The History of Gin
EMG Gin Show Notes
Simon Majumdar has often described his life as a “shallow search for the perfect Martini.” And he is not alone as Gin has become fashionable again and is now one of the most drunk spirits in the world.
But, the fascinating history of Gin has seen it travel from medieval Italy, through the Low Countries of the Netherlands and then to Great Britain, where it became the ruin of the lower classes.
In this episode, Simon will see how Gin became “Mother’s Ruin” and its road back to respectability.
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EAT MY GLOBE: THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT FOOD
Mother's Ruin: The History of Gin
SHOW INTRO MUSIC
Hi everybody and welcome to the latest episode of EAT MY GLOBE. A podcast about Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
And on today’s episode, we are going to talk about the key ingredients in one of my favorite alcoholic tipples. We’re going to talk about gin.
[Cocktail making sound]
Now, on more than one occasion, I have described my life as “a shallow search for the perfect Martini.” I really do love a Martini. The perfect chilled combination of vermouth and spirit with an appropriate garnish -- in my case always a twist, never an olive -- is always my first request at any restaurant or cocktail bar. And, while I’m always impressed with the skills of the modern mixologist, I truly believe that it is the success -- or failure -- in making this relatively simple cocktail that can decide for me if the bartender is a real mover or just a shaker.
You see what I did there?
I am not one of those who looks down my nose at those who prefer vodka in their Martini -- although by definition, that wouldn’t be a Martini. To me, the true Martini has to be made with one particular spirit: gin.
[Liquid pouring sound]
So, today’s episode of Eat My Globe is going to be about an ingredient without which my life would definitely be a lot less fun and probably a lot less blurry. Today, we are going to talk about the history of gin.
Now, a small warning. This episode may well be a little longer than normal because we are talking about one of my favorite subjects with a truly fascinating history that will take us from ancient China to the bathtubs of Brooklyn and many points in between.
So, if you want to go and make yourself a large Gin & Tonic to sip on before we start, I totally understand.
[Ice clunking sound]
And I’ll be waiting for you after the break.
As I so often do on the podcast, I think before we start looking at the history of an ingredient, we should probably define exactly what it is we’re talking about.
The Oxford Living Dictionaries define gin as, and I quote:
“A clear alcoholic spirit distilled from grain or malt and flavored with juniper berries.” End quote.
Well, that’s a great start, as it shows us before we start looking at the fascinating history of this spirit, we should begin briefly looking at both the origins of its two main components: alcoholic spirit and juniper.
It is believed by scientists that long before humans developed processes for distilling alcoholic spirit, they had developed the ability to digest alcohol in the dietary system. This happened almost 10 million years ago when an enzyme in early humans mutated. This enzyme, called ADH4, allowed them to break down the alcoholic content in fruit that had fallen from the trees and began to ferment as it rotted on the ground.
The pleasing impact of alcohol on the system meant that humans soon then began to develop systems to create fermentation deliberately, and we have records of wine being made from fermented rice and honey in China almost 9000 years ago and beer being made in Mesopotamia at around the same period. I also know from my own travels to the Caucuses that wine was being made in what are now the lands of Georgia and Armenia over 7,000 years ago.
There are many fascinating stories about the history of beer and wine, and it won’t surprise you to know that I shall be returning to both of them as the subject of future episodes. However, for the purposes of this episode of Eat My Globe, it’s time to turn from simple fermented drinks to the mystical art of distillation.
The term distillation comes from the Latin word “distillare,” which means to drip or to trickle down, and it refers to a process where liquid is separated from a non-volatile solid by evaporation and condensation. It’s a process for which we have references as far back as the 4th Century B.C.E. when amongst other references, we have Greek philosopher, Aristotle referring to it in his book Meteorology where he says, and I quote:
“Sea-water can be rendered potable by distillation: wine and other liquids can be submitted to the same process.” End quote.
However, it was not until the 3rd Century C.E. that we find reports of the first dedicated devices in the writings of Zosimos of Panopolis, a Hellenic Egyptian author who specialized in the subject of Gnosticism and alchemy and reported on the works of one of my favorite characters in the whole story of gin: “Maria or Mary the Jewess.”
