A brief history of gin | The Gourmand & Gourmet

A brief history of gin

You probably think of gin as a rather civilized drink, the one your mum and her friends drink when they get together on a Sunday afternoon rather than something that inspires binge drinking, but this spirit actually has quite a checkered past. It all started innocently enough. A physician in Holland started distilling spirits with Juniper berries for ‘medicinal’ purposes in the 17th century, prescribing it to treat gout, gallstones and stomach ailments. We’re a little disappointed the treatment fell out of favour, actually. It wasn’t until English soldiers took a shine to the stuff during the 30 Years War that the sip really took off though, when they discovered gin had a calming effect if drunk before battle and also kept them warm in the freezing mud, which is where the nickname ‘Dutch courage,’ came from. They couldn’t leave such an impressive elixir to be hogged by Holland, so gin made the leap to England, and British winters were warmer forever more. To begin with, gin distillation was controlled by a select few, but by the end of the century, anyone with a bucket could brew the stuff. Drunkenness was rampant, with over 7000 ‘strong water shops’ around London by 1730. One lord even declared ‘Drunkenness of the common people was universal, the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from morning ‘til night.’ Sounds like our kind of party – except for the whole rising crime, prostitution, madness and mothers selling their children’s clothes to buy more gin thing. Action was taken in the form of The Gin Act of 1736 which made gin selling without an expensive license illegal – and was promptly ignored. The Gin Act of 1751 was more successful, and distillers were soon only able to sell their gin to licensed retailers. By the 1830s, beer was slowly becoming the binge drink of choice – pubs didn’t have to be licensed, while gin bars did. Gin had to do something about this state of affairs, so it got posh. ‘Gin Palaces’ started popping up around town pouring gin cocktails, and for the first time, gin was appreciated for its delicate flavours rather than potential to get you blind drunk. By the roaring 20s, it was the darling of flappers and sophisticated society everywhere, with more refined gins being carefully crafted with quality ingredients. Of course, vodka soon knocked the spirit from its perch after a serious marketing effort from Smirnoff and James Bond, but gin is getting noticed again, becoming a preferred spirit by bartenders everywhere. And here in Australia plenty of distillers are making gins worth putting in your G&T, including The Melbourne Gin Company, which you’ll find at Craft Wine Store, and The West Winds Gin, which you can pick up at Dan Murphy’s. Or you can just head out for one of Brisbane’s best gin cocktails – try to stay classy though, it isn’t 1730 any more. Words by Ranyhyn Akui