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Gin: A short history of Britain's favourite spirit


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Gin and tonic- a staple of the British culture.We argue about whether we should be adding rosemary or rosebuds. About the size of our ice cubes and the type of glass with drink it from. But when did we start caring? How and when did gin work its way into the cold and elusive heart of the British public?

The history of Gin is often considered a journey through English heritage yet its beginnings can actually be traced to the Dutch. In the 16th century, the Dutch started producing “genever”, basically malt wine with loads of juniper berries in it to mask the taste. This is what became gin.

The gin obsession in England probably started under William III in the 17th century whose laws provided massive tax breaks on spirit productions, leading to a period of history when a pint of gin would have been cheaper than a pint of water, and obviously a lot more fun.

Unsurprising, this led to the poorer classes binge drinking; nothing like a pint of gin to ease your worries about the complete lack of social mobility and the general torture of life. By the early 18th-century gin addiction plagued the nations. Etchings such has the infamous ‘Gin Lane’ showed the disastrous lifestyle of London’s biggest gin drinkers. All this meant the spirit was vilified, blamed for every sinful act ever committed. It was a dark time for true gin lovers with extortionate taxes and severe laws.

There was a bit of re-branding later that century when Gin started accompanying the Royal Navy and sailors in general on long journeys as it transported better than beer. We can even thank this period for the birth of the Gimlet as a preserved lime cordial was added to the spirit in an attempt to prevent scurvy.

But the following centuries saw very little gin action, it was a drink like any other until recently. It was considered a crass and rather unrefined drink. Even up until the 1960s the doctor’s advice for an unwanted pregnancy might be ‘have a hot bath and some gin’.

It was only in 2008 that Sipsmiths was granted England’s first official license for a gin distillery since the 1820s.

So look at us now: there are more than 310 disterillies in the UK, double that of 5 years ago. Gin sales rose in 2017 while the old classics, vodka, and whiskey, stayed the same. You can go to Gin themed hotels, gin only menus are everywhere and there is even a gin spa for all your juniper based beauty needs.


It’s hard to say what makes it so popular- maybe the vast array of tastes, colours, and brands get the creative juices of neo-liberal millennials following. Maybe it is just easier to drink than whiskey. Either way, it is greats news for the British economy. The gin revolution is boosting the little man: potentially due to our so-called hipster generation craving more interesting tastes but it is the small artisanal distilleries that are the force behind the British gin renaissance.

There is no sign of this trend slowing down either. 180 million bottles of craft gin were exported last year, valuing about £474 million. Record-breaking gin sales give hope to the UK gin producers as more big distributors become interested in small-scale distilleries, no matter the product. Who knew that drinking a G&T (or two) could help the UK job market.

So what makes us love Gin? The simplicity of the recipe that gives us the opportunity to add our own favourite flavours? The refreshing zesty of a gin and a slice of a summers day or just the fact that is is absolutely everywhere. The answer is subjective but one thing is for certain: Gin is the UK’s spirit of choice.

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