Getting Spiritual: The History of Gin


Our emphasis at The Academy so far has been to focus on the “wine” part of the Wine and Spirits Education Trust and given the fact that we have just completed our first Level 1 and 2 wine awards it is time for us to become more “spiritual” and concentrate on the “spirits” part of the WSET. We are holding our first Level 1 Spirits course on November 11th at Veritas Winery. With that in mind, I thought I would blog about one of my favorite topics in the world of spirits: gin. Gin is entirely British, from the days of Gin Lane when it was a social scourge to the days of the British Empire on which the sun never set. I am going to approach the subject over a couple of weeks, starting with the history of gin which in and of itself is more a fascinating study of social change than anything to do with the drink itself. And front and center in the history of gin is Great Britain, a subject still dear to my heart. Then I am going to talk about gin production and where in the world gin is consumed other than the U.K. and the U.S. You will be surprised to learn what country drinks the most gin. I then plan to review current trends in gin consumption and speculate where the gin industry is going.

This week, the history of gin:

Gin as we know it today is far removed from the original concoction of juniper with malted spirits that emerged in 13th century Flanders. There gin began life as Jenever, a juniper flavored liquor that was used medicinally for gout and rheumatism. The Dutch East India Company spread Jenever around the world. Additionally, as British troops fought alongside the Dutch in the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, they soon learned the meaning of “Dutch Courage” when Jenever was drunk prior to going into battle.

As the British troops returned, Dutch Jenever became Anglicized to the British “gin.” At this time in the early 17th century, grain was plentiful and grain spirits in the form of gin were cheap. To protect standards, The Worshipful Guild of Distillers was formed in 1638 by royal proclamation.

During the “Glorious Revolution” when the Dutch Prince William of Orange became the king of England, he encouraged the wealthy landowners to use surplus grain for distillation at the same time as lowering excise taxes on English spirits and banning French brandy. Gin consumption doubled from 500,000 gallons in 1684 to 1.2 million gallons in 1700 triggering the “gin craze.” Gin was available everywhere from public houses and taverns, to coffee houses and gin shops. Consumption of gin by the poor took on epidemic proportions when gin became cheaper than beer.

Alarmed by the rise in gin consumption by the lower classes, the government passed the first of the gin acts in 1629 to curb consumption. The duty on gin was increased as well as the cost of a license; to no avail consumption continued to rise and by 1730 had reached three million gallons. At this time in London an estimated eight million gallons of spirit – mostly gin, was being consumed (more than two gallons per capita). The gin craze was born out of poverty and the social mayhem it created was poignantly depicted in William Hogarth’s cartoon “Gin Lane” in 1751.

The gin craze finally came to an end when along with an increase in the price of grain, public outcry from the prohibitionists and the need for excise income encouraged the government to pass the Gin Act of 1751.

The Gin Act consolidated the producers of brands like Gordon’s and Burdett’s that with other producers organized themselves into a group called the Rectifiers club ostensibly to maintain quality standards. Known colloquially as “Old Tom,” the flavor of the crudely distilled alcohol was masked with sugar, turpentine and in some instances even sulphuric acid. Charles Dickens’ Sketches by Boz vividly described the squalid conditions of the poor in the gin palaces of early eighteenth century London.

In 1832, Aeneas Coffey perfected a new design of still that allowed for continuous distillation of a cleaner base spirit. No longer was there a need to mask the impurities of the spirit of Old Tom.

The resulting spirit was a new style of gin, known to this day, as London Dry Gin, a lighter, crisp style of gin that allowed for more complex botanical recipes. In the mid-1800s, Plymouth gin was adopted by the British navy that helped spread gin to the colonies where gin was used with antimalarial bitters and tonic water.

At the turn of the century, as the United States came of age, the gin-based cocktail became all the rage on both sides of the Atlantic. Prohibition helped romanticize gin amplifying its already tarnished reputation as the drink of the underworld. From its heyday in the 1950s as the key component of both the martini and the gin and tonic, gin faded in popularity as vodka replaced gin in the new post-war generation leading up to the 1980s when things started to change for gin.

NewsAndrew Hodson