It’s been a turbulent couple of centuries for gin, the herbaceous spirit that people either love or hate.
Now known as the favorite spirit of WASPs and Brits, gin has struggled over the past few hundred years to keep its reputation. The rocky history of this juniper-infused spirit includes everything from run-ins with the law in 18th century Britain to helping save the British Royal Army from scurvy in 1867. How many other spirits can claim responsibility for a true medical miracle?
Despite its turbulent history, gin has almost always had a place behind the bar and has experienced a resurgence. But the path to get there has been bumpy and complicated indeed.
17th Century: Genever travels to England
Genever, gin’s malty Dutch predecessor, can likely claim responsibility for catapulting its herbal counterpart to fame in Britain in the mid-17th century. Like many other spirits, gin was used as a common cure for various ailments.
Flemish and Dutch distillers popularized the re-distillation of malt wine in the early 1600s and added elements like juniper, anise and coriander for flavoring. These concoctions were sold in pharmacies as a cure for kidney and stomach problems, gallstones and gout (not unlike whiskey, and to much the same effect). Eventually, varying types of these drinks made their way to Britain, introducing a very thirsty population to the joys of gin.
The rampant consumption of gin that resulted from the government encouraging the distilling industry over the past hundred years and, for the most part, operating in an unregulated market, was a recipe for moral disaster, particularly among the lower classes. By 1720, nearly 25 percent of all London households produced or sold gin. In the mid-1700s, some decided it was time for a change.
In support of what would become the Gin Act of 1751, which prohibited gin distillers from selling to unlicensed merchants and increased sales fees, artist William Hogarth created Gin Lane and Beer Street. The pair of drawings depicted the “evils” of drinking gin, contrasted with the benefits of drinking beer. That’s right: anti-gin propaganda. Events around this time tarnished the drink’s character for the next hundred years.
As gin recovered from its soured reputation, it proved to have some rather resourceful applications. During the mid-1800s, British citizens and soldiers in India needed a way to protect themselves from malaria. It was discovered that cinchona bark, which produced quinine that could prevent and treat malaria, was the answer.
By the 1840s, Slate reports, Brits in India were using 700 tons of cinchona bark a year. Since quinine was bitter (ever tasted tonic on its own?) and the powder they used not very easy to drink when simply mixed with water, they eventually began adding gin.
Even Winston Churchill recognized the benefits of the drink, saying, “The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”
Malaria isn’t the only disease gin was responsible for curing (okay, so gin’s not the responsible party in either case, but you know what we mean). Scurvy was also a great offender in the 1800s, particularly with British sailors. Because scurvy can be prevented with a daily dose of vitamin C, the Merchant Shipping Act of 1867 required ships to carry lime juice, which was preserved with the addition of rum and rationed out to sailors.
1867 was also the birth year of Rose’s Lime Juice—which was much different then than it is today. Because lime juice didn’t taste fantastic on its own, the sailors added gin. This effectively created what we now know as the Gimlet, a name that likely came from the eponymous tool that was used to open the casks of lime juice (or, possibly, from a naval surgeon named Sir Thomas Desmond Gimlette).
Sadly, there are no medicinal benefits to the Martini. The cocktail has, however, played a large role in popular culture. In 1882, arguably the most classic of all classic cocktails, made from gin, vermouth and orange bitters, appeared in print for the first time (though there was some debate about the name).
It apparently struck a chord with drinkers and stuck—hard—leading to appearances in James Bond, and, most recently, Mad Men. You’d also be remiss to forget the Martini boom of the 1990s. While Cosmos and Appletinis are not actually variations on the classic trio of ingredients, the famous cocktail nonetheless inspired its own category.
Gin once again has an ugly run-in with the law during the Great Experiment in the United States. Because the spirit is easy to produce by infusing neutral spirit with botanicals like juniper and coriander, thirsty imbibers began making it in their bathtubs. This likely spurred the popularity of gin-based drinks in the early to mid-20th century, including the Martini, French 75, Gin Rickey and Orange Blossom.
The stuff even inspired the name of New York speakeasy Bathtub Gin.
2010s: Gin is finally on the up and up.
Re-popularized during the classic-cocktail resurgence, gin has made quite the comeback. Bartenders have mastered century-old cocktails made with gin, and distillers have resurfaced styles like Old Tom and Malacca, as well as experimented with everything from barrel-aging to unexpected flavorings (saffron gin, anyone?).
Historians like David Wondrich (who helped unearth the secrets of Old Tom to create Ransom’s bottling) are still uncovering new and exciting facts about the spirit every day, and it’s now clear that the spirit’s turbulent past has helped shaped the way we drink today.