Gin is a spirit which derives its predominant flavour from juniper berries (Juniperus communis). From its earliest beginnings in the Middle Ages, gin has evolved over the course of a millennium from an herbal medicine to an object of commerce in the spirits industry. Today, the gin category is one of the most popular and widely distributed range of spirits, and is represented by products of various origins, styles, and flavor profiles that all revolve around juniper as a common ingredient.
The name gin is derived from either the French genièvre or the Dutch jenever, which both mean “juniper”.
Some legal classifications of gin are defined only as originating from specific geographical areas (e.g. Plymouth gin, Ostfriesischer Korngenever, Slovenská borovička, Kraški Brinjevec, etc.), while other common descriptors refer to classic styles that are culturally recognized, but not legally defined (e.g., sloe gin, Wacholder and Old Tom gin).
By the 11th century, Italian monks were flavoring crudely distilled spirits with juniper berries. During the Black Death, this drink was used, although ineffectively, as a remedy. As the science of distillation advanced from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance period, juniper was one of many botanicals employed by virtue of its perfume, flavour, and purported medicinal properties.
The Dutch physician Franciscus Sylvius is credited with the invention of gin. By the mid 17th century, numerous small Dutch and Flemish distillers (some 400 in Amsterdam alone by 1663) had popularized the re-distillation of malt spirit or wine with juniper, anise, caraway, coriander, etc.,which were sold in pharmacies and used to treat such medical problems as kidney ailments, lumbago, stomach ailments, gallstones, and gout. It was found in Holland by English troops who were fighting against the Spanish in the Eighty Years’ War (more notebly during the Thirty Years War which was the latter part of the same campaign) who noticed its calming effects before battle, which is the origin of the term Dutch courage.
Gin emerged in England in varying forms as of the early 17th century, and at the time of the Restoration, enjoyed a brief resurgence. When William III (better known as William of Orange), ruler of the Dutch Republic, occupied the British throne with his wife Mary in what has become known as the Glorious Revolution, gin became vastly more popular,particularly in crude, inferior forms, where it was more likely to be flavoured with turpentineas an alternative to juniper.
He made a series of statutes actively encouraging the distillation of English spirits. Anyone could now distil by simply posting a notice in public and just waiting ten days.
Gin became popular in England after the Government allowed unlicensed gin production and at the same time imposed a heavy duty on all imported spirits. This created a market for poor-quality grain that was unfit for brewing beer, and thousands of gin-shops sprang up throughout England, a period known as the Gin Craze.
Because of the relative price of gin, when compared with other drinks available at the same time and in the same geographic location, gin became popular with the poor. Of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London, not including coffee shops and drinking chocolate shops, over half were gin shops.
Beer maintained a healthy reputation as it was often safer to drink the brewed ale than unclean plain water. Gin, though, was blamed for various social problems, and it may have been a factor in the higher death rates which stabilized London’s previously growing population, although there is no evidence for this and it is merely conjecture.The reputation of the two drinks was illustrated by William Hogarth in his engravings Beer Street and Gin Lane (1751).
This negative reputation survives today in the English language, in terms like “gin mills” or the American phrase “gin joints” to describe disreputable bars or “gin-soaked” to refer to drunks, and in the phrase “mother’s ruin”, a common British name for gin. Paradoxically the “negative” connotations are now becoming associated with “positive” connotations – with the resurgence of gin, upmarket bars now frequently refer to “mother’s ruin”, “gin palaces”, where printed copies of Hogarth paintings may sometimes be found.
The problem was tackled by introducing The Gin Act at midnight on 29 September 1736, which made gin prohibitively expensive. A licence to retail gin cost £50 and duty was raised fivefold to £1 per gallon with the smallest quantity you could buy retail being two gallons. The Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, and Dr. Samuel Johnson were among those who opposed the Act since they considered it could not be enforced against the will of the common people. They were right. Riots broke out and the law was widely and openly broken.
About this time, 11 million gallons of gin were distilled in London, which was over 20 times the 1690 figure and has been estimated to be the equivalent of 14 gallons for each adult male. But within six years of the Gin Act being introduced, only two distillers took out licences, yet, over the same period of time, production rose by almost fifty per cent.
The prohibitive duty was gradually reduced and finally abolished in 1742. The Gin Act 1751 was more successful, however. It forced distillers to sell only to licensed retailers and brought gin shops under the jurisdiction of local magistrates.Gin in the 18th century was produced in pot stills, and was somewhat sweeter than the London gin known today.
In London in the early 18th century, much gin was distilled legally in residential houses (there were estimated to be 1,500 residential stills in 1726), and was often flavoured with turpentine – to generate resinous woody notes in addition to the juniper.As late as 1913, Webster’s Dictionary states without further comment, ” ‘common gin’ is usually flavoured with turpentine.”