Mary was considered one of the foremost names in the subject of alchemy, and although none of her writings survive, we do find references to them, and commentary on them in the writings of Zosimos. He ascribes to Mary the credit for the invention of a number of distillation devices, including the Tribikos, a three-legged pot that is very similar to the stills with which we are so familiar today. Oh, and here’s an interesting fact that you can use to bore people with at work or at a dinner party: one of Mary’s other inventions involves, and I quote, “a double vessel, the outer one of which is filled with water while the inner one contains the substance(s) which must be heated to a moderate degree.” End quote. This became known as “Mary’s Bath” or as you might know it now, a “Bain Marie.”
The notion of distillation further developed under 8th Century Arab alchemists, who developed stills of increasing sophistication both in their pursuit of turning base metal into gold, but also in an attempt to distill fine essences from flowers to create more decadent perfumes. The Arab alchemists included the leading figure from Bagdad, Abu Musa Jabir Ibin Hayan. He is said to have developed the alembic still, a container holding liquid with a small tube opening that was used as part of the distillation system. The word “Alembic” could be rooted in the Greek word, “Ambix,” which means cup, and the Arabic word, “al-Anbiq,” which means to still.
With the movement of the Arabs into Europe around the 7th century, the impact of Islamic science was vast and not only included much of their philosophy, legal structures and art, but also their science and work on the subject of alchemy. Among this was the use of their highly developed systems of distillation and its end product, which was now given the name Al Kohl.
Alcohol is derived from the Arabic word, “al-kohl.” Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, a student of Abu Musa Jabir Ibin Hayan, is thought to have called the distillation of ethanol as the “al’koh’l of wine.” So why didn’t he just call it “al-kohl” as opposed to the “al-kohl of wine”? You see, “Kohl” – K O H L – which is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as, I quote, “a black powder, usually antimony sulphide or lead sulphide, used as eye make-up especially in Eastern countries,” end quote, generally meant the same thing during the time of al-Razi. The antimony was purified or distilled to create the eye make up. The word, “al-kohl,” later evolved into including anything – beyond makeup – that had been pulverized, distilled or sublimated. And that is why al-Razi initially referred to his distillation of ethanol as the “al-Kohl of wine.” Now, of course, we just call it alcohol.
I think that brings us up as far as we need to go in terms of the origin of distillation. So now, what we need to do is to look at the only ingredient that needs to be added to the spirit for it to become gin, and that’s juniper.
Juniper, or Junipero Communis, to give it its Latin name, has been harvested around the globe for centuries, and both the oil from the leaves and the berries, which are in fact not really berries but the female seed cones from the juniper plant, have been valued for as long as they have been harvested. While the berries have proved to be popular in the food of some cultures -- particularly in Scandinavia and other European countries -- their main claim to fame is their reported medicinal properties. The Egyptians used the oil to anoint their dead, and to cure headaches in the living. Romans and Ancient Greeks used juniper to aid athletes, and the berries were considered beneficial for everything from cancer treatment to the reduction of flatulence. And, for added interest, the Juniper bush is mentioned in the Bible, often as a source of protection. In the Old Testament, the prophet Elisha hides under a Juniper bush while on the run from Queen Jezebel, a theme that is echoed in the New Testament when Joseph and Mary do the same when they are fleeing from King Herod with the infant Jesus.
There are records of juniper berries being used in spirits as far back as the 11th Century, where Italian monks near Salerno used a juniper based medication in a futile attempt to ward off the Black Death. And, many people cite this so called “aqua vitae” or “water of life” as it was called, as -- if not gin itself -- certainly a form of “proto-gin.”
However, gin’s origin is most usually associated with the Dutch. The word for gin is taken from the French word, genièvre, which is called genever in Dutch. The word dates back as far as the 13th Century in a natural history manuscript known as Der Naturen Bloeme by Jacob Van Maerlant te Damme, and the first recognizable recipe for the juniper/spirit drink is found in a 16th Century guide for distillers in the Low countries called, Constelyc Distileerboec.
