A fantastical history of gin

Have you ever heard of the term dutch courage? Well a little birdy suggests it comes from gin.

Gin, or genever in its original form, was being used for medicinal purposes in 17th century Holland. Being a rather nasty tasting alcohol, it was flavoured by a small berry called Juniper (all important to classify a drink as gin). Troops fighting in the war 30 years war were sipping it from small bottles on their belts and sozzled, were fearlessly running into battle, hence the term ‘dutch courage’ was born. Our troops picked up on this and before long were bringing it home, where it was being distilled and sold in chemists shops. For a time it was only the ‘worshipful company of distillers’ that had the right to distill in the 21 miles surrounding London.

This was to change with the return of William lll from Holland in 1698. He dropped the tax on gin and deregulated it. If a public notice was put up and left for 10 days, anyone could produce gin from home grown corn. This led to one very drunk London! 1 in 4 households were producing very low quality gin in their bathtubs and 7000 spirit shops sprung up. With gin being a safer alternative for the poor than disease ridden water, it was thought that the average adult would consume 65 litres of gin a year. This led to to the decline of society and dark times for morality. There lot’s of truly terrible stories from this era.

Thousands were dying from gin consumption and something had to be done. The government tried introducing the Gin Act on 29th September 1736 with a £50 license fee. People were up in arms and riots quickly broke out of London. Over 11 million gallons were still being produced and only 2 licenses had been sold. This prohibition led to the creation of ‘old tom’ gin. This gin, with deep, sweet tasting liquorice was sold illegally wherever a black cat was on display. Alternatively, your drink could be procured by putting a penny into the cat, so a shot would come out of the paw. Arguably this is one of the first vending machines and was testament to the hold gin had over the masses.

The act was recalled in 1742 and a new policy was drawn up with influences from the distillers, that formed a similar model to what we work to now. Production became more respectable and higher quality gins were being produced by emerging manufacturers such as Gordons and Tanqueray. The invention of the column still in the 1830s also led to the creation of London Dry Gin, one of the highest qualities of gin production.

Beer shops and gin shops were the original public houses, somewhere you could feel as comfortable as home whilst enjoying a drink. The decor relied on the clientele and with gin’s biggest supporter’s being the lower classes, most of these were slums. However, with the increase in quality of spirit, gin palaces began popping up to serve the higher society and there were over 5000 of these by the 1850s. Attitudes were changing though and with the temperance movement mid 1830s over time things became a little more balanced.

There were no new distilleries in London from 1820-2009. The founders of Sipsmiths had a desperate passion to make gin and embarked on a 2 year process to change the law. They opened the new distillery on 14th May and with this the opportunity for for small batch production for artisan distillers. With adventurous mixes of botanicals and a watchful eye over quality we are currently in the throws of a revolution and I, for one, am very happy to be here in this part of it’s rich history.

I’m sure it goes without saying, there is so much more to the story than this. I’ll be sure to be posting snippets of history here and there to add to this rather colourful tapestry.

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