Another common variation was to distil in the presence of sulphuric acid. Although the acid itself does not distil, it imparts the additional aroma of diethyl ether to the resulting gin. Sulphuric acid subtracts one water molecule from 2 ethanol molecules to create diethyl ether, which also forms an azeotrope with ethanol, and therefore distils with it. The result is a sweeter spirit, and one that may have possessed additional analgesic/intoxicating effects.
Dutch or Belgian gin, also known as jenever or genever, evolved from malt wine spirits, and is a distinctly different drink from later styles of gin. Jenever is distilled at least partially from barley malt (and/or other grain) using a pot still, and is sometimes aged in wood. This typically lends a slightly malty flavour and/or a resemblance to whisky. Schiedam, a city in the province of South Holland, is famous for its jenever-producing history. It is typically lower in alcohol content and distinctly different from gins distilled strictly from neutral spirits (e.g. London dry gin). The oude (old) style of jenever remained very popular throughout the 19th century, where it was referred to as “Holland” or “Geneva” gin in popular, American, pre-Prohibition bartender guides.
The 19th century gave rise to a style of gin referred to as Old Tom Gin, which is a sweeter style of gin, often containing sugar. Old Tom gin faded in popularity by the early 20th century.
The column still was invented in 1832, making the distillation of neutral spirits practical and enabling the creation of the “London dry” style, which was developed later in the 19th century. London Dry gin is usually distilled in the presence of accenting citrus elements, such as lemon and bitter orange peel, as well as a subtle combination of other spices, including any of anise, angelica root and seed, orris root, liquorice root, cinnamon, almond, cubeb, savory, lime peel, grapefruit peel, dragon eye, saffron, baobab, frankincense, coriander, grains of paradise, nutmeg and cassia bark.
In tropical British colonies gin was used to mask the bitter flavour of quinine, which was the only effective anti-malarial compound. Quinine was dissolved in carbonated water to form tonic water; the resulting mix became the origin of today’s popular gin and tonic combination, although modern tonic water contains only a trace of quinine as a flavouring.
By this time the battle for trade was hotting up between the beer shops and the gin shops. Following the 1820 ‘Beerhouse Act’, beer was sold free of licensing control and 45,000 beer shops – aimed to be the cosy homes from home – had appeared by 1838. Spirit retailers still required licences and, to compete with the beer shops, they devised the ‘gin palaces’ which first appeared about 1830. These were designed to be an escape from home. As home for the poor – who continued to be gin’s main supporters – was often a sordid slum, the gin palace was large, imposing and handsome and even luxuriously furnished. By the 1850s there were about 5,000 such places in London and Charles Dickens describes them in his ‘Sketches by Boz’ in the mid-1830s as “perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and dirt we have just left.”
In the mid-1830s the temperance movement started. Whilst it failed to make a big impact, it did encourage much debate on drink which was still a problem. Thomas Carlyle wrote of gin as “liquid madness sold at tenpence the quartem”. By 1869 this led to an Act licensing the sale of beer and wine (spirits were still licensed). Two years later a further Act was introduced which would have halved the number of public houses in the country, but public opinion was outraged. One bishop stating in the House of Lords that he would “prefer to see all England free better than England sober” and the act was withdrawn.
As reforms took effect, so the gin production process became more refined. So gin evolved to become a delicate balance of subtle flavours, and began its ascent into high society.
Gin triumphed in the 1920s – the first ‘Cocktail Age’ – after having been scarce during the 1914-18 World War.
Now recognised as a cosmopolitan and refreshing drink, gin became the darling of the famous Cunard cruises. During the 1920s and 1930s the newly popular idea of the ‘Cocktail-Party’ crossed the Atlantic from the USA to Britain via an American hostess who wanted to fill in for her friends the blank time between teatime and dinner.
London dry gin, with its subtle flavour made it easy to mix and it quickly became the staple ingredient in a host of fashionable drinks – including the world famous and enduring Martini. Over the next twenty or thirty years many other cocktails with improbable names came to reflect the dizzy and sophisticated society which created them.
During prohibition W.C. Fields was asked why, if he didn’t have a drinking problem, did he buy 300 cases of gin before it started. He replied “I didn’t think it would last that long.”
By 1951 the Bartenders’ Guild had registered 7000 cocktails on its files! At the same time gin had become one of the three essential drinks for home entertainment. Gin and tonic has remained one of the most popular and refreshing drinks right up to the modern day.
And the latest fashion for cocktails – with even a hit American film of the same name – has resulted in a new career for likely young men who want to be seen hobnobbing with the rich and famous. ‘Mixologists’ are the new breed of bartenders who invent and serve the newest cocktails – often including fresh fruit juices from all manner of exotic sources. Seen at a glitzy, modern, chrome and mirrored venue near you – gin has come a long way from the ‘palaces’ of the early nineteenth century.
Sloe gin is traditionally described as a liqueur made by infusing sloes (the fruit of the blackthorn) in gin, although modern versions are almost always compounded from neutral spirits and flavourings. Similar infusions are possible with other fruits, such as damsons, or beach plums.
A ‘National Gin Museum’ can be found in Hasselt, Belgium. There are others.