Now, I have found no real records of how this drink began to move from being a medicinal one to one that was consumed just for pleasure. However, by the 16th Century, it was very clear that these small-scale medicinal products had grown to become a commercial enterprise as the pleasure of drinking distilled cordials and spirits had been discovered by a wider audience. In his excellent book, “The Book of Gin: A Spirited History,” Richard Barnett argues that this was due in part to the increase in availability of the printed word, which meant that handbooks on distillation had become much more easily available, and in part to the fact that people had also discovered that spirits did not just have to be distilled from grape wines, but could be made from any fruits, potatoes and grains that could be fermented. This provided an excellent way for farmers to preserve excess crops, and because the spirits were easier to transport and kept better than ales and wines, they also became more popular in sales in inns and taverns.
This popularity for distilled spirits grew around Europe, but particularly in what are known as the Low countries, now the countries of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. This led to the foundation of some very famous brands that still exist today, such as Bols, which was founded in 1664, and still makes a Genever today in the same style as it did over 400 years ago.
It is worth noting at this point, that the Dutch Genevers were very, very different in style to the gin we might consume today. They were produced predominantly from malt wines, a heavy distillation from rye and wheat, which was then blended with a distillation of juniper and had a mouthfeel that could be more related to whisky than to gin.
For the gin we are more familiar with now, we have to thank the next great protagonists in the gin story, the British. Gawd bless ‘em.
Distillation was already popular in Britain by the end of the 16th Century. Many manor houses had their own private stills to produce cordials for medicinal use and pleasure. In 1638, Sir Theodore de Mayerne, a physician to King Charles I, was granted a royal charter to regulate the sale of distilled spirits in the cities of London and Westminster that led to the creation of the Worshipful Company of Distillers, which is still going strong today.
As with other parts of Europe, the main initial use the British had for distilled spirits was medicinal, and in the 10th of October 1663 entry in the diaries of Samuel Pepys -- who always seemed very keen to talk about his morning movements -- he discusses, and I quote,
“Strong water made of juniper”
End quote, as a method of improving his constipation. Hmmmmm….
However, despite the British familiarity with “hot waters,” as distilled spirits were often called, the population was more in favor of drinking traditional fermented drinks such as beer and wines. Their love affair with gin really began with their connection with the previously mentioned Low Countries.
In 1585, the English began to support the Dutch in their War of Independence against the Spanish. One of the side effects of this warfare is that British mercenaries began to develop a taste for Genever, which they believed gave the Dutch an extra boost when they consumed it before battle. Some argue that this is the origin point for the still used phrase, “Dutch Courage,” which denotes drinking alcohol to build confidence. Although that phrase only really came into usage in the Victorian period, it still had its roots in this conflict.
The developing affection for the drink was compounded in 1689 when staunchly Protestant William of Orange was charged to become King of England, Scotland and Ireland as a replacement for the equally staunchly Catholic James II. As the now named William III, and with his wife Mary, he began to move away from the Catholic leaning policies of James, and imposed high taxation levels on drinks imported from Catholic countries – particularly, such as French Brandy – and he gave tax benefits to those who produced spirits from home grown products, particularly corn.
This change, regulated in the 1690 Distilling Act, led not only to Genever becoming a fashionable drink at court, but also an upsurge in the numbers of distillers. Not only had the reduction of taxes made gin a cheap drink, but the raising of taxes on beer in the 1694 Tonnage Act, which also founded the Bank of England, meant that it was now as cheap to drink, if not cheaper than the traditionally popular beer. Add to this the reduction in wines from France because of blockades on French ports imposed by the King, and it is easy to see how what was now known as gin became the drink of choice across England, but particularly in the capital, London.
One of the first references we have to the word “gin” comes from a 1705 political pamphlet called, The Fable of The Bees or Private Vices and Publik Benefits by Bernard Mandeville, who refers to, and I quote:
“the infamous liquor, the name of which, derived from Juniper berries in Dutch, is now, by frequent use and the Laconic spirit of the nation from a word of meddling length, shrunk into a monosyllable, intoxicating Gin, that charms the unactive, the desperate and the crazy of either sex….” End quote.
Where the production of spirits had once been controlled by the Worshipful Company of Distillers, what now happened after the passing of the Distilling Act was to all intents and purposes a free market and that led to the beginning of what is now referred to as the “Gin Craze.” Such was the love of gin, that by 1730 it had become an addiction and some 10 million gallons of gin were sold from nearly 7,000 gin shops or “dram shops,” as they were known across the capital, and nearly a quarter of the population of London were involved in some way with the production and sale of gin.
