And we continue with the history of GIN. If you’ve read any of the other spirit blogs (whiskey and vodka) you already know to expect medicinal qualities, over-indulgence and of course…taxation. And gin is no exception.
Gin’s murky history is similar to the other spirits. Some claim that it was produced in some form in the Middle Ages or in more recent times it may have started in Italy, but the first known date for the production of gin is the early 17th century in Holland.
The Dutch produced gin (known then as Genever) as a medicine and sold it in chemist shops to treat ailments like stomach issues, gout and gallstones. To make it a little tastier, they started to flavor it with juniper, known to have medicinal properties of its own.
This Genever was literally burnt “barley wine” or distilled spirits. Dr Sylvius is credited with taking this distilled spirit and flavoring it with the popular seasoning of the day – juniper berries - along with some other botanicals and aromatics and is credited with making it taste better. By 1595 he was selling his product as ‘Genova’.
Genova didn’t become “gin” until it reached England. From about the 1600 - 1800’s, Holland was exporting large quantities of Genever to America and most of Europe. The spirit became especially popular in England and was helped by the arrival of Dutch King William of Orange. The English began producing their own variety of Genever and called it Gin. To them it was a fantastic way to use up the excess grain supply without waste.
As an incredibly cheap drink to produce and with no limits on production, it became the favorite drink of the poor. The effects were widespread as gin was blamed for misery, increasing crime rates, prostitution, madness and an epidemic of intoxication. It was a British Lord who said that all of London swarmed with drunken people from morning till night.
And what comes after the intoxicating disaster? Taxes! Seeing that something had to be done to curb the craziness brought on by cheap, plentiful alcohol, the 1736 Gin Act was put in place. These taxes only stopped the legal forms of gin from being produced. Immediately after the Gin Act, only 2 legit places got licenses to sell gin legally and the rest of the public bought their drink from bootleggers- and ironically gin production increased further. Creative names for these illegal gins ensued and people were soon buying bootlegged “Ladies Delight” and “Cuckhold’s Comfort”.
While the gin was still cheap and plentiful, buyers beware! These illegally produced gins were often flavored with turpentine or sulphuric acids rather than the homeopathic juniper berry. Wonder what the additives did to the “madness” civilized people had complained about before?
By 1757 the Gin Craze had all but died out. A series of bad harvests drove grain prices up and people stopped using the lucrative grain for booze and put it towards other endeavors like food. After a time gin had regained its status and was considered once again a drink for the wealthy.
Fun Facts and Tidbits!
- During the plague years, doctors wore masks filled with juniper berries because they thought the plague was spread by bad odors. People began eating juniper, drinking wine infused with juniper, bathing in juniper and covering themselves with juniper oil. This is considered superstition by modern historians, but juniper oil is a natural flea repellent.
- Juniper is still picked wild. The gin industry uses massive amounts of the berries but they are not cultivated. They are typically picked wild by independent workers in Europe and sold to the gin makers.
- Gin and tomato juice was all the rage as a hangover cure in New York City in 1928, years before the vodka-based Bloody Mary made its debut at the King Cole Room in the St. Regis Hotel.
- Early Australian settlers paid for their imported gin with gold dust.
- Global gin sales have reached approximately 47 million cases. The Philippines is the biggest consumer followed by the U.S., Spain and UK.
- There’s dispute on how to drink gin. Some think it is meant only for cocktails while others think it should be sipped and savored for its complexities. Whether mixed or straight, your taste buds have the only opinions that matter.
We have one more Gin trick up our sleeves. There's one more installment of Are You Ready to Tanqueray...the Gin & Tonic.