Gin is an incredibly versatile spirit and one that evokes many different ideas. From the high-class gin martini enjoyed in bars all over the world to the cucumber and lemon stuffed gin and tonics sipped by pools and beaches every summer, you will find gin being enjoyed by people from all walks of life. But like many things in life, it’s easy to take gin and its storied history and delicate construction for granted. So, sit back with a glass of your favourite gin, read on, and learn even more about one of the worlds most beloved drink.
The History of Gin
The date on which some lucky individual first created what we now call gin is heavily disputed. While references are mentioning a gin-like beverage as far back as the 13thcentury, it probably had very little resemblance to the gin you can buy today. A lack of knowledge about distilling alcohol means that this ‘gin’ was perhaps a fermented juniper beverage with an alcohol content of around 14% ABV, more closely resembling a wine or cider.
However, over the coming decades and centuries, many brilliant minds developed the process of distilling. Alcohol was forever changed. With these new techniques, you can not only improve the strength of your brew, but also carefully control the taste (or lack thereof) of the end product, a massive variety of liquors began to crop up. Poland and Russia had their vodka, the French were experimenting with distilling their wine into brandy, and sometime in the 16th century, we find recipes for a Dutch juniper flavoured liquor called Genever. This ladies and gents is the grandfather to gin.
Genever (or Jenever) isn’t quite identical to gin, as it is made on a malt base, but more on that later. It does, however, have the classic juniper flavour that we associate with gin, and the line of succession is obvious. When British sailors first discovered Genever, they fell instantly in love. The Dutch sailors they met would imbibe this Genever to give their morale and courage a boost before battles (which is, highly regarded as the origin of the term Dutch courage). When the British were allowed to sample it, they almost immediately bought tales of juniper flavoured liquor to Britain, and this would change British history forever.
Late to the party of choosing a national liquor though they might have, the Brits took to gin with a frightening fervour. Developing what we now know as gin (a clear beverage juniper flavoured liquor with a neutral base spirit) in the early 17thcentury, the phenomenon would spread all over the country by the end of the century.
In fact, the enthusiasm surrounding gin rose to a peak in what is known in academic circles, and we are not making this up, as ‘The Gin Craze’. Between the years of 1695 and 1735, many factors led to gin becoming one of the most popular alcohols in the country. To start with, a new import tax on cheap foreign liquors, namely French brandy that was very popular at the time, drove prices of nearly all alcohol out of the daily budget of many of the lower classes. Gin, however, was almost exclusively being made in Britain and thus exempt from this tax.
The low price point with the fact that it was entirely legal to make gin without a license helped a growing population of lower classes eager to drown the harsh reality of 18thcentury living conditions in whatever alcohol they could. London ended up with almost 8 000 ‘gin joints’.
Naturally, this created a public outcry from politicians and other socially conscious types who worried that this craze would be damaging to the population and decent society in general.
By the end of the 18thcentury regulations were tightened and production was more strictly regulated. While this meant that gin was no longer free to make at home, it also meant that people weren’t substituting turpentine for the more expensive juniper berries along with a slew of other changes that improved the quality of the end product while creating what we know as gin today.
The damage of the gin craze was done, however, and while its popularity may never reach such dizzying heights again, gin was firmly entrenched in the British cultural scene and would remain there to this very day.