The Rise and Fall of Gin

Primitive forms of gin were the scourge of London some 400 years ago. But the white spirit was reborn and became one of the world's most beloved libations.

Gin is transparent by design and cool by reputation. It is the core ingredient of the classic dry martini. The grain-based distillate is flavored with herbs, fruits and spices, and is acknowledged to be the most sophisticated of the world's four white spirits. Where vodka, gin's bland cousin, is featureless, gin has recognizable, if nuanced, characteristics. Tequila, Mexico's native, agave-based spirit, roars, but gin purrs. And while sugar cane-based rum is sweet, often plump enough to rival brandy, gin is svelte and keen as a razor's edge. To put it in musical terms, gin is Sade while its three peers are the Dixie Chicks.

Gin became an international libation with the expansion of the British Empire in the first half of the 19th century. In India, Southeast Asia and other tropical colonies, the British employed gin to ward off tropical diseases by mixing it with quinine, thereby giving birth to the classic minimalist cocktail, the gin and tonic. Especially in busy ports like Plymouth, England, the British Royal Navy used gin as a sailor's lubricant and reward. British naval officers poured it liberally when entertaining dignitaries in newly opened foreign ports. Though doubtless the Dutch invented gin, the British polished it for the world marketplace with unequaled fervor and commercial command. Today, the fact that gin accounts for nine out of every 100 bottles of distilled spirits sold around the world is directly attributable to the efforts of the British.

Yet gin's history is not all fuzzy, romantic images of the raj. The spirit's nearly two centuries of stardom were preceded by a grim hundred years during which it was—often rightfully—scorned. Why this purest of distilled spirits was held in such contempt is a fascinating study in social history.

"Drunk for a penny..."
London's Gin Craze, as it was called, can be credited to many sources: a new monarch, his sycophants in Parliament, greedy landowners and London's enterprising distillers guilds as well as to gin's purported health benefits (an idea that, considering the sanitation standards of the time, seems sensible today).

Although it wasn't any inherent medicinal quality that made it popular in 18th-century London, the spirit we know today was conceived with one in mind by Sylvius of Leyden, in late-16th century Holland. Genever, as it is still called in Holland, was a medicinal concoction comprised of neutral grain spirits and the essence of juniper berries and other botanicals. Genever is thought to be taken from the French term, genièvre, for juniper, whose powers to aid digestion had been known for at least a century prior to gin's actual creation. While Sylvius didn't distill genever for commercial purposes, other Hollanders, most notably Lucas Bols, seized the opportunity and began producing gin for sale and export by the 1580s. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch were prominent traders of goods, spices and spirits around the world, and gin's fame spread to every port where Dutch ships docked—including England.

Gin received a royal push into English culture through Parliamentary action in 1688, when Holland's William of Orange replaced the disliked and deposed James II on England's throne. With "King Billy's" ascension, all things Protestant and Dutch were suddenly fashionable, while anything French and Catholic was deemed obsolete. Gin quickly unseated French wines and brandies on the island nation, yet it was derisively referred to as "Parliamentary brandy." The Distilling Act of 1690, which effectively banned French imports by means of excessive taxation, was reportedly rammed through Parliament by influential land barons, cronies of the new king, who wanted to sell their grain crops to distillers. As a result, the law encouraged England's native distilling industry, centered in and around London, to step up production of grain-based spirits for the good of the nation's economy.

It wasn't long before gin palaces and dram shops—as Londoners called them—popped up all over Great Britain's capital city in the early 18th century. The tawdry neighborhood shops peddled poorly made neutral grain spirits to anyone willing to part with a couple of pennies. In the overcrowded city of half a million mostly impoverished and ill-educated souls, no less than 7,000 gin palaces flourished in the 1720s and 1730s. By some estimates, there were dram shops in one of every four buildings in London. Records from that time show that for every citizen, 14 gallons of gin were legally produced in the city. Add to that statistic all the illicit gin distilled in countless back-alley stills and the volume of gin produced becomes a tidal wave, and inebriation ran as rampantly through London's cobblestone streets as vermin.

Another reason for its popularity was gin's reputation for being a healthful drink, which was probably true, considering the risks associated with other beverages. Milk and municipal water were notoriously suspect due to the lack of hygiene at the time, and cheap gin became the daily tipple of the city's struggling working-class majority. Even though much of the day's gin was virtual rot-gut, it was touted as being more healthful by distillers because it was "boiled," meaning distilled. To mask the off-flavors and impurities of the period's gins (which were made from the fermented mashes of wheat or corn and then distilled once in crude pot stills), dram shop owners routinely added sugar, honey, juniper and any other flavorings they could lay their hands on.

Frankly, calling these vile spirits gin is a disservice to not only what started out as juniper-flavored genever in 16th-century Holland, but to contemporary gin as well. Yet to the masses, gin was the mildly sweet, aromatic elixir that temporarily dissolved the tedious miseries of everyday urban existence. Signs in the windows of gin palaces tellingly read, "Drunk for a penny, Dead drunk for two, Clean straw for nothing." The straw was employed when patrons ignominiously passed out from overconsumption. Lots of straw was required in 18th-century London.

