As regular readers will know, I like a drink now and again and again and again. The way I see it, it’s not an addiction if you’re still enjoying yourself. But even I must draw the line somewhere. Today I think I saw where that line was. In Sainsbury’s this evening I came across the disturbing discovery that, in their Basics range, the supermarket does gin.
It’s not that I have anything particularly against gin, you understand. Actually, I quite like it. But I take the view that spirits, below a certain price, are best employed in experiments to determine whether your tractor really will “run on anything.”
Gin enjoys something of an uneasy reputation these days. Scotch suggests manly sophistication, vodka suggests a fashionable cocktail lifestyle, Jack Daniel’s suggests maybe you aren’t quite ready for spirits yet. Gin, it seems, will be forever stuck with the reputation of being a drink for the elderly and terminally alcoholic.
Although it does tend to be historically associated with London, the origins of the present-day spirit lie with the Dutch physician and chemist Franciscus Sylvius at some point in the first half of the seventeenth century (though similar beverages are recorded as far back as the 10th century). It’s made of distilled grain alcohol and traditionally flavoured with juniper berries, and enjoyed great popularity in Holland as a medicine.
In 1688, William of Orange ascended the throne of England and brought with him this exciting new Dutch spirit. There were a number of contributing factors to its success within these shores. Firstly, William increased the taxes on importing booze and deregulated distillation in Britain, making gin cheaper and more readily available than any other form of spirit. Secondly, food had fallen in price recently, meaning there was more money to spend on life’s little luxuries. Thirdly, grain was particularly abundant at that time, and so gin production was an attractive way to get rid of the surplus, especially as the grain used in gin did not have to be particularly high quality. Fourthly, booze was a way of life in those days – in those days before effective sanitation, alcohol was far safer than water. And finally, gin was cheap and could get you ratted more quickly than beer. There’s also another interesting theory that folk took to drink as a result of being unable to adjust to city life, but that’s a minority view that I only mention for the curiosity value.
Anyway, the result was the Gin Craze, as memorably satirised in William Hogarth’s grotesque and blackly humorous Gin Lane, reproduced right. If you’ve ever been though Kingston-upon-Thames on a Saturday night, imagine that, only all the time. Lord Harvey noted at the time that “Drunkenness among the common people was universal; the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from morning ’til night.” Sick leave rose to an unprecedented degree as a result of people simply being too pished to make it into work, with the corresponding economic effects. Crime, too, rose drastically - it was observed by magistrates that gin was “the principal cause of all the vice & debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people” (though the lack of a police force didn’t help). And of course there were the direct and indirect physiological effects of such widespread boozing - liver disorders, blindness, syphilis and a rise in juvenile alcoholism as a result of spirit-infused breastmilk. Daniel Defoe feared the creation of “a fine spindle-shanked generation.” There was even a (possibly apocryphal) reported increase in cases of spontaneous combustion.
Not helping matters at all was the poor quality of gin on sale. With the simplicity of production, the aforementioned lack of any police force to speak of, almost anyone could set up a still and go into business. And there were plenty of dubious ways to increase your yields if you were unscrupulous. If the buyer was lucky, their gin would be watered down. If they were unlucky, it might be padded out with turpentine. If they were really unlucky, industrial acid.
In desperation, the government introduced no less than eight Gin Acts to counter this between 1729 and 1751. However, what probably did for gin was one of the contributing factors in its initial ascension – the price of grain, which had begun once again to rise due to poor harvests. Just in time for the Industrial Revolution, in fact.
Nevertheless, the damage was done. Gin had gained such unflattering nicknames as “Mother’s Ruin” and low drinking dives were popularly known as “gin shops,” whether they sold gin or not.
Gin would enjoy a resurgance during the 19th century with the opening of the Victorian “gin palaces,” the finest surviving example of which is the Princess Louise in Holborn. I mention this purely because that’s my favourite boozer. Also contributing to its popularity at this time was the discovery of quinine’s anti-malarial properties. Quinine is quite a bitter substance, and so it was typically diluted to make what we now call tonic water. To make the tonic water more palatable, the colonials of the British empire would add gin, which I would imagine also alleviated the boredom of some of those Imperial outposts. And thus was the gin and tonic forged.
And I suppose this was the final nail in the coffin of gin’s reputation – that imperial association. Granted, it’s not regarded as the abomination it was in the 18th century, not least because the following century would see improvements in distillation and a corresponding increase in quality. But nevertheless, it is perhaps the least cool thing behind a bar south of the liqueur shelf.
Oh well. Here’s my recipe for a gin and tonic. G&T seems to be a matter of personal preference, so my word isn’t even close to the last on the subject. I favour Malawi for the gin – it’s a highly aromatic spirit with strong juniper notes, which is really what you look for in a gin. For the tonic, I go with Schweppes, the diet stuff for the sake of my waistline (the relative sweetness of the Malawi balances this out). And here’s where I get a little bit heretical – I don’t add ice. Rather, I chill the gin and the tonic beforehand. Then mix in a ratio of 2:3. Then drink. Then kill my children in a drunken stupor and spontaneously combust.