The history of gin is full of tragedies and intriguing moments. In later years, gin has again become an upstanding spirit. With the help of small distilleries and a lot of passionate people, new gins are being introduced every month. It is the perfect time to take a look at the history of this potent liquid.
The history of gin started in Holland in the 13th century. However, more than 300 years would pass before what was then called jenever would become widely popular. By the mid 16tc century people started to realize that what was mainly considered a medicine to treat kidney and stomach problems was a potential enjoyment.
During the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) the English soldiers starting drinking gin for its warming effect on the body in cold weather and its calming effects before a battle, something they learned from the Dutch. Hence the name Dutch courage.
Gin entered England in the early 17th century. When King William of Orange dropped taxation and licensing on distillation, and at the same time raised taxes on imported foreign spirits, he was to start what has been known as the gin craze in England.
The word gin has its origin in the Dutch word jenever, which stems from the word juniperus, the Latin word for juniper.
What followed in England was nothing short of 100 years of tragedy. The below picture holds so many examples from that time. The mother dropping her baby, the drunken man in the wheelbarrow, the guy that has hung himself in the upper right corner, the backdrop of a city in decay.
Around 1750, at the time when William Hogarth made this picture, the average Londoner drank 8.5dl (29oz) gin per week. Roughly 25% of London households produced or sold gin. So many women became sterile due to excessive drinking that it made a severe impact on the birth rate in London.
Gin and Tonic
In the 1700s it was discovered that quinine could be used to prevent and treat malaria. Tonic has a high concentration of quinine, this is what makes the bitter taste. At that time, tonic water had a much higher level of quinine – making it much more bitter than today.
Some time in the early 1800s the British soldiers in East India had to get creative in order to consume enough quinine. At first, they started to add sugar and soda, as the taste still was too bitter they started to add gin. Without knowing it, the British army had created what surely must be the world’s most famous, and easy to make, cocktail.
If you want to know more about tonic, please read my blog post What is Tonic water? – The history and the facts.
Gin and Tonic deserves a special place in the history of gin. (Picture: Pickjumbo.com)
It was not only British soldiers who had a thing for gin. In 1860 the British navy introduced a weekly gin ration as a part of the wage. This gin had to have at least 57% alcohol. The reason for this was that both gin and gunpowder was stored side by side in barrels. In case of a leaky gin barrel it would not matter if the gunpowder got soaked with gin, at more than 57% it would still be flammable.
It is impossible to tell the history of gin without devoting a section to the Martini. The first Martini came into existence sometime between 1860 and 1890, dependent on which theory you want to believe. A Martini is a cocktail made with gin and vermouth. It started with equal amounts of gin and vermouth. By 1920 dry Martini was the drink of the day. With 2 parts London dry ging and 1 part vermouth. Since World war II the amount of vermouth has dropped steadily. My own version has the ratio 6:1.
The vodka age
By the late 1970s, vodka started to dominate the world of cocktails. Some of the reason can be attributed to James Bond. Agent 007 preferred his Martinis with vodka instead of gin.
If you want to know more about the place where Ian Flemming got the idea for “Shaken, not stirred” read my blog post; Dukes Hotel – Mekka for cocktail lovers.
Shaken or stirred? Does it make a difference? Find out by reading my blog post; Shaken or Stirred? What is the difference?
Due to aggressive marketing of vodka, gin lost its place in the sun for a long time. Vodka was the dominant ingredient in cocktails and soon the cocktails would get competition. Shots and vodka based cocktails took the stage as the most popular drinks in the 80s and early 90s.
Another celebrity that has played a role in shaping people’s drinking habits is Tom Cruise. The movie Cocktail from 1988 was the first sign that things were about to change.
In the late 90s gin gradually changed from being a spirit drowned in tonic or fruit juice to become the centerpiece in elegant cocktails.
The gin is in
In 2009, Sipsmith opened the first copper pot still in London for nearly 200 years. Since then, a growing number of enthusiasts have rediscovered and reinvented gin. Since 2009 the second Saturday in June has been designated as World Gin Day.
Today, passionate distillers and bartenders are writing the latest chapter in the history of gin. Passionate distillers create some truly unique products. Dedicated bartenders, like Jörg Meyer in Hamburg, makes truly unique cocktails like the Gin-Basil Smash.
To see Jörg Meyer create his Gin Basil Smash, see the video in my blog post; Le Lion -Hamburg’s best cocktails.
Micro distillers create small-batch gin from local ingredients. You get barrel-aged gin and gins with unexpected flavorings like saffron or lemon drizzle cake.