Within a single generation, London became an intoxicated city and a haven to a crippled society whose working class was often rendered useless because it was sodden with neutral grain spirits. As usual, society's most defenseless members, its children, were the most adversely affected. From 1720 to 1750, London's death rate regularly outpaced its birth rate due primarily to alcohol poisoning, accidents caused by dipsomania and drinking-induced impotency. Appallingly, due to a combination of fetal alcohol syndrome, parental abandonment and general poor health, three-quarters of all the children baptized between 1730 and 1749 perished before their fifth birthday.

By 1735, general behavior on all socioeconomic levels turned so despicable and tragic in greater London that the outrage of enough people in power evolved into the outcries in Parliament that spurred the country to action.

Starting with rather ineffective legislation in 1736 (because it was too prohibitive and, as a result, quickly backfired) and ending with vastly improved and judicious legislation in both 1743 (the Gin Act) and 1751 (the Tippling Act), London's gin plague gradually abated. The Gin Act, designed to reduce the number of mom and pop gin palaces, regulated who could sell gin. The Tippling Act raised the taxes on gin production to the point where only serious distillers with ample funding could continue making it, thereby eliminating many back-alley distilleries.

These laws had the desired effect and the gin industry experienced a transformation. The years between 1760 and 1870 saw the establishment of England's first generation of high-quality gin producers. These distillers would collectively usher in the modern era of gin production that continues today.

Going beyond London Dry Gin
Contemporary gin is typically categorized as London Dry, genever, or simply gin. London Dry is a style of dry gin subtly influenced by juniper and other botanical flavorings, rather than an official designation of gin produced in Britain. It was made popular by British distillers from 1760 through the entire 19th century. Genevers are Holland's customarily thicker, more potent and often piquantly flavored gins.

The stylistic line in the sand was drawn in the 19th century to differentiate between the varying types of older, huskier, slightly tainted gins and the more nimble, clear, stone-dry gin varieties. It is not an overstatement to claim that the moniker "London Dry Gin" became, in effect, a label of quality. In 2002, however, there is but a single London Dry Gin that's still created within London's boundaries. That gin is Beefeater, a bona fide benchmark.

After the debacle of the early 18th century, gin's rejuvenation can be traced to several British distillers who raised the standards of production to the level that has propelled gin forward now for more than two centuries. Leading the charge were Sir Robert Burnett (Burnett's White Satin Gin), the Coates family (Plymouth Gin), James Burroughs (Beefeater London Distilled Dry Gin), Walter and Alfred Gilbey (Gilbey's London Dry Gin), Alexander Gordon (Gordon's London Dry Gin), Charles Tanqueray (Tanqueray Special Dry Distilled English Gin), Sir Felix Booth (Booth's Finest Dry Gin) and Gilbert and John Greenall (Greenall's Original London Dry Gin). Most of these brands continue to flourish.

Black Friars Distillery the traditional home of Plymouth Gin

In the U.S., the British seaport of Plymouth is well known as the launching point for the voyage of the Pilgrims, led by Miles Standish, in 1620. In the United Kingdom, however, Plymouth is famed both as a centuries-old seaport for the British Royal Navy and as the home of one of England's most revered spirits, Plymouth Gin. The distillery is named after the Dominican Order of Black Friars who erected a monastery on the site in 1431.

Ownership of the property ended up in the hands of the Coates family in the late 1700s. By 1793 the family transformed the monastery into a distillery, producing the first batches of Plymouth Gin. Today, Plymouth Gin, a far cry from London Dry Gin, is a unique style and is safeguarded by an official PDO, or Protected Designation of Origin. This demarcation is similar to the French appellation d'origine controlée concept. Plymouth's PDO stipulates that the Plymouth Gin can only be produced "within the ancient city walls of Plymouth," according to Managing Director Nick Braknall.

What makes Plymouth Gin different from typical London Dry Gins, according to Master Distiller Sean Harrison, is that "London Dry Gins focus more on the juniper berry component and often the citrus elements, as well. Consequently, they tend to be light and
fruity. Plymouth Gin is earthier and softer.

It's earthier due to the subtle dominance of angelica root from Belgium and orris root from Italy, and it's softer because our water travels through peat and granite before it reaches the distillery.... Peat and granite are two of the best water softeners known to man."

After 209 years, Plymouth Gin, made from English wheat, is still distilled to its original strength of 82.4 proof, or 41.2 percent alcohol by volume, at the same seaside location. The copper pot still that's been used for over 150 years boils the fermented wheat mash, creating the spirit. Little wonder that Plymouth Gin is the number-two gin in the U.K. market and is growing by leaps and bounds in the U.S.
The Black Friars must have been privy to something special about that site.

—F. Paul Pacult

These distillers successfully remade gin in three fundamental areas. First, fermentation and distillation were carried out in more hygienic environments. Second, heightened attention to detail was established in the selection of fresh botanical flavorings and how these were mixed with the neutral grain spirit. Third, through the employment of the newest methods of distillation (in particular, continuous distillation in Coffey stills and better copper pot stills), gin became purer.

These developments combined to raise gin's profile in the eyes of consumers. Gin changed from the risky, backstreet hooch of the 18th century into the refined, modern, pristine liquid refreshment that improved the late afternoons and early evenings of pashas, admirals, monarchs, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers alike.

Now, it's August. It's humid. It's hot. How about a gin and tonic?

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