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History of Gin

A legal definition of gin really only involves two factors – it must be at least 37.5% in alcohol and it must taste predominantly of juniper. Due to juniper’s claimed medicinal properties, the concept of distilling juniper or adding it to alcohol was not new. Benedictine Monks in Salerno in the 11th Century were adding juniper to tonic wines, it was placed in the beaks of plague masks in 14th century London, and the Ancient Greeks are recorded to have used juniper for stomach complaints as far back as the 1st and 2nd centuries. It was the Dutch that eventually turned juniper from a medicine into a tipple for social drinking. Their national spirit is known as genever and is made of a rye, corn and wheat malt base with huge amounts of juniper thrown in. We owe a great debt of thanks to genever.


Gin as we recognise it today was developed in England in the mid 17th century. William of Orange had a particular fondness for genever during his time in Holland and he introduced the spirit to an already heavy-drinking society. Simultaneously the Dutch soldiers fighting in the Anglo-Dutch wars passed on their drinking culture to their British counterparts and the thirst for genever took hold. This is where we got our first taste of Dutch courage. After European tensions escalated and high prices for importing goods were enforced, genever became too difficult and costly to buy. London-based distillers came up with the perfect solution by taking their already high strength spirits like crude vodka and flavouring it with juniper. Thus, the first gin was born.


With William of Orange on the throne, gin’s popularity in the British Isles soared and it became the most popular drink in high and low society. Gin swiftly became so popular that it was almost completely deregulated and ungoverned in an attempt to allow production to keep up with demand. It was being made in people’s homes all over the country and London was at the epicentre of gin’s rise. Vast areas of the city became known as gin slums where cheap, poorly-made alcohol was being drank by the pint and every possible corner was being cut, resulting in a potentially toxic concoction. People used bathtubs to macerate their gin, turpentine as a juniper substitute and methylated spirits as cheap alcohols. Society was crumbling in the first recorded instances of mass binge drinking.


Eventually, the severe health problems caused by gin couldn’t be ignored and taxes were introduced to curb the production. Mandatory licences were introduced throughout the 18th century in a series of laws called The Gin Acts. A £50 tax was put on would-be producers which is around £20,000 in today’s money. Only a handful of these were ever paid and crippling fines and jail terms were placed on those distilling without the new licenses. Distillers became more and more creative with their gin production – some shop keepers ladled gin through intricate pipe systems in their walls so consumers could collect a pint or two in jugs from the street and others opened underground gin places that were hidden from view and extremely secretive. Continued pressure from the government eventually squashed these enterprises and gin was essentially killed off.


There was a continued legal consumption by the British Armed Forces throughout the period of colonisation, wherein Naval officers received a gin allowance as part of their salary. As malaria was a big concern throughout India and the Far East, quinine was consumed as a medicine to keep away mosquitos and lime and lemon juice, sugar and gin was added to sweeten the concoction. As you may have guessed, this paved the way for the legendary G&T. When the late 19th century hit, large scale distillers like Beefeater and Langley’s were producing huge amounts of gin and the arrival of American bartenders with their flair and, most importantly, ice introduced gin cocktails. The spirit had a brief revival before falling out of favour to its close cousin, vodka.


It wasn’t until the 2000s that gin found real popularity again. Even in the 90s, if you walked into a bar you’d see Beefeater, Gordon’s, Tanqueray and an awful lot of vodka. Bombay Sapphire was created in the late 80s and its electric blue bottle and Asian flavour inspiration caused the first stirrings of a renewed interest in gin. Hendricks and Sipsmith came along a few years later and through a combination of clever marketing and totally unique botanical combinations, gin began its conquering of the drinking world. Gin long ago shook off its reputation as nothing more than Mother’s Ruin. We are seeing some of the most incredible spirit experimentation in British history and Scotland is very much at the heart of the new gin era.