A brief history of gin
'The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen's lives and minds than all the doctors in the Empire.'
- Sir Winston Churchill.
Gin is BIG. Don’t believe us? Well, maybe the numbers will convince you… Gin sales in the UK hit just shy of the £2bn mark in 2018. 66 million bottles of the stuff were sold in Britain alone last year. And it looks as though our thirst for the juniper-based spirit is nowhere near being quenched yet.
We can’t get enough of gin. It’s understandable too; there’s nothing quite like the taste of a crisp, well-made G&T. A generous measure of your favourite gin poured into a highball (or Copa de Balon if you’re feeling fancy) with plenty of ice and a nice fat wedge of lime squeezed into it, topped up with a quality tonic water... Drinks simply don’t come more refreshing or refined.
This may seem like a modern trend, but the love folk have for gin now is no fad. Its popularity dates back centuries. The transparent liquor has been around longer than you might have imagined.
Here is a brief history of gin…
What is gin exactly? And how is it made?
First things first... Before we get too into the heritage of this fine alcoholic beverage, let’s get the basics out of the way, shall we?
Gin is a delicious - if slightly bitter-tasting - spirit. A high strength alcohol (usually 40% or greater by volume), it’s almost exclusively drunk with a mixer. Tasting notes vary hugely across the world, with different countries, companies and brands taking slightly different approaches and using a wide variety of ingredients, herbs, spices, botanicals and flavours to make their tipple.
But you probably already knew that. How’s it made, though? Well, unlike some other spirits, gin is a rather simply distilled liquor. One that takes its principal flavour from the humble juniper berry.
There are lots of different types of gin (aged gins, Tom gins, London dry gins), but most are created in the same way. First, a base alcohol is made with grains. This is essentially just pure ethanol. This rather potent (and not particularly flavoursome) concoction is then redistilled with whatever fruits, berries, seeds and other goodies are desired by the distiller. This process is repeated as many times as desired, until the highly specific - and hopefully perfect - gin has been created.
Where was it first produced?
There’s some debate as to where and when gin was first invented exactly. But the majority of the evidence points to its origins dating all the way back to the Middle Ages, what with it first being written about back in the 13th century. It took a good three hundred more years before it got a name that stuck - ‘genever’ (Dutch for ‘juniper’).
Soon enough, the gin lovers of the Netherlands and Flemish Belgium decided to share their delightful tipple with the world. And the world promptly said thanks.
The UK, as it transpired, proved to be a particularly thankful - not to mention thirsty - market.
How and why did gin become so popular?
In the 17th century, Britain was conducting a trade war with France, taxing wine, brandy and cognac up the hoo-hah. At the same time, William III introduced The Corn Laws, which resulted in tax breaks for grain farming (and grain-based spirit distillation by default). Once the recipe hit British shores from the Netherlands, gin quickly became the de rigueur drink of the day.
And so it’s remained to this day, with only a few dips in favour. We’re currently in the midst of yet another huge gin boom, with the past decade or so seeing a steady rise in gin’s popularity once again.
How has gin been enjoyed over the years?
Back to gin’s introduction to Britain and, in a few short years, the grip on the nation that our favourite spirit had was starting to become known as ‘The Gin Craze’.
Gin eventually caught of the collective eye of the United States, but really came into its own during the Prohibition. The temperance movement in America saw the banning of alcohol and, consequently, the birth of bootlegging.
Canadian whisky, Caribbean rum and English gin all proved very popular. Gin was especially favoured as enterprising locals soon worked out that it was fairly easy to replicate at home. Albeit this ‘bathtub gin’ would invariably taste pretty rancid.
Primarily, gin has always always been enjoyed as a spirit, sipped and enjoyed for both its taste and its alcoholic content. But it has a history of being prescribed for ailments too. First for medical issues such as dyspepsia and gout and latterly - and more effectively - for malaria.
British colonialists, taken with the Dutch ‘genever’ drink would use it to mask the flavour and improve the taste of the known anti-malarial medication quinine. This mixture was tinkered with until the gin and tonic we all know and love was eventually born.
How is gin enjoyed today?
Of course, the classic G&T is still the most popular way to enjoy this classic spirit. The two make for a legendary combination, after all.
Nowadays, you’ll find gin cropping up in all sorts of boozy beverages, though. From martinis and fruit cups to classic cocktails like Tom Collins, gimlets and the James Bond-inspired Vesper.
Alternatively, if you’ve got a good gin in your hand and real appreciation for the flavour, you may find yourself a modern aficionado of the spirit and discover you aren’t afraid to drink the stuff neat. Over ice or sans cubes - it’s entirely down to you.
Gin... just a British drink?
Long gone are the days that only Brits enjoyed gin. The drink has gone truly global now, with some of the best gins said to be coming from emerging markets abroad.
Central and South America is gaining a reputation for their distilleries, with Brazil really catching the eye of many industry experts. Asia is also guaranteeing the future of gin with Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan - in particular - leading the way for the future.
This kind of innovation and creativity is really helping to push and evolve gin and increase its popularity across the planet. Long may it continue.
Gin. It’s a spirit with a fascinating past and even more fascinating future.
Now, we’re heading to the bar. Who’s thirsty?