My favourite tipple…so I thought I would investigate its origins a bit more. The delicious craft gins which we enjoy today are a long way from the original gin, which is said to have been created by a Dutch physician, Franciscus Sylvius, and was essentially a malt wine base using juniper to disguise its harsh flavour and was deemed to be ‘medicinal’. Although even as far back as 70AD juniper berries mixed with wine were used as a herbal medicine.
The English army discovered gin whilst fighting the Spanish in Holland in 17th century when it was used to calm soldiers down before going into battle – hence the term Dutch Courage – but it was William III (a Dutchman also known as William of Orange) who really got gin flowing in England by actively encouraging the distillation of English gin by a series of statutes. At this stage it was a very crude spirit often flavoured with turpentine rather than juniper! Can’t see them getting away with that these days! Gin production was unlicensed, and gin-shops sprang up throughout England and became the drink of the poor because it was so cheap – cheaper even than beer!
Finally however, in the early 18th century, the government of the time realised they had a real problem on their hands, people were going insane or even dying as the gin they were drinking was made with things like sulphuric acid and sawdust, which makes turpentine seem quite a mild addition! So, to combat the problem, distillers had to get a licence costing £50 – a fortune at the time – and the cost of gin was raised five-fold, which only served to drive gin making underground. Riots broke out and the law was widely broken.
In 1751 the Gin Act was introduced forcing distillers to sell to licensed retailers and it was now being produced in pot stills and was rather sweeter than the London gin we drink today. Later in the 19th century London Dry gin was being produced in column stills and had citrus elements added to it as well as many other spices. Gin palaces first appeared in 1830 to compete with the beer shops. They were large, imposing and often luxuriously furnished and were seen as an escape from the homes or slums that the poor still lived in.
And how did gin and tonic come about? It originated in the British colonies where gin was used to mask the taste of quinine, taken to combat malaria. The quinine was dissolved in carbonated water and tonic water was born. The Royal Navy took gin on its voyages as it was easier to store than beer, limes were added for their anti-scurvy properties and cordials were made to preserve the limes, combine all three and you have a Gimlet!
To bring us up to the present day, in 2008, after several years of lobbying, Sipsmith was granted the first official gin distiller’s licence since 1820 and at the last count there were at least 360 gin distilleries in the UK (mainly due to the relaxing of the minimum volume requirement regulations). So, after centuries of having such a bad reputation English gin is fighting back and winning! If Pink Gin is your thing you can read all about it here.