially amongst the ever-increasing number of London’s poor, providing limited relief from the daily grind, as well as something actually drinkable, unlike the water which was filled with all manner of icky disease.

But ephemeral escape provided by gin soon descended into destitution, as mothers and fathers alike drank away their wages, women turned to prostitution to fuel their need for ‘scorch-gut’, and thousands of children died from neglect – a scene most starkly captured in Hogarth’s Gin Lane. Like absinthe would later become in France, gin quickly became the scapegoat for a whole raft of wider societal ills, with its own contribution to many of them being undeniable. And politicians were quick to jump all over it, to impose a goodly and godly dose of puritanism. 

What then followed were a series of Acts of Parliament which sought to bring gin production under a closer regulatory eye, encouraging the production of ‘respectable’ gin which could only be sold to licensed retailers. Whilst the pot-stilled gin of this time was significantly sweeter than what we’re used to today, the enforced improvement in quality was ironically a key stage in effectively ending the seventeenth century Gin Craze, driving down consumption as the concomitant price increase forced it beyond the reach of the masses.

Like most drinks, however, it enjoyed cyclical popularity, and rose again to prominence under those fun-loving and crazy Victorians. This second rise in popularity went hand-in-hand with technological innovations, such as invention of the column still in the mid-nineteenth century (as opposed to the earlier pot still), which gave rise to the London ‘dry’ gin style which we’re mostly used to these days. This method distils a fermented mash to a high proof, with the concentrated product being re-distilled along with a variety of natural botanicals (barks, roots, flowers etc), the most predominant being juniper, and was the preferred style of gin on this side of the Atlantic right up until the early part of the twentieth century.

Setting aside the gin’s doldrum years which followed in the wake of US Prohibition, this very potted history brings us up to the current day and what could arguably be called the third revival in the popularity of gin. Yay!

The most recent renaissance has resulted in ever increasing numbers of quality gins emerging onto the market, with a growth in small batch distilling and a return to traditional copper stills. Styles of gin such as Plymouth (less dry than London gin) and Old Tom (sweeter than London gin), which had been unproduced and almost forgotten for most of a century, are now being re-fashioned according to original recipes. 

Most exciting, however, has been the rise of local gins, wherein distillers are using whatever botanicals can be found on their doorsteps, creating unique flavours specific to their geographical regions. And the results have been a mind-boggling expansion of both distilleries and varieties of gin, with enough variation to keep even the most adventurous of palates on a long journey of discovery.

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