Gin production has gone from something everyone made in their baths (yes, more on that in a min), to having an air of mystique surrounding it.
It's quite simple; it's Vodka flavoured with botanicals (i.e. things that grow, like herbs, spices and fruit), with a predominant flavour of juniper.
Producers take pride in the sourcing of their botanicals, and the ways in which they mix, steep, heat, cool and/or distill their Gin. They aim to make it unique, flavoursome and smooth.
London Dry Gin
This stuff can be called London Dry Gin or London Gin or Dry Gin - it's all the same thing, and describes the style of Gin production, not it's city of origin. There are probably more 'London' Gins that are not from London than are made in London. We stock London Gins from all over the UK, Germany and San Fransisco, but they can come from anywhere in the world.
'London' and 'Dry' describe the process of steeping botanicals in spirit (essentially Vodka made from grain, fruit or potatoes), then distilling the spirit before diluting to bottling strength with water.
Any Gin that does not claim to be either London or Dry or London Dry is made by mixing tinctures and distillates of botanicals (i.e. flavourings) to the base spirit before dilution with water.
You can find non-Dry Gins - we'll call them Wet Gins from now on - of just as high quality as Dry Gins, with handmade flavourings from carefully sourced botanicals, mixed into high quality spirit, and fastidiously monitored by a Master Blender.
But you can also find Wet Gins made with nasty industrial spirit and cheap bought-in flavourings, so watch what you buy and where from.
Most Gin available in the UK is good quality, even if it's produced on a large scale, but you do tend to get what you pay for.
History of Gin
Gin originated from the Dutch drink Jenever - also flavoured with juniper berries, which had evolved from malt wine spirits. Gin only became popular in England when Dutch-born William of Orange took the English throne in 1688. By the end of the century, England was at war with France. To protect the economy and raise funds, the government whacked a heavy duty on imported spirits and allowed unlicensed Gin production – i.e. people could distill at home. This created a market for poor quality grain that wasn't fit for flour or beer but could be distilled into spirit, and was the start of the era known as the Gin Craze.
Gin drinking in England became a devastating epidemic. It was made in a third of households in London, became very cheap, and was a numbing alternative to beer - both being cleaner to drink than the water. Gin was blamed for misery, rising crime, prostitution, madness, and increased death rates. It became known as Mother's Ruin. In over-crowded, slum-ridden Georgian London, London’s poor found entertainment and escapism from cold and hunger in cheap Gin.
Hogarth's Gin Street (left) depicts child neglect, starvation, STDs, addiction, death, grime, crime and economic decline. Beer Lane (right) on the other hand enjoys abundant food, romance, economic development, wealth, education, community and creativity.
The Vice-Chamberlain Lord Hervey described the level of the problem: "Drunkenness of the common people was universal, the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from morning till night." It’s estimated that the average Londoner drank a staggering 14 gallons of the Gin a year at the time.
As public outcry grew, the government was forced to take action. The 1736 Gin Act imposed high taxes on retailers and made selling Gin without an expensive annual licence illegal. However, it led to riots and over the next seven years only two licences were taken out.
Reputable sellers were put out of business, and bootleggers thrived. Their Gin, which went by colourful names like ‘Ladies Delight’ and ‘Cuckold’s Comfort’, was more likely to be flavoured with turpentine than juniper, and was often made in baths – heard of Bathtub Gin? It was even common to distill Gin with sulphuric acid. Although the acid itself doesn't distill, it imparts a sweeter flavour in the spirit, and may have had additional intoxicating effects.
The prohibitive duty was gradually reduced and finally abolished in 1742. In 1751, artist William Hogarth published his satirical print ‘Gin Lane’, which depicted the Gin Craze's effects, including a drunken mother, covered in syphilitic sores, unwittingly dropping her baby to its death down some cellar stairs while she takes a pinch of snuff. With the help of this propaganda, the 1751 Gin Act was passed with a more successful impact. It lowered the licence fee and forced distillers to sell only to licensed retailers trading from approved premises.
A few years of bad harvests forced grain prices up, making landowners less dependent on income from spirit production. The low grain yields also made food prices rise and wages drop, so the poor weren't able to afford a constant flow of Gin anymore. By 1760, the Gin Craze had thankfully petered out.
History of Gin Styles
The 'Oude' (old) style of Jenever was still popular right through until the end of the 19th century, when it was referred to as Holland or Geneva Gin in American pre-Prohibition bartender guides.
Secretly produced Bathtub Gin could be found in Prohibition-era America's speakeasies, as it was simple and quick to produce - Gin doesn't require ageing like lots of other spirits do.
The 19th century also saw the rise in of a style of Gin called Old Tom Gin. The Old Tom that was drunk at the time was softer and slightly sweeter than most modern Gins, but drier than Jenever.
Old Tom Gin faded in popularity by the early 20th century, but is now experiencing a renaissance; Hayman's Gin recently launched an Old Tom that's based on their own family recipe from the 1800s, so you can experience the authentic Victorian Gin flavour and mix Victorian Gin cocktails, and bar tenders have lapped it up. Other Gin producers are following suit.
The invention and development of the continuous column still (1826 - 31) made the distillation of neutral spirits much easier and more cost effective, which enabled the evolution of the London Dry style.
G & T
Gin and Tonic was created as an anti-malarial for British troops serving in India, in around 1825. Gin, sugar and citrus was used to mask the bitter flavour of quinine, the only effective malaria preventative. Quinine was dissolved in carbonated water to form tonic water, and the result was Gin and Tonic. Gin was starting to shed it's dismal reputation by then, too, so G&Ts were respectable, and became the quintessential drink of the British Empire.
It proved such as success in tropical colonies and beyond that - as Sipsmith say - “no-one takes a chance today, even in areas where there has never been a case of malaria. Better to have a Gin & Tonic, just to be safe.” Tonic water these days contains a fraction of the quinine of the 19th Century tonic, so is far less bitter.
More recently, G&Ts have found a second home in Spain, where people go to dedicated 'Gin-Tonic' bars and select their preferred Gin, tonic, and garnish (fruit, herbs or vegetables, depending on the Gin) from a menu. Their Gin-Tonic is served in a balloon glass or large wine glass so the drinker can enjoy all the aromas more easily than a highball glass.
New-Wave Gin Craze
Since the 1751 laws, it had essentially been illegal to produce Gin in small quantities, so when Sipsmith requested a licence for their copper pot still Gin production enterprise in suburban London, it was denied. The authorities took two years to be convinced that Sipsmith wanted to produce and sell small-batch Gin, but after gruelling legal wrangles (Sipsmith referring to small Whisky distilleries in Scotland in their defence) they were finally granted their licence in 2009, and the new craze for craft Gins was born.
Sipsmith's hard-fought licence set a precedent for the countless small-scale distillers who have consequently been able to make and sell their new Gins - and other spirits - over the last few years, causing an explosion in the market, and a new wave of Gin fans sampling and rating every premium craft Gin that's launched. Gin bars, Gin blogs, Gin trade fairs and Gin tasting events are springing up like mad to cater for this new interest, along with a new world of experimentation with Gin cocktails, including drinks that require specific Gins to create the perfect flavour profile.
Welcome to the Gin Craze, Part 2!