Ten biggest moments in gin historyBy Amy Hopkins
The storied history of gin has been shaped by many political, legal and cultural shifts such as the Prohibition Act to the global craft distilling boom.
Peppered with highs and lows, the tale of gin is a fascinating one, fraught with moral degeneracy and social upheaval. Now seen as supreme in the spirits world, gin is one of the most successful tales of triumph in the spirits industry.
The spirit first became popular in the western world when Dutch king William of Orange entered the British monarchy, bringing with him a love of genever, later known as gin.
Since then, the spirit has been vilified as leading to “mother’s ruin” in the 18th century Gin Craze, to lauded as leading the way in the cocktail renaissance and craft distilling movement.
Ever wondered how gin reached its prominent position in the spirits industry? Then click through the following pages to discover the 10 biggest moments in the spirit’s history.
1689: Genever comes to UK
When Dutch prince William of Orange joined the British monarchy as part of what has become know as the “Glorious Revolution”, he brought with it a new and huge demand for all things Netherland-based – including genever and, inevitably, gin.
In support of their new king, the British public relished this new-found spirit and adopted it as their own, with quantities of gin consumed eventually overtaking that of beer.
Early 1700s: Gin Craze
Hogarth’s infamous artwork ‘Gin Lane’ epitomises the debauchery in 18th Britain which was seen to be a result of the excessive consumption of gin.
This excess was a result of the allowance of unlicensed gin production at a time when the government imposed heavy excise duty on all imported spirits. A lack of distilling regulation and polluted water meant that the nation consumed vast quantities of high abv botanical spirits.
Due to its low price, gin was particularly popular among the poor and was viewed as a catalyst for moral descent. Hogarth’s painting embodies this attitude, depicting suicides, fights, death and a drunken mother dropping her baby. The spirit therefore gained an unfavourable reputation and even became known as “mother’s ruin”.
1736 and 1751: The Gin Acts
In 1736, two pieces of legislation changed to future of gin for centuries to come – the Gin Acts of 1736 and 1751.
In an attempt to restore moral order and stem the flow of gin, the British government implemented a law which imposed a tax on gin and required all sellers to take out a £50 annual license, making unlicensed production of gin illegal. However, this was largely disregarded and lead to a steep rise in illicit production and poising.
As such, in 1751 the licensing fee was lowered and sellers were required to use premises rented for at least £10 a year. This, in conjunction with the rising cost of grain lowered excessive gin consumption, and gave in an unshakeably tarnished image for about the next 100 years.
1830: Invention of the column still
In 1830 Irish inventor and distiller Aeneas Coffey designed the column still, otherwise known as the continuous still, patent still or Coffey still – it is essentially a still with two columns.
The distillation process in column stills is unique as it takes place continuously without requiring two separate distillations.
It can be used in the product of grain spirits such as gin. The neutral alcohol for the gin is distilled in one column and then re-distilled in the other column holding a basket of botanicals.
1861: Bottling Act
Introduced by William Gladstone in 1861, the Bottling Act required gin to be sold by the bottle as opposed to by the cask, though this was often disregarded by sellers.
This act inevitably changed the nature, taste and character of gin as notes imparted by the barrel would be so prevalent as earlier in the century. We now see a return to the use of barrels in gin production and experimentation with the rise of barrel-aged expressions.
Late 1800s: Victorian gin palaces
While gin palaces existed in the early 1800s following the implementation of the 1751 Gin Act, they became synonymous with Victorian London drinking dens.
Dining out became more fashionable and as disposable income increased due to the industrial revolution, gin palaces became a fashionable hang-out for Victorian urbanites.
1920: Prohibition declared
In 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment was implemented in the US, outlawing the production, sale and consumption of alcohol.
However, the war was widely flouted and illicit production was rife. In particular, gin was increasingly made at home or in secret locations and became known as “bathtub gin”.
The prevalence of speakeasies, were glamorous flapper-wearing party-goers went for a good time, also meant that illicit gin was enjoyed in an array of now iconic cocktails. Bartenders experimented with cocktails in order to mask the unpleasant taste of some illicitly made spirits.
1950s & 1960s: Cocktail culture revived
In the 1950s and 1960s there was a massive swell in the enjoyment of cocktails, which has declined substantially during World War Two.
While the 50s saw suburban American give rise to the tiki cocktail trend, the swinging 60s saw a greater appreciation of gin-cocktails, particularly the Martini which was immortalised at the choice drink of 60s fictional icon James Bond.
2000s: Mad Men effect
In a somewhat cyclical shift, the launch of this already iconic US TV show was a catalyst for the global resurgence in popularity of ‘retro’ or ‘vintage’ cocktail, spurring what has become known as the second “Gin Craze”.
These mixes are an immovable presence in the glamorous lives of the show’s characters, prompting fans to order drinks such as the Martini and Gimlet for themselves.
Today: Craft distilling boom
The most recent big moment in the history of gin is the boom of the craft distilling movement, the the US and UK leading the way.
As consumers experience something of capitalist fatigue, the glitz and glamour embodied by the spirits industry has been swapped for a more authentic image with shoppers captivated by homespun brands.
In particular, the production of craft gin has reached its pinnacle as independent distillers use the spirit of finance their more lengthy whisky operations.