The type of gin on sale was a very different type from the dry style of gin we are familiar with today. It was often produced by rather unscrupulous distillers using low grade stills and the resulting liquid was often so poor that it had to be laced with sugar and other substances to make it drinkable.
There are even references to some distillers adding Sulphuric acid and turpentine to their concoctions to give them a kick.
Inevitably, the excessive consumption of very poor quality spirit -- the average consumption in the 1740s was about six gallons per person per year -- led to a very serious challenge to society, with gin being blamed not only for the detrimental effects on the health of the poor, but also on the increase in crime and idleness. The perceived lawlessness caused by gin led the government to impose a series of Gin Acts that were initially unsuccessful and actually led to creative work arounds. My favorite example was the creation of a device known as the “Puss and Mews,” which was created by the rather wonderful Captain Dudley Bradstreet. It was to all intents and purposes, the first vending machine. And he described his venture as follows, and I quote:
“The Mob being very noisy and clamorous for want of their beloved Liquor, which few or none at last dared to sell, it soon occurred to me to venture upon that Trade. I bought the Act, and read it over several times, and found no Authority by it to break open Doors, and that the Informer must know the Name of the Person who rented the House it was sold in. To evade this, I got an Acquaintance to take a House in Blue Anchor Alley in St. Luke’s Parish, who privately convey’d his Bargain to me; I then got it well secured, and laid out in a Bed and other Furniture five Pounds, in Provision and Drink that would keep about two Pounds, and purchased in Moorfields the Sign of a Cat, and had it nailed to a Street Window; I then cause a Leaden Pipe, the small End out about an Inch, to be placed under the Paw of the Cat; the End that was within had a Funnel to it.” End quote.
He then continued, and I quote:
“At Night I took Possession of my Den, and got up early next Morning to be ready for Custom; it was near three Hours before any body called, which made me almost despair of the Project; at last I heard the Chink of Money, and a comfortable Voice say, ‘Puss, give me two Pennyworth of Gin.’ I instantly put my Mouth to the Tube, and bid them receive it from the Pipe under her Paw, and then measured and poured it into the Funnel, from whence they soon received it. Before Nigh I took six Shillings, the next Day above thirty Shillings, and afterwards three or four Pounds a Day.” End quote.
The “machine” was so successful that it was copied across London.
By 1749, there were over 17,000 gin shops in London and pressure on the government to do something about the crisis, particularly when a Commons committee, known as the “Felonies Committee,” attributed much of the fault for the rise in crime and murders to the increase in gin production and sales.
The 1751 Gin Act was much more carefully thought through and by far more successful. It was supported by many notables, including painter and satirist, William Hogarth, whose famous images, “Gin Lane” and “Beer Street,” became the most noticeable symbols of the perils of drinking gin and the benefits of drinking good wholesome ales. It’s obviously hard to explain these famous drawings in a podcast but do take the time to go seek them out on the Internet and you will see the dreadful impact on society that gin was believed to have. You will also see, scrawled on the gin shop in “Gin Lane” the famous phrase, and I quote, “Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two pence, clean straw for nothing.” End quote.
A bad grain harvest in 1757 led to the introduction of a law in the same year to prohibit the production of gin, which was distilled from grain. This may finally have begun to bring the “gin craze” under control.
What it also managed to do was to reduce the number of distillers and to improve the quality of the gin now being produced. These larger distilling companies referred to themselves as “rectifiers” and they bought their neutral spirits from good sources, often from north of the border in Scotland.
The gin they sold was known as “Old Tom.” No one is quite sure where the name originated. However, it is often viewed as a halfway house between the Dutch Genever and the gin that we drink today. Despite the improvement in quality, the spirit was still laced with sugar to make it sweeter.
Although most of the tiny old “dram shops” had by now disappeared, the popularity for gin still remained and in the early 19th Century, it saw the rise of the so called “Gin Palaces.” While the original Gin Palaces themselves have long gone, later Victorian pubs that used them as inspiration still remain, having become pubs selling beer and spirits. They were gaudy, but often magnificent buildings offering the poorer elements of society a short escape from the filth of London streets. In his book, “Sketches by Boz,” Charles Dickens gives a vivid account of one describing it as, and I quote:
“All is light and brilliancy. The hum of many voices issues from that splendid gin-shop which forms the commencement of the two streets opposite; and the gay building with the fantastically ornamented parapet, the illuminated clock, the plate-glass windows surrounded by stucco rosettes, and its profusion of gas-lights in richly-gilt burners, is perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and dirt we have just left.” End quote.
