Gin. Glorious, glorious gin.
Base spirit of choice for many a cocktail, preferred artisan product of small-batch distilleries; and the Mother’s Day gift that certainly beats wilting flowers and yet another box of chocolates (given that the ones you bought last year are still in the cupboard, already past their best-by date…)
Turns out Mums have always had a bit of a thing for gin.
But while in modern times that means a cheeky G&T on a Friday night, a splash of flavoured gin on the rocks, or a mighty-fine gin cocktail or two – in the days of the gin craze, it was far more likely that your mum would sell you for a gin tipple, than thank you for buying her one…
A SHORT HISTORY OF GIN
Although early references to ‘genever’ date as far back as 16th-century Belgium, our favourite spirit in its most recognised form began life as a medicinal treatment in 17th-century Holland. Originally distilled to cure the likes of stomach complaints, gallstones and gout, the bitter taste was made more palatable for patients by adding the juniper botanical.
Legend has it that gin in this form then made its way to the UK as a result of British troops fighting in the Low Countries. The men were given a dram of ‘Dutch Courage’ during the Thirty Years’ War and when they returned to England they brought it back home with them. When King William III – better known as William of Orange, ruler of the Dutch Republic – occupied the English throne in 1689, he made a series of statutes that actively encouraged the distillation of English gin, with permitted unlicensed production.
Due to the war with France, a heavy duty was also imposed on imports, meaning the average person could not afford French wines or brandy. Duty on gin was set at just 2 pence a gallon, as opposed to 4 shillings and nine pence on strong beer. Thus, in over-crowded, slum-ridden Georgian London, gin was the opium of the people.
For a few pennies, London’s poor found entertainment and escapism from cold and hunger at the bottom of a glass of gin. In 1730, around 10 million gallons of gin were being distilled in the Capital each year and sold from 7,000 dram shops. It’s estimated that the average Londoner once drank a staggering 14 gallons of the stuff a year…
The gin obsession was blamed for misery, rising crime, madness, higher death rates and falling birth rates. Gin joints allowed women to drink alongside men for the first time and it is thought this led many women neglecting their children and turning to prostitution, hence gin becoming known as ‘Mother’s ruin”).
In one notorious case of 1734, a woman named Judith Dufour collected her two-year-old child from the workhouse, strangled him, dumped the body in a ditch and sold the child’s new set of clothes for 1s and 4d to buy gin…
The government was forced to take action. The 1736 Gin Act taxed retail sales at 20 shillings a gallon and made selling gin without a £50 annual licence strictly illegal. But over the next seven years, only two licences were taken out meaning reputable sellers were put out of business, and bootleggers thrived. Their gin, which went by colourful names such as ‘Ladies Delight’ and ‘Cuckold’s Comfort’, was more likely to have been flavoured with turpentine than juniper and was often poisonous, containing horrifying ingredients such as sulphuric acid.
In 1751, artist William Hogarth published his satirical print ‘Gin Lane’ (above) depicting disturbing scenes of gin-crazed London including a mother, covered in syphilitic sores, unwittingly dropping her baby while she takes a pinch of snuff. Aided by powerful propaganda such as this, the more successful 1751 Gin Act was passed. A change in the economy also helped turn the tide with a series of bad harvests forcing grain prices up, making landowners less dependent on the income from gin production. Food prices consequentially went up and wages went down, meaning the poor weren’t able to afford their drug of choice. By 1757, the Gin Craze was all but dead.
MOTHER’S DAY SHOO-IN
Today, however, gin is an altogether classier choice of spirit. Indeed, The Queen Mother was punctilious about her pre-lunch gin and Dubonnet. Gin is now the drink du jour for the educated drinker, finally getting the respect it deserves. People are moving away from the anonymous tastes of the Eighties and Nineties as distilleries experiment with complicated botanical flavours, secret recipes and appealing packaging.
Plus, there’s always a bit of a story with gin – which makes it a little more playful than it’s ‘spiritual’ counterparts. Below are our top gin recommendations for Mother’s Day gifts – because, let’s face it, after raising you, your mum certainly deserves a stiff drink...