By Chris Hill
The world of Gin seems to have gone mad recently. Despite the deepest recession in living memory sales of premium gin have grown by nearly 12% annually, (and that’s against overall alcohol sales that have been steadily declining for the last 8 years). Barely a day goes by without a new product being introduced to the market, the best known brands premium-ising their range and enthusiasts trying their arm at producing and marketing their own “small batch” products. Despite the gloom, the luxury white spirit market is booming.
But this is not the first time the English have turned to Gin to in frugal times. Of all the distillates readily available it is, perhaps, the easiest to produce. The harshness of the base alcohol in Gin is masked by (and, in its turn, enhanced by) the botanicals used to flavour it, a process that is fairly easy to achieve. Producing a premium Whisk(e)y, Rum or Cognac requires years of aging in cask to soften the edges of the young alcohol, the botanical distillation of Gin takes, at most, days. Single Malt Whisky takes 10 (or more) years of investment in raw materials, equipment and space before it is bottled, ready to realise its value. This process takes months with Gin.
The roots of Gin lie in the production of Jenever in the Low Lands, particularly round the Ports of Rotterdam and Amsterdam. But the notion of Juniper and Spirit combining to help with life’s little inconveniences goes back to the Dark Ages. Initially, distillation was the art of the medicine man, alchemist and perfumer. “Burnt wine” or “eau de vie” was used to enhance and preserve expensive herbs and spices for herbal remedies. Juniper was widely prescribed during the Dark Ages for its diuretic qualities. During the Black Death juniper cordials and elixirs were taken to ward off the bubonic plague.
Distillation can be traced back to Ancient Egypt but it was a Dutch chemist and pharmacist who improved the process during the 16th Century, enabling a much purer spirit. Lucas Bols was the first to realise the commercial potential of these “medicines” when he opened his Amsterdam Distillery in 1575.
English soldiers and sailors were introduced to this “Dutch courage” whilst fighting next to the Dutch army in the 30 years war that raged against the Spanish from 1585. By the mid 1600’s there were crude distilleries in every major port in England but it was when William of Orange, the Dutch Monarch, became William 3rd of England that Gin’s popularity was sealed on this Isle. He waged a succession of wars with the French, largely funded by taxes levied on alcohol sales. Starved of French Brandy, Genever from Holland became the fashionable beverage of the English Court.
The Gin produced in the English Distilleries, that became the tipple of the lower, newly urbanised, classes was of a much lower quality than that produced in Amsterdam. These rudimentary distillates were so poor that many contained dangerous levels of poisonous compounds, and could only be made palatable by a secondary botanical distillation; using herbs and spices to mask the impurities.
The early part of the 18th Century saw a massive growth in London’s population as the upheaval of the industrial and agricultural revolutions took hold. This was a time before town planning and municipal sewerage, the Thames was an open sewer and that was the major source of drinking water. Wine was expensive and beer spoiled quickly; coffee and tea were pricey, exotic curiosities; juniper’s medicinal reputation and alcohol’s preservative qualities made Gin the most appealing beverage available, for both young and old. As a result a large proportion of the population became hopelessly addicted to cheap, low quality Gin with devastating effects. The really cheap stuff would even be cut with further poisons (like maltum, a pesticide) to heighten its stupefying effect. Between 1720 and 1750 only 1 in 4 of the capital’s children survived past 5 years old, largely due to foetal alcohol syndrome and neglect, a problem highlighted by Hogarth in his Gin Lane print.
During the Victorian era duty on Gin was increased and we became a nation of beer drinkers as new licensing laws meant the English Pub as we know it was born. But it wasn’t the end of Gin, new distillation techniques and the development of the Coffey Still meant that low quality “bath tub” gin of the 18th Century became obsolete. Grand Gin Palaces became the norm in London catering for a new wealthier merchant class. Gin also spread to the colonies where it was first mixed with “Indian tonic” to ward off malaria. This was the period when the London Dry brands we know best came to the fore, Tanqueray, Beefeater and Gordon’s.
The First World War destroyed domestic consumption and the Blitz of WW2 meant that most of the original distilleries were destroyed. Add to that the effect of Prohibition in the US and you would have thought that Gin’s days were numbered, but no. The classic British brands became the benchmark for quality in American speak-easies, legally produced in the UK and smuggled into the US cities. When the prohibition experiment came to an end the Americans wholly embraced legal gin and it became the basis for the Golden age of cocktails of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s.
Now, Gin is once again being embraced by Bar Tenders. The proliferation of new products is thanks to a new breed of distillers and producers who are trying to broaden the appeal of Gin. Bombay Sapphire Gin, introduced in the ‘80’s, showed that tweaking the classic recipe could broaden Gin’s market with fragrant botanicals and clever marketing. Products like Hendricks have followed. There has also been renewed interest in the classic styles, used by modern mixologists to recreate and reinvent classic cocktails. Modern innovation in the distillery means of all the products on the market are of the highest quality, and the choice for the consumers is vast: perhaps now we are living in the Golden Age for our national spirit.