In 1830, the patenting of a new form of still by Aeneas Coffey -- after whom it remains named today, the Coffey still -- took distillation to a whole new level. This type of still not only improved efficiency but also produced a much more subtle and elegant spirit that did not need to be laced with sugar before being sold. Rather, as well as juniper, the gin was introduced to other botanicals such as coriander, cassia and orris root during distillation to produce the “London Dry Gin” that is with us today. The term “dry gin” came about because it did not contain additional sugars and because it was flavored with these botanicals. For the record, London Dry Gin does not have to be produced in London, it merely bears that name because the majority of folks who produced that style of gin were based in London. This style of gin can be produced anywhere. The main rule under the European Union being that, and I quote, the “flavour is introduced exclusively through the re-distillation in traditional stills of ethyl alcohol in the presence of all the natural plant materials used,” end quote, or, in other words, botanicals cannot be added after distillation.
Now, we could follow gin’s history in Great Britain through to the modern day, through the creation of “American” Bars in London during the period of prohibition in the United States – 1920 to 1933 -- and through to today’s re-discovered love of gin and the launching of many new and excellent new “boutique” gins. However, as we only have a limited time left on the podcast, let me end this British segment with a short history of arguably the most famous gin drink of all: the Gin & Tonic.
Now, the Gin & Tonic might be one of the simplest drinks to prepare. It is, after all made up of only four ingredients: Gin, Tonic Water, Ice and Garnish -- in my case a lemon peel. However, its history is far more interesting than its simplicity would suggest.
After years of being managed and mismanaged by The East India Company, India finally fell under the direct British Crown rule in 1858 following a sizeable mutiny. This led to a rapid increase of the number of British to reside in India, both civilian and military. And, gin -- still being the drink of choice and now suitable for gentlemen -- came with them.
One of the problems that was encountered by the new arrivals was the prevalence of malaria. Now, while I know from the number of pills I have to take when I travel to far flung climes in the 21st Century that malaria is still a serious issue, in the 19th Century, a bout of malaria was almost certainly fatal for Europeans.
There was one prescription to help treat and prevent malaria and that was the consumption of Quinine. Quinine was a medication that had been encountered by the Spanish travelers to the Peruvian Andes in the 17th Century. It was extracted from the bark of the Chinchoa tree and was believed by the Incas to treat the arrival of chills.
In 1817, two French scientists, Pelletier and Cavetou, found a way of extracting the key medicinal element, Quinine, from the bark of the tree and began setting up manufacturing Quinine. The British also began to produce Quinine under the auspices of the Royal Botanic Gardens.
The one problem with Quinine, however, was that it was extraordinarily bitter, and in India, the way they chose to counter this was by mixing the drug with soda water and sugar to create what we now know as “Indian Tonic Water” and it was mixed with gin as part of the daily intake of the British in India. And that, my friends, is how the Gin & Tonic came to be.
So, now we have travelled with gin to Britain and India, let’s have a look at the other great nation in the story of my favorite spirit. Let’s head to the United States of America.
The history of gin in the United States is all about the cocktail.
While the early English colonists preferred drinking beer, fermented peach juice, hard apple cider and rum, their drinking habits later included drinking mixed drinks. The most common clear spirit at the time would have been gin, which, as one of the great cocktail historians, David Wondrich says in his book “Imbibe!,” would, up to the 1890s, have been more likely to be the sweeter “Old Tom” type of gin. The unsweetened “London Dry” style did not become popular until after the 1890s.
Before the 1830s, the majority of these drinks would have been served hot, similar to the mixed drinks served in the colder climate of Great Britain. However, the warmer temperatures of the United States soon made people look for something a little more refreshing to drink, a desire which was made easier to achieve thanks to the availability of large waterways across North America, and the ability of people to harvest ice from them when they became frozen.
