Although thought of as being a quintessentially British tipple with a long and eventful history on our shores, the Dutch Golden Age should be thanked for introducing us to this crystal-clear, juniper-flavoured spirit.
Originating from Holland, gin was introduced to the British Isles when the Dutch republic invaded, and William of Orange and wife Mary occupied both the English and Scottish throne. It made for a welcome change after the French domination for many years, and so French brandy was happily exchanged for the dutch alternative.
After Williams accession, laws on making spirits were significantly relaxed and caused the London Guild of Distillers to fold in 1690 – this would signal a dramatic change in the gin market, and was the start of a demise in the quality of this spirit; opening gin making to a dark underworld of rogue distillers.
Known now by historians as the Gin Craze, the first half of the 18th century saw an epidemic of extreme drunkenness caused mainly by the taxation of imports and a significant drop in food prices. As people had more disposable income to spend on drinking, gin rocketed in popularity – cheaply made and easily accessible, dram shops popped up all over the capital to feed a populations’ growing habit.
For the first time, the 18th century saw women drink alongside men, and the drinking culture was created surrounding this lethal spirit. This commonly led to children being neglected, and so gin was aptly named as ‘Mother’s ruin’. The social divide between the classes was too ever apparent, as the upper classes sipped the pure imported varieties, while the poor were happy to consume imitation gin – a cocktail of sulphuric acid and turpentine.
Accused as being the root cause of London’s debauchery and disarray, the Gin Act of 1736 was introduced in an attempt to stem the problem. Making liquor more expensive and applying excessive taxes only sent the distillation industry more underground, with the average person in the 1740s consuming 14 gallons of gin per year.
By 1751 the Gin Craze was at its worse, and so a final attempt to address London’s obsession with this spirit was made. License fees were drastically dropped with the hope that more legal, respectable gin sellers would come to the surface.
Although the subsequent years saw a positive drop in gin consumption, it was believed to be other social factors and a change in the economy was the determining factor. A period of bad harvests caused grain prices to go through the roof and resulted in landowners turning their backs on gin production. Food prices increased as wages plummeted, and so drinking became only a luxury the well-off could afford. This spelled the end of the Gin Craze.
Come the 19th century, dram shops were replaced by more up-market gin palaces, however, these were not necessarily a picture of luxury. No seating and still pushing out cheap gin by the barrel load, drinkers were expected to simply down their shot and leave. It seemed the British love affair with this spirit was still immersed in dissipation.
Throughout the 1800s, the flavours of gin were still acrid with liquorice – far from subtle and carefully crafted flavours of modern-day gin. Containing high amounts of sugar and heavily laced with aniseed, the Old Tom variety of gin would later mature to what we now know as London Dry. But its demise at the latter end of the century would indicate the next chapter of the journey of gin.
As distillers slowly became more refined at the turn of the 20th century, the flavours of gin became more subtle, and the potency of Old Tom fell out of fashion – gin was finally associated with the fine art of distillation once again.
Through the Second World War Churchill reinstated its popularity, and gin returned to the top shelf of many a high-end establishment. Unfortunately gin’s popularity was short-lived and the new wave of vodka distillation took the limelight – but this would later become the saving grace of the gin industry.
As mass produced gin lost its fickle following to vodka, independent, quality distillers would revive the spirit once again. Small-scale distilleries have subsequently popped up the length and breadth of the country and a created a thriving, innovative and superior-quality industry far from the spirit’s tainted past.
Words by Helen Upshall