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What has made good men give up profitable jobs in the City, had a major impact on cocktails, bar names, pub styles and had a role to play in the exponential growth of tonic water sales in the past few years?

.... I know, I really gave it away mentioning tonic but honestly, it isn’t hard to see the impact of gin on life, bars and many a liver. From Gin Palaces, new distilleries, the revival of old favourite cocktails and the excuse to open up underground speakeasies, gin has made a come back like no other drink in history.

Behind every bar, the spare glasses and dusty old bottles of indeterminate liquids have been spirited away and in their place a whole series of gins have appeared. It seems that you are not a gin bar unless you have 300 bottles of the stuff in all colours, shapes and sizes. So what has put the fizz back into our gin and given it a little pick me up tonic? Well, quite simply it was a change of law. Simples! It really was that simple but the law that was changed was more than 200 years old, so quite a lot of hard work and dedication was required, so really not that simples. Who changed the law and allowed this delicious elixir to bloom and grow into the multi million pound industry it is today? I will come back to that, meanwhile, I will take you back in time to explain just why we had acts restricting the manufacture and sale of gin in the first place.

The English came across the drink that soon would become our national tipple on the battlefields of Europe. We fought alongside the Dutch in the Thirty Years War (1618-48), a religious crusade that brought Northern European Protestant nations together in a common cause to fight against the massive Catholic forces of predominantly France and The Hapsburg Monarchy. The Dutch had created a distilled drink called Genever and were giving this to their armed forces to help them out on to the battlefield and to give them a false sense of bravado – something we still refer to today as ‘Dutch Courage’. We fought, we sipped and we fell in love with this new distilled drink and wanted the recipe but as it was considered so important in warfare, the Dutch refused to give us their recipe.

The following years in London were crazy as we tried to perfect the science of distillation with little or no knowledge/understanding. We managed to create an awful lot of poison which was consumed in great quantities by the poorest of Londoners. It was cheap as chips. You would think that someone would discourage this new strong drink as we watched women and children swap their 2% small beer for 40% Genever/Gin. Alas no. It was even encouraged by the Crown and hailed as a new style of drink to rival brandies coming from France and hopefully replacing our need for importing. Fast forward to the mid 18th century and at last the error of alcoholism was recognized and much was done to try and curtail its impact. The harder the government tried, the more Londoners clung on to their gin bottles and the more they consumed. Eight acts were passed from 1729 to 1751. Seven of them seemed to have little positive impact until 1751.

The Gin Act of 1751 was introduced to stop the overconsumption of Mothers’ Ruin (as gin was quaintly called). It tackled the licensing of distilleries and dram shops and also the amount of gin being made by small, back street stills that were dotted all over London making gin from anything they could lay their hands on. The Act banned any gin still that made less than 1,800 litres of gin per year. The big boys continued to make gin in quite a large way. Small and medium-sized gin distilleries were hit hard and before they really had time to react, a series of bad harvests led to a massive increase in the price of grain, in particular, corn, so much as to make gin too expensive for the working class market who were buying it and relying on it.

Nowadays we see small manufacturers as charming and artisanal whereas these petite purveyors of hard liquor were knocking out poisons that were knocking out most of the population of London. 1751 and the bad harvests did see the consumption of gin fall away and people go back to beer clutching a sore head.

Once gin was in the hands of the big distillers many opened after this act creating a far better product that could be made in the back yards where juniper would often be swapped for turpentine and the water often came from dirty stagnant ditches. Yes, the big distillers created the gin that we know and love today and helped move it away from its shadowy history to being the main ingredient in many a cocktail.

Up until 2009, gin was only able to be made by the big distilleries whose names have become synonymous with the spirit – Gordons, Booths, Nicholsons, Greenalls etc. One small company decided that it would be great to give gin a bit of a small batch makeover as had been seen in the USA’s craft beer industry. So, they tried to get a license to make the small amount of gin in their tiny Hammersmith garage. The law did not recognize this as artisanal and therefore a craft product but as an illicit hooch being made as if recreating Hogarth’s gin lane. This tiny distillery had hit a brick wall but like David against Goliath, they decided to fight and after much lobbying and expense, it was Sipsmith who changed the law and open the tiny floodgates for gin production to be made on as small a scale as you like. This doorway was soon noticed by others and many started following suit even the big distilleries have jumped on this craft gin craze by bringing back some of the old styles of gin including Old Tom but also noticing a taste for a flavoured gin. I think back to the dram barrows of the early 1700s and how they would react to over 2,000 different gins being available today (have you seen the delicious East London Liquor Company?). The one thing I will say is that gin, in its variety of iterations and styles, is here to stay for a long while yet. I have even heard there are some people out there are not taking it with tonic? Just don’t tell the good people of Fevertree!

Written by Emma Parker of Coutours, partner with The Indytute. Hear more about the wonderful history of gin on her History of London in Four Drinks tour.


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