If the 21st century so far has been dominated by any particular spirit, then that spirit is unquestionably gin. Gin is in, and at least for now, it looks as though it’s never going to fade from the forefront of your favourite trendy bars. From the tried-and-tested classics we know and love, to weird, wonderful, and often hair-raising infusions and concoctions (we’ve seen everything from chipotle chilli gin to bubblegum-flavoured gin on shelves in the past couple of months), this ancient and widely-loved drink has seen a renaissance typified by sophistication, innovation, and a playfulness often absent from the fine spirits world. For gin fans, the good times are rolling like never before… and it’s an exciting time to discover the craft-driven variations which are blazing new trails for others to follow.
Because gin is having such a moment in the sun, we felt it would be a good time to dive into the past and explore the history of this singular spirit. We often associate gin with the bowler-hatted world of Victorian England, where it was sipped by Dowager Duchesses and nipped at by the kind of people you see on a Christmas episode of Downton Abbey. While there’s a lot of truth in this, and such characters surely revelled in the ‘mother’s ruin’ – along with pretty much everyone else at the time – the real origins of gin stretch back much further, and take in some of the key turning points of European history. Let’s take a closer look, and gain a better understanding of today’s hottest distillation.
The Origins of a Legendary Spirit
If the majority of us immediately associate gin with Victorian England and Hogarth’s grotesque woodcuts of the 19th century (which is where the moniker ‘mother’s ruin’ actually comes from, thanks to a woodcut showing a drunken mother dropping her baby in favour of a class of gin), the reality is that gin is probably a whole lot older. In fact, gin most likely first arose in the 13th century, and it (or at least, a very similar grain spirit flavoured with juniper berries) first turns up in a Flemish recipe book from this time.
The Flemish connection is key: if gin belongs to any country, that country would be The Netherlands. In fact, the very name ‘gin’ comes from from Dutch word ‘genever’ – which is what they call the juniper plant in that part of the world. The juniper berry provides the predominant flavour and aroma which gives gin its identifiable character, and in order for a spirit to be considered a gin to this day, juniper must still be the basis of the spirit – no matter what other strange infusions or botanical lovelies are incorporated.
Gin first hit the big time in the 1600s in Amsterdam, and just like many other spirits (as well as things like Coca Cola, Heroin, and cigarettes), it was originally produced for its medicinal qualities. Dutch chemists would distribute gin to the masses, and it was believed to be something of a cure-all, treating everything from gout to dyspepsia, from hysteria to malaise, and, most significantly, ‘cowardice’.
The British Connection
As with so many things which remain popular to this day, it was the British who were responsible for the real explosion in gin consumption and production. British troops during the Thirty Years War were plied with gin in order to overcome their hesitations and fears of heading to the front (the term ‘Dutch Courage’ comes from this occurrence), and once home, decided that there really wasn’t any need for gin to remain purely a military tool. After all, there were plenty of things to be scared of back home in the UK… and Dutch Courage became a part of everyday English life as a result.
Within a few decades, gin had become an obsession and a blight in England. In fact, in a study carried out in 1720, a phenomenal 25% of British households were said to be producing their own gin in rudimentary homemade stills… much of it most probably dangerous or even fatal to consume. The ‘Gin Craze’ of the early 18th century took root, and widespread gin addiction was considered so serious a social problem, the UK parliament had to pass no less than five major laws and legislations to try and take control of the issue.
Such laws may have helped put a lid on a nationwide hysteria and health issue, but gin didn’t disappear. Instead – rather hypocritically – it started to become the reserve of the upper classes and the colonel class of the military, which led to the rise of possibly the greatest spirit and mixer combo of all time: the beloved gin and tonic. Soldiers and sailors travelling to far-flung corners of the empire used gin to mask the unpleasant flavour of the antimalarial quinine bark… and found the blending of the two flavours surprisingly delicious. Again, once they returned home, gin and tonic became a popular staple in port towns across the country, and again, never really went away from then on.
Gin Today, Gin Tomorrow
Quite what caused gin to experience such a resurgence in the 21st century is something of a mystery – as much down to the whims of fashion and the oddities of modern obsessions as anything else. Perhaps it has something to do with the ‘hipster’ generation looking to the past, and using the seemingly all-encompassing power of irony to reimagine something once associated with an older generation. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that gin, unlike many other spirits, can quite easily be infused with other flavours and botanicals, and experimented with wildly. It could just as easily be due to the fact that gin retains a sense of vintage charm – it’s the drink of speakeasies, Gatsby, and imperial pomposity, of equal parts royalty and urban squalor… and few would deny that it tastes absolutely fantastic.
From classic cocktails like the ubiquitous gin and tonic and the Tom Collins, to bizarre concoctions and creations which come and go month by month, gin’s moment in the sun has brought about an exciting new generation of mixology and cocktail creativeness. With 700+ years of history behind it, who knows what the next chapter in gin’s illustrious history will be?