Mother’s ruin or Dutch courage? What’s the story behind gin, one of our most popular spirits. Gin takes its name from Genever, which in turn, is named from the French word, genièvre, meaning juniper.
Juniper is an evergreen bush with very aromatic greeny-blue berries with medicinal qualities. Gin is said to have been invented in about 1650 by Franciscus Sylvius, a Dutch physician, for the treatment of stomach complaints. To make the distilled spirit more palatable he flavoured it with juniper.
Even before this, British soldiers serving in Holland were given ‘Dutch courage’, a juniper-flavoured spirit, to warm their bodies and hearts before battle.
It soon became a popular drink in England, its popularity increasing during the reign of William and Mary. These Protestant monarchs discouraged the importation of brandy from the Catholic French and instead promoted the local production of gin by abolishing taxes and licensing fees.
However, what this also did was lead to mass drunkenness amongst the poor, as depicted in engravings and literature of the time. Hogarth’s engraving, entitled Gin Lane, portrayed a scene of drunkenness and vice, and abject poverty.
Parliament tried to control this behaviour by introducing an excise licence and tax: this in turn led to a proliferation in the making of illicit – cheap and poor quality – gin.
Parliament tried again, this time by raising the cost of the licence and the duty many-fold. Many people, including the Prime Minister of the time, Sir Robert Walpole, opposed this Act, correctly anticipating that the common people would not stand for such high taxes on what they saw as their bit of pleasure. Riots followed, and the law was openly flaunted. The Act was repealed.
In 1751, Parliament passed the charmingly-named Tippling Act; this was drafted with the help of distillers. It allowed for reasonable prices and taxes, at the same time as regulating licensing and production.
At last gin was set to become respectable.
The British Drink
Wherever the British Empire went gin went too. Gin and tonic was invented as a palatable way of taking quinine, to ward off malaria in tropical colonies, plus, gin and lime was drunk at sea in the navy to help fight scurvy.
During the Victorian age, the sweetened form of gin popular in the 1700s gave way to a cleaner style, known as dry gin. It was so identified with the City of London that it is known to this day as London Dry Gin. Plymouth Gin has a slightly fuller body than dry gin and is very aromatic. It is still made today in one distillery in Plymouth.
Gin truly came of age in the 1920s with the rising popularity of cocktails – for which gin with its subtle flavour is an ideal base – and has retained its position of favour ever since.
How Gin is Made
Distilled in column stills from a base of grain or molasses, the resulting spirit is light and clean. During the final distillation this almost-flavourless spirit is wafted through a combination of ‘Botanicals’ – herbs and spices – from which it extracts oils and flavour compounds. Different manufacturers use a mixture of different Botanicals that may include, for example, nutmeg, orange peel, cassia bark or coriander. Juniper is used for all gins.
How gin came to be called mother’s ruin isn’t explained satisfactorily but there are a number of suggested reasons:
- Gin was used to bring on abortions;
- In a more light-hearted vein, motherhood was the result of dalliances with British soldiers, renowned for their fondness for gin;
- Perhaps more likely, its cheapness and easy availability made it a popular drink for poverty-stricken women struggling to forget their situation in life.