From Dutch Courage and 'crazes' to cocktails and glamour - gin's story is quite a ride

Noel Coward once quipped that “a perfect Martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy.”

There are many people who would no doubt agree with him, and in a world brimming with a dizzying array of grown up drinks the gin cocktail appears to have lost none of its cool allure.

In fact gin itself appears to be in the rudest of health. As well as the emergence of numerous boutique gin makers, there are now distillery tours, tastings and even gin schools where you can make your very own concoction.

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But if gin is seen as a glamorous tipple today, it hasn’t always been the case and it stems from far more humble origins.

cenes of debauchery and drunkenness in ‘Gin Lane’, in the famous engraving by William Hogarth, London, 1751.(Picture: Getty Images).

Gins can be blended from a variety of botanicals – everything from cinnamon and saffron to lime peel and liquorice. At its heart, though, must be juniper (which purists say should be the main botanical).

The idea of using juniper berries to flavour drinks can be traced as far back as Ancient Egypt and later the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder. During the Middle Ages, junipers were used for their medical properties and it was thought they could ward off the Black Death – though the Bubonic plague, which wiped out a third of Europe’s population, dispelled this particular myth.

The word ‘gin’ itself comes from the Dutch word ‘genever’ which means ‘juniper’. There is speculation over when the first gin was made and who was responsible for it, but the first written record of ‘genever’ is believed to be in 1552 when Philippus Hermanni wrote detailed instructions on how to distil ‘juniper water’.

This early gin manual proved popular. “It’s the first instance of a written record not only of gin being made, but gin being circulated as a recipe,” says Laura Kent, who runs the Yorkshire Wine School, which also holds gin tasting events.

Some of the botanicals used in gin: juniper, coriander seed and Cassia bark. (Picture Scott Merrylees).

During the 17th century, the Dutch East India Trading Company began supplying exotic spices from around the world and this is when we start to see botanicals, such as coriander seeds and grains of paradise, being used to flavour gin.

It was around this time that English soldiers fighting in the Thirty Years War in the Netherlands apparently dubbed it ‘Dutch Courage’ because it helped steel them for battle.

Back then, beer and rum were the most popular alcoholic drinks in England, but gin’s popularity was about to soar.

This is often attributed to William of Orange becoming William III of England, though in truth it was driven more by political expediency. Brewing beer became more expensive because the king wanted to ensure that grain and wheat was used for bread, and in 1690 Parliament introduced ‘An Act for Distilling of Brandy and Spirits from Corn’ which enabled anyone to distil grain spirits. “William deregulates distillation and removes the barriers for it and as a result gin becomes cheaper and cheaper. So by the early 1700s gin became readily available on the mass market for the first time,” says Kent.

A gin and tonic is one of our post popular drinks. (JPIMedia).

All of which helped fuel the first of the so-called ‘gin crazes’ where extreme drunkenness became rife. London was the epicentre for the gin craze with backstreet shops selling their wares under such names as Cuckold’s Comfort, Ladies Delight and Knock Me Down.

Gin effectively became the opium of the people because it was cheap and readily available. It was often sweetened to make it more palatable and because basically anyone could sell it on the streets many of these gins weren’t properly distilled and harmful liquids like methanol, which can make you go blind, sometimes remained.

This national drunkenness was starkly illustrated by the artist William Hogarth in his drawings Gin Lane and Beer Street from 1751. “There’s fighting in the street and at the front you’ve got a woman dropping her baby, and a chap who’s supposed to represent death with the dog at the bottom of the stairs. And if you look in the background at the shops that are busy there’s a coffin maker,” says Kent.

Hogarth’s prints encapsulated the growing moral panic among the aristocracy and a number of laws, known collectively as the ‘Gin acts’, were passed during the mid-18th century in response.

