Part 2: London (not so) Dry

Gin, people have a love/hate relationship with it.  Some people hate that they love it so much, others just simply love to hate it.  And if you’ve ever dropped a dice on the floor while playing bar dice in Wisconsin, you learned to loathe the very thought of it at times.  Turns out Gin has an amazing storied history, it’s not just a stuffy spirit drank by the elite English Aristocracy.  While the English may have popularized it, and damn well fell in absolute love with it, there are more than one type of “Gin.”  In this five part series of posts, we will discover the origins, stories, horror stories, truths and myths behind this storied spirit.

“..the infamous liquor, the name of which, derived from Juniper berries in Dutch, is now, by frequent use and the Laconick spirit of the Nation shrunk into a Monosyllable, Intoxicating Gin that charms the unactive, the desperate and the crazy of either Sex….”.

-Bernard Mandeville, Fable of the Bees, 1714


London (not so) Dry

It is said that the English tasted their first drops of sweet genever nectar during the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) when the Seventeen Provinces revolted agains Philip II of Spain over his political and religious control.  The English sent mercenaries to assist in the revolt.  It is said that this is where genever was introduced to the English. Giving the soldiers a “calming effect” before war, hence the nickname, “Dutch Courage.”  This is something we now might just refer to as, Liquid Courage.

By the mid-1600’s Flemish and Dutch genever distilled spreads like wildfire, Amsterdam having somewhere in the window of 400.  The redistilled spirit with juniper, anise, coriander, etc., was sold to pharmacies for various intestinal ailments.  Gin started making its own stand within England in the early 1600’s in various forms in an attempt to recreate what was experienced.  This often inferior product was sometimes even flavored with turpentine instead of juniper.

When the ruler of the Dutch Republic, William of Orange ascended to the English Throne with his wife Mary II.  As this was a time of deep political and religious disagreement with other countries, specifically France.  As William and Mary were protestant and had deposed her Roman Catholic Father, King James II & VII, for what they saw as extreme misdoings during his reign, and he was the last full Roman Catholic to sit on the throne.  Parliament passed in 1689, the English Bill of Rights invited William and Mary to become joint sovereigns of England.  The Bill of Rights also limited the power of the monarchy, and laid down the rights of Parliament, free elections, freedom of speech in Parliament, avoidance of cruel and unusual punishment, and the right for Protestants to bear arms within the law. This set the tracks for the current way that England governs.

Back to Gin though.  The government imposed a very heavy tax on all imported spirits, especially French brandy and also deregulated the distilling industry in England.  During this time, hundreds of distillers were making a substandard version of of proper genever, often poisoning the poor and destitute, made from poor quality barley that couldn’t be used to brew beer. This larger unregulated market caused what was known as the “Gin Craze” and between 1695-1735 thousands of gin shops opened throughout England.  Because of the low cost compared to other spirits, including even beer, with that said, it became a popular drink for the poor.  Beer was still drank in moderate and seen as a wealthy and intelligent alternative to other spirits, as the higher class could afford it, and it was often was a cleaner alternative to drinking plain old water.  Gin started getting a bad rap around this time, it was even seen as the leading factor of higher death rates among the poor, which stabilized the quickly growing populations especially in London.