Gin lovers…have you ever stopped to think about the origins of gin and where the humble spirit was first created? At Bass and Flinders, our passion for adventure and our thirst for knowledge (pardon the pun) about perfectly crafted gins, led us to wonder just how this all started. Gin has a long and rich history and has a fascinating tale to tell. To truly understand the history of gin, let’s go back to the beginning.
What Makes Gin, Gin?
Gin as we know it today, is a distilled alcohol that by definition must include the characteristic aroma and flavour of the juniper berry. Even the name itself is derived from the Dutch word for juniper ‘genever’, or the French ‘genièvre’. The quality of the berry and the way the gin is crafted, all play a part in determining the character of fine gins.
Where Did Gin Actually Originate?
There are many stories about the origins of gin and how it was created. It is rumoured that the origins of this classic beverage can be traced back as far as the 11th century where it was used as medicine. The Benedictine monks of Salerno, Italy distilled spirits using juniper berries (growing in abundance in the nearby hills) as a cure for a wide range of ailments including indigestion, and for treating conditions of the stomach, kidneys and liver.
Gin as we know it today, is based on an old Dutch liquor called ‘jenever’, a blend of grain-based malt wine and a neutral spirit infused with Juniper, which was used to mask its harsh flavour. In the 1340’s the Bubonic Plague, or “Black Death” had spread to Europe from Central or East Asia and it is believed, that people across Europe consumed a form of this juniper tonic in the vain hope of warding off the deadly disease. By the middle of the century production levels of jenever in The Netherlands (and Amsterdam in particular) was huge.
Fast-forward to the 17th century, during the struggles for The Netherland’s independence from Spain, when English soldiers were sent to war to assist the Dutch revolt against their Spanish Catholic rulers. They say that this is where the British got their first taste of gin. While the English soldiers were fighting alongside their Dutch allies, they would have seen the troops drinking jenever before going into battle, to relax and bolster themselves with a generous nip of something they called “Dutch courage.”
Gin Migrates To England
The soldiers returned home with a taste for this new spirit and introduced gin to England, but it wasn’t until the late 1600’s when gin really started to take off in London. William of Orange took the throne and became King of England in 1689. In an attempt to bolster the British economy, he introduced heavy taxes on imported spirits such as French wine and Cognac and instituted the ‘Corn Laws’, a tax break on domestic spirit production and trade restrictions on imported food and grain.
The Gin Craze
This catapulted the country into a period known as the Gin Craze. Thousands of gin shops were springing up all over London, anyone could produce it. A pint of gin became cheaper than beer. For many poor Londoners, gin became a cheap buzz that could be had for pennies, an escape from cold and hunger with every serve. Some workers were even paid with gin as part of their wages! With very little regulation, producers started using poor quality grain and added other bulking agents like turpentine and sulphuric acid to the mix. The result was devastating. The phrase ‘Mothers Ruin’ was coined, as the raw spirit became the source of misery across London – rising crime, prostitution, blindness and death. London was swarming with people who were drunk or driven mad by the spirit.
Gin Goes Underground
After some time, Parliament recognised they had an enormous problem on their hands and tried to slow down the city’s thirst for gin by passing new laws. George II was on the throne and the 1736 Gin Act was passed. Anyone making gin now needed a license, extortionate fees were introduced and gin shops were heavily taxed, but this only sent production underground. Only two licenses were officially taken out and production was increasing. Bootleggers were everywhere, making it in their own homes - giving birth to the phrase ‘bathtub gin.’
The Beginning of Artisanal Gin
Then came the Gin Act of 1751. It changed the way gin was sold. License fees were lowered and distillers had to sell to licensed retailers. At the same time, as the result of a poor harvest, grain prices also increased and better quality spirit was produced. Parliament introduced a minimum output requirement and doubled the duties on distilled spirits, putting the price of gin out of the reach of the lower classes and consumption started to fall. By 1757 the Gin Craze was over. Gin distilleries started producing high quality gin and England became a nation of beer drinkers once again.
A New Still Design
Some decades later, things started looking up for London gin with the invention of a new continuous still by Aeneas Coffey in 1832. At the time, distillers all used a traditional alembic pot still, significantly limiting the amount of production. With the invention and development of the new column still, the distillation of spirits became a more practical opportunity. Coffey’s still was efficient, easy to maintain and used less fuel. It saved distilleries a fortune and increased production levels.
How The G&T Came To Be…
It was then the global deployment of the British Navy that enabled gin to become famous worldwide. While in India, the Royal Navy started to combine gin with an anti-malarial medication. Their pure quinine rations tasted so awful they added gin to the mix, and a touch of lime to ward off scurvy. Quinine is the base ingredient of tonic water and so the G&T was born!
The Rise of Artisanal Handcrafted Spirits
The delicate and exotic botanicals our master distillers use in gins today are a world away from the harsh spirit of times gone by. It has transformed from a mediaeval herbal tonic to a modern, handcrafted spirit in high demand across the globe. Cocktail culture is back and the world is in love with artisanal craft made spirits – gin is cool again!