Gin, also known as ‘Mother’s Ruin’ or ‘Knock Me Down’, has grown in popularity over the centuries with drinkers from rich and poor backgrounds across England. But how did gin manage to become the second highest consumed alcoholic beverage -after beer - during the 17th and 18th century? And what impact did it have on the people, too?
When, Why and How was Gin made?
The production of gin can take us back as far as the 17th century to Holland. Its purpose at the time was used differently compared to what we use it for today: to be enjoyed in a sociable manner.
It was originally used as a pharmaceutical agent to treat stomach and kidney ailments such as gallstones and gout. And the main ingredient used were juniper berries, which, would go through a distillation process to get its ‘clear as water’ look and attractive.
Although gin was known to have reached its peak in 18th century England (which I will discuss about, soon), it was also given to Dutch troops during the Dutch War Independence, also known as the Eighty Year’s War, to calm their nerves and boost their confidence before battle against the Spanish. When the English troops noticed what the Dutch troops were doing, they also took up drinking gin before battle. This is where the term ‘Dutch Courage’ comes from.
The Gin impact in 18th Century
After the war, King William III, ruler of the Dutch republic and King of England during the late 17th century, encouraged the people from all backgrounds to produce distilled spirits by simply posting a notice in public and waiting ten days. Because of this, the production of gin spread across England (mostly in London) and became cheap and affordable for those below the poverty line. This brought in the period known as ‘The Gin Craze’.
Although the poor could afford it, they could only afford gin flavoured with turpentine! (the stuff our ancestors would consume without any idea of the dangers it would have on their health is quite frightening!).
In 1736, the Gin Act came in full force which raised taxes on vendors and hiked the prices up to the point where the poor couldn’t afford to buy, anymore. This also brought in Gin Riots across the streets of London. Finally, after years of protests, the Act was deemed as a ‘poor idea’ by the government and was repealed in 1742 to make way for a new and improved Gin Act in 1751.
Gin & Tonic
Gin continued to be produced right into the 19th century with fair taxes and reasonable prices; and the people of London began to ‘tone it down’ when it came to drinking in excess.
During the reign of the British Empire and the take over of India, British immigrants who chose to stay would start to suffer with a life-threatening disease known as Malaria. And the cure for Malaria? Well, the cure at the time, which was used by the locals, came from the bark of the cinchona tree: Quinine. A very bitter taste (but very effective!), quinine would be consumed with the mixture of gin, lime and sugar, and behold! the Gin & Tonic was born!
Between late 19th and mid-20th century, the creation of the Martini and the popularity of James Bond helped propel gin into the spotlight and became what is now the sophisticated drink for the everyday person to enjoy purely for pleasure.