The fascinating origin and storied history of gin

June 4, 2017 (Last Updated: August 15, 2020) - As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Every cocktail has an origin story, but the history of gin and the gin and tonic is particularly interesting. It has a history rooted in fighting malaria, advancing English economics, and being attributed to the scourge of England. When you hear stories about people drinking paint thinner… there is a good chance the story has an origin that began with  gin.

To get a good sense of the history of gin and tonic, it is important to look at the history of each of the individual ingredients. Today, we are going to look, specifically, at gin history. As a side note, we are going to leave out the history of gin and tonic in this post, as it will be covered in the next.

History of gin

As discussed in a previous post, the precursor to modern day London Dry gin is genever. It is documented as the first juniper forward spirit drank for pleasure. It originated around the area of the Netherlands and Belgium. As these guys point out,  originally, this spirit was likely intended for medicinal purposes and eventually evolved into a medicine for the spirit…. if you catch my drift.

Mentions of genever goes back to the 13th century; apparently mentioned in a medieval version of an Encyclopedia named Der Naturen Bloeme.  For accuracy, I could not find any actual English transcripts of this book, but only multiple references to it and references saying that this book mentions genever. In the 16th century, mention of genever in a drink recipe appeared in Een Constelijck Distileerboec. By this time, the juniper forward drink is commonplace in that area as a drink.

Gin migration to England and Dutch Courage

The story goes that the Dutch fought alongside the English during the Thirty Years War between 1618 and 1648. The Dutch carried genever along with them for warmth and battle courage. So, the term “Dutch Courage” came into it’s place of the history of gin. The migration of this juniper forward spirit from mainland Europe to England commenced.

Fast forward a bit and things start to get interesting with gin’s migration to England. William III came to power in 1689 as King of England. He quickly changed distillation laws that promoted people to distill liquor. According to this, anybody could distill gin if they put a note up and waited 10 days. Previously, there was a London Guild of Distillers that held a monopoly and this restriction lift that anybody could set up shop as a gin distillery. William III put trade restrictions on French imports of brandy and actively promoted local distillation.

These rules were meant to encourage use of products from within the region. Instead of relying on French grapes, a corn mash would encourage internal economies. And the gin would be a good combination, in terms of gin, as corn can make a more neutral tasting alcohol.

This might be where the very beginnings of the traditions and style of London style gin starts to really form and seals its’ place in gin and tonic history. It was probably closer to the genever or maybe the Old Tom style gin. I guess if I were drinking turpentine, it probably would be more palatable with sugar.

The Gin Craze

So, all of this encouragement of distillation happened and guess what happened? People started drinking gin. And because people were making it in their houses and selling it to neighbors, the popularity spanned all social classes. People started doing weird stuff to make the straight, but somewhat neutral, moonshine taste like gin. This is when people started putting turpentine into the gin… and it probably worked fairly well, as turpentine is made from pine plants and would impart that flavor. Unfortunately for the people who drank this, IT WAS TURPENTINE!

This says that consumption of gin was 2 pints a week of gin PER PERSON by 1730. Gin became a popular cheap alcohol that became demonized. And if it regularly had turpentine in it, rightfully so. I mean, that history of gin in art. Beer street and gin lanecan’t be good.

England spent time and effort throughout the 1700’s trying to stave off the impacts of gin on society. Look at the artwork here named Beer Street and Gin Lane, an obvious (and humorous to me) attempt to impart the evils of gin vs beer. And while I am sure a great majority of this was overblown, I read somewhere that Englands stance on gin took a similar appearance as America’s war on drugs in the 1980s. The Gin Acts of 1736 and 1751 tried to put a stop to the distillery shenanigans that William III enacted. Licenses became required to distill and sell gin. The Gin Act of 1751 effectively stopped small time distilling, but gin already had its place in British society.

Invention of the column still

In the early to mid 1800s, the column still became a distillation staple. It provides a highly efficient distillation methodology. It also can produce a very neutral alcohol product. This is perfect for spirits like like vodka and the base of gin.

The column still combined with the government’s attempt to regulate evil gin ended up helping to form what we know know as London Dry Gin style of gin.

The cocktail

While gin had already taken it’s place among spirit royalty, the emergence of the cocktail in the 1800’s had to have sealed the deal. The first printed US cocktail book, by the one and only Professor Jerry Thomas had several recipes that contained gin. During US prohibition, the term bathtub gin began entering the English vocabulary.  I suspect this was because of ease with which one could turn a neutral alcohol into something with flavor.

And I think the rest is sealed in stone. Today, you can’t go to a full service bar that doesn’t have gin on hand. With that, let me leave you with a little bit of modern gin history.

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