One of the greatest characters to emerge from this industry was Frederic “The Ice King” Tudor, who, at the age of 22, came up with the idea of harvesting ice from the frozen ponds of New England to be sold to countries of a hot climate. He did this by wrapping the huge blocks of ice that had been cut from the ponds in hay and then shipping them in fast brig ships that he purchased for the purpose.
The first attempts to do this were, quite frankly, somewhat of a disaster, primarily because whatever ice survived the often long journey had no way of surviving in destinations that had no ice houses. Despite the loses he incurred in these first efforts, Tudor persevered, and the arrival of clear ice from North America soon became something of a sensation when it arrived in tropical climes. There are records of ice being sold by Tudor’s companies in India, Cuba, China, Australia and Japan.
Frederic Tudor died in 1864 at the age of 80 as a tycoon of considerable wealth. The impact of the availability of his ice around the world is well documented. However, it should be remembered that it was just as impactful on the home front as well. As the methods of ice harvesting became more efficient, the cost came down and ice became more available to the working person. That fueled an interest in iced refreshments such as ice cream. It also allowed for a more efficient method for cooling the German lager styles of beers that were popular in North America and, for our investigations, it produced a fondness for alcoholic iced mixed drinks.
In 1862, just two years before the death of Tudor, the first guide to mixing drinks was published in the United States. “How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion” was authored by the larger than life Jerry Thomas, a man who is still considered by many to be, I quote, the “Father of American Mixology.” He was also known as The Professor and known for his flamboyant style – he sometimes used to make drinks with rats perched on his shoulders and he used to make drinks where he created an arch of flame as he mixed cocktails from one glass to another -- and his “How to Mix Drinks” guide really served to define the bartending of the period and included recipes for cocktails as well as a guide on how to make cordials and syrups.
If you want to read more about this remarkable man, I definitely suggest you buy a copy of Dave Wondrich’s terrific book “Imbibe!,” which charts Thomas’s life from his birth in 1830 to his death which was from, and I quote, ”Vascular Disease of the Heart,” end quote, as Wondrich found on The Professor’s death certificate -- it was a death that was significant enough to garner major obituary coverage in national newspapers.
“Imbibe!” also includes an investigation into The Professor’s often infuriatingly vague recipes, and mentions the “twist” as being used as a garnish for drinks -- information for which I shall be forever grateful.
As I mentioned earlier, Wondrich suggests that before the late 1800s, cocktail making primarily used heavier Genever either imported from the Dutch or made in a similar style domestically in the United States. It was at this time that we also get the first mention of the precursor of my favorite drink, the Martini: a drink known as, “The Martinez.” This was a sweeter drink than the Martini I know and love and to all intents and purposes was the same drink as a Manhattan using gin to replace the whiskey, consisting of the main spirit with the same amount of sweet and dry vermouth and a dash of bitters.
The “Dry” Martini as we know it today became popular in the late 1800s as tastes moved towards a lighter style of cocktail making and Dry Vermouth began to be imported in quantity to be used as a mixing agent in cocktails. Vermouth was not a great pairing with the old style “Holland” gin and was far more suited to be mixed with the lighter London Dry Gin and with Old Tom. It’s hard to point to a definitive recipe for the Dry Martini. However, many cocktail guides published toward the turn of the 20th century contained recipes that would be familiar to today’s drinkers with perhaps the closest being that of the Marguerite, a cocktail recipe that appeared in the 1896 book of Stuart Thomas, called, “Stuart’s Fancy Drinks and How to Mix Them.” The recipe, which consisted of a 2 to 1 ratio of Plymouth Gin and French Vermouth with a dash of orange bitters, is almost identical to many of the modern styles of martinis.
Ironically, one of the things that provided the biggest challenge to all alcoholic consumption in the United States, also served to help support this preference for lighter cocktail making once legal drinking had been restored. I am, of course, talking about Prohibition, or as it should also be known as the “National Prohibition Act” or the “Volstead Act,” which Congress passed to enforce the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.
Now, I am planning to work on a whole episode about Prohibition, but I do think it’s worth touching on it here because of its importance on the history of gin.
