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Gin through the ages. The history of the nation's favourite beverage.


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Gin has become an increasingly popular drink over the last few years, with World Gin day, launched in 2009, being assigned to the second Saturday in June. A Gin and Tonic, or G&T, is now viewed as an elegant and sophisticated drink, with ever more Gin memes or Gin related products popping up all over the place.

However, Gin wasn’t always the drink of sophistication but instead has a rather varied past. From ‘Dutch courage’ to ‘Mothers’ ruin’, the now fashionable drink has been associated with a variety of reputations and usages throughout seven-hundred-year history.

Below we explore the history of Gin, from medicinal liquor, disreputable beverage, to the current flavour of the month.

Originating in Western Europe, Gin is a liquor which is primarily flavoured by Juniper Berries. The earliest recorded usage of Gin comes from an encyclopaedia written in Bruges during the 13thcentury, Der Naturen Bloeme. It was initially used for medicinal purposes in order to treat kidney or stomach ailments.

The creation of Gin has been incorrectly attributed to Dutch scientist, Franciscus Sylvius in the 1600s, however, evidence suggests that Gin was being used during Sylvius’s childhood. It is also claimed that, during the Eighty years’ war between Holland and Spain, the consumption of Gin was popular among the English soldiers stationed in the Netherlands in order to support the Dutch in their fight for independence. It is allegedly here that the widely popularised term ‘Dutch Courage’ is claimed to have originated, due to the relaxing effects which soldiers experience after consuming Gin. 

It was following the ascension of King William and Queen Mary to the throne that Gin was introduced in England. The drink became popular following the Glorious Revolution which saw the leader of the Dutch Republic, William of Orange, instated to the English throne. The monarch’s first act as King was to boost the British distillation industries through the raising of tax upon liquor imported from other countries and the lowering of taxation and restrictions upon spirits distilled in Britain, including Gin. A cheap alternative to other beverages, Gin fast became a firm favourite with the English public. In 1736, due to government restrictions on distillery licences, numerous illegal yet profitable Gin-shops began to arise across the capital. The so-called Fifty-pound act, which raised the price of a licence to £50, forced many businesses into black-market trading. 

During the 18th century Gin gained its infamous reputation. William Hogarth’s notorious painting, Gin Lane, depicts the depravity and decadence which Gin soon became associated with. Although the government had made efforts to curb the consumption of Gin, it was still highly popular. A cheap alternative to Ale and cleaner than water, Gin was given to children and at one point, the city of London alone was home to over 3,000 Gin distilleries. Gin was blamed for various social problems such as poverty and it was during this period that it became known by the British public as ‘Mothers’ Ruin’ due to the increasing number of women who drank gin and its association with the neglect of children. Gin became a drink associated with extreme alcoholism and depravity, a reputation which stayed with it until well into the 20thcentury. 

A firm favourite today, London Dry Gin emerged in the late 18th century, with Gordon’s Gin company opening in 1769. The notorious Gin shops which punctuated the capital were soon replaced by Gin palaces, luxurious bars which sold Gin. Despite their association with debauchery, they proved to be immensely popular with the public and by the mid 19thcentury London was home to over 5,000 Gin palaces. 

During the 20thcentury, Gin began to move away from its previously inauspicious reputation. During the prohibition era in the USA, Bathtub Gin became a frequent phrase owing to the low-quality homemade Gin which was circulating as a result of banned production and the popularity of the spirit. The martini, a cocktail comprising of Gin and Vermouth, became a popular drink during the 1920s and added a more sophisticated angle to the beverage. When Ian Fleming featured his own version of the cocktail in his novel Casino Royale, known as the Vesper cocktail, Martinis swiftly became associated with everyone’s favourite secret agent, James Bond. 

Today, Gin comes in a variety of makes, tastes and mixes. With the resurgence in the popularity of the cocktail bar during the 1990s, numerous Gin based cocktails have become popular favourites. From Elderflower to Rhubarb, the repertoire of Gin flavours is constantly increasing and it’s not just the flavours of Gin which are multiplying: products which are Gin flavoured or scented, such as tea or candles, have also become a recent craze.

Gone are the days in which Gin was associated with black market alcohol and extreme drunkenness, but rather, they have been replaced by Gin’s new status as a classy and sophisticated drink of choice. 

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