Perhaps not surprisingly the clampdown didn’t work, and instead gin was driven underground with bootleggers peddling their illegal ‘hooch’ on the black market. It’s when gin became associated with the tom cat. “Gin bars appeared around London, only they weren’t bars,” says Kent.

“They were doorways with a picture of a cat above the door, or hatch, which signified you could buy gin. You would go up and knock on the door and a hatch would open and a little plate would come out, and you would put a coin on the plate and say the password, which was something like ‘puss, puss’ and the reply would be ‘meow’ and out would come a little tot of gin, which you could have and then be on your way.”

It wasn’t until the 19th century that gin came into fashion among the middle classes and the wealthy. “This is when different styles of gin start to emerge along with cocktails. We also start to see tonic water being created and at this point we can say gin is becoming a national drink.”

The 1823 Gin Act prevented producers from getting a distiller’s license if they distilled in batches of 1,800 litres or less, and London, along with places like Plymouth and Edinburgh soon became big gin-producing centres.

With its image restored we see the creation of so-called ‘gin palaces’, lavish bars fashionably fitted out with mirrors and oak panelling that influenced the design of later Victorian pubs. “A lot of things come together and the late 19th century is a bit of a gin heyday,” says Kent.

During the 1920s, New York helped cement this glamorous image. “You had these smart hotels opening with cocktail bars. Previously, you’d mix cocktails at home and these cocktail bars were something of a New York advent. They created a new wave of cocktails. A century earlier you had the gin and tonic and the Pink Gimlet, and now we see the gin Martini and the Bramble. These bars were sophisticated and they became a place to be seen in and it looked like gin was going to be part of the belle epoch, the beautiful era.”

However, this came to an abrupt halt when prohibition was introduced in the US. Gin remained popular in Britain for a time, but after the Second World War the growing popularity of vodka made gin seem old-fashioned by comparison. “If you watch something like Mad Men, Don Draper and the men are all drinking bourbon and the women are drinking vodka, because this is the time when you see the rise of brands like Absolut and Smirnoff. Vodka was seen as modern and classy, whereas gin became your grandma’s drink,” says Kent.

Britain still had its gin heritage – brands like Gordon’s and Tanqueray – but it wasn’t until the launch of Bombay Sapphire in the 1980s that we see a new modern-looking gin brand.

Another significant moment occurred in 2009 when Sipsmith became the first UK company to receive a new licence to distil in London in nearly 200 years for batches under 200 litres or less.

Fiona Laing, author of Yorkshire’s Gins – The Spirit of the Dales, The Moors, Cities & Coast, says the arrival of Bombay Sapphire followed by launch of Hendricks in the late 90s helped revitalise gin’s image in this country, but claims it was Sipsmith that really unlocked the craft gin potential.

“The end of the first decade of this Millennium is kind of where this crescendo of inspired gin-making started,” she says.

Masons and then Locksley, based in Sheffield, were at the forefront of this new gin scene in Yorkshire. “Four years ago there were only 12 Yorkshire gins and then 24 launched in 2018 and 2019, so you can see how much it’s come on,” says Laing. “What there is in Yorkshire is a brewing heritage and also a fruit spirit tradition. Brewing isn’t a million miles from distilling.”

And gin makers have been able to utilize some unusual botanical ingredients from the local landscape. “Sing Gin up near Harrogate uses flax which is a traditional crop from that part of the Dales and Whitby (Gin) uses seaweed,” says Laing.

Honeyberry is an ingredient cultivated in the UK and used as a botanical in gin, as are liquorice and rhubarb, both of which have ties to Yorkshire.

Fashions come and go and yet there’s little sign of the appetite for gin waning. Laura Kent thinks its enduring popularity is down to its heritage.

“The Dutch would lay claim to its origins, but we’re a nation of brewers and you see the popularity of craft beer today – it’s part of a long line of drinks that are authentically ours, they’re part of our history and the same is true for gin. It’s part of the story of this nation, it’s not just about the story of the drink.”

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James Mitchinson