From the early part of the 19th Century, the Temperance Movement and the Anti Saloon League had pressed not just for moderation in drinking but for the absolute banning of all sales of alcoholic drinks. These organizations were primarily founded by women, many of whom had suffered after the alcoholic abuses of their male partners or fathers and blamed just about every problem in society on the evils of the demon drink, much like their predecessors did in England in the early 18th Century.
They had limited success to begin with but gradually began to gain traction at both state and national level. Before the federal act was passed, 33 states had also passed restrictive laws and in 1919 federal laws were enacted that restricted the sale, manufacture and transport of alcoholic liquids.
It would be fair to argue that the laws were not enforced with any great success. Indeed, they caused more problems than they solved, particularly as they were the big bang point for organized crime that has continued to blight America ever since. The first problem was the continued production of alcohol abroad in nearby countries such as the Bahamas and Cuba that was then smuggled into the United States from both Canada and Mexico. This was known as “bootlegging,” a term that originated in the 1880s in the Midwest when liquor bottles were smuggled by being concealed in the tops of high boots. Bootlegging later became a huge industry controlled by organized crime and the imported spirit was sold at speakeasy bars or via pharmacies as “Medical” alcohol.
There was also a domestic industry in producing distilled spirits in the United States and, for our story, this meant the creation of “Bathtub Gin.” The term referred to adding elements, including, of course, juniper, to existing grain spirit to give it flavor. The jars used for this were way too big to fit in the sink so they were often kept in the bath tub. They were made in small amounts by families and, when ready, were collected by the henchmen of organized crime to distribute to speakeasies.
Much like the gin made in the 18th Century, Bathtub Gin had to be drunk with caution. Often the gin had been tainted with wood alcohol -- an additive approved by the government in an attempt to stop anyone from drinking it. However, this did not deter the gangsters, who could make immense profits from the illegal sales -- they bought each gallon for 75 cents from the families and sold it on for $6 – so they continued to sell the gin. It’s believed that during the period of Prohibition over 50,000 people lost their lives because of alcohol poisoning.
One other aspect of Prohibition that is also relevant to our story is that during the period of the ban, many American cocktail makers moved abroad to continue their trade. There, they had a great influence on the cocktail scenes in cities such as Paris and London -- evidenced by the number of “American” Bars that were opened – some of which still exist, including one of the world’s most celebrated bars: The Savoy in London.
Prohibition finally ended in 1933 after Franklin D. Roosevelt ran on a platform of repeal. Although it should be noted that it was not until as late as 1966 that every state had finally eradicated all related laws from their books.
Gin’s fortunes around the world ebbed and flowed in the decades since the end of Prohibition. And, I have seen references from the period between 1950 to 1990 being referred to as, “The Dark Ages,” where drinks were of inferior quality or built from spirits that were not gin-centric: *ahem* vodka *ahem.*
This all began to change again in the 1990s; a new wave of cocktail makers began to look back to the classics and reintroduce spirits, like gin, to a young audience in the form of classic cocktails such as the Gimlet, the Negroni, the Ramos Gin Fizz and, of course the Dry Martini.
With the increased love for gin came the increased production of gin and the arrival on the scene of low volume production boutique gins that now fill the space behind any self-respecting bar. These could be London Dry, heavier and filled with Juniper. Spicier gins, gins laden with fruity botanicals or those that give off a herby aroma.
Gin is back and with a bang and, as of 2013, rates only behind Vodka, Rum and Scotch as the most consumed spirit in the world. The British bought 47 million bottles of gin in 2017. I hate to think how many of those I’m responsible for. And according to the company called Statista, the Spanish were the world’s top consumers of gin in 2017, beating the British, the French and the Germans, particularly, they like to drink it in the form of a gin and tonic.
That’s not bad for a drink whose story has taken us from ancient China, through Hellenic Egypt, Medieval Rome, the Middle East, the Low Countries of the 16th Century, Regency Britain, Raj India and 19th Century United States.
Well, which reminds me, it has been about 24 hours since I last had a drop of gin, so … uhh… I am off to make a Martini.
See you next time.
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So thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, and we will speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions.”
And is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History and its Public History Initiative Director, Karen Wilson, PhD. We would also like to thank Sybil Villanueva both for her help with the research and in the preparations of the transcripts.
Published: October 15, 2018
Last Updated: October 1, 2020
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.