History Of Gin: Medicinal Tonic to Modern Elixir


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With its unmistakable aroma of crisp juniper, and much like Dr Who’s TARDIS, the history of gin has weaved its way from ancient medicinal tonic to the heart of modern mixology. 

This spirit, often dubbed the ‘drink of the British Empire’, has a history as rich and varied as its botanical infusions.

From medicinal tonic to notorious elixir during London’s ‘Gin Craze’ and its subsequent renaissance in the 21st century, gin’s tale is one of transformation, innovation, and resilience.

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History Of Gin

I’m taking you on a spirited journey of the history of gin, tracing the footsteps of this beloved tipple through the annals of time.

A Medicinal Beginning

Old medicinal bottles

I’ve found that gin’s early origins are a little muddled, much like a good cocktail. Some say it began in Italy in the 11th century, while others argue it was the Dutch in the 17th century.

For the sake of this journey, let’s start in Holland where in the 1600s, the Dutch were distilling malt wine. They began adding juniper berries to mask the harsh taste, with this tipple evolving into a spirit called genever.

The juniper berry, gin’s primary ingredient, was thought to have diuretic properties and was used to treat kidney ailments. Soldiers even consumed it before battle, coining the term “Dutch Courage”.

Moreover, in the 19th century, gin mixed with tonic containing quinine became a preventive measure against malaria in British colonies.

Also Read: 7 Genever Brands: Gin, But Not As We Know It!

The Gin Craze Of London

William Hogarth’s Gin Lane depicts the history of gin
William Hogarth’s Gin Lane

Fast forwarding to the 18th century, gin had made its way to England, where the government allowed unlicensed gin production and simultaneously imposed a heavy duty on imported spirits. 

The result? London was awash with gin. It was cheap, readily available, and became the drink of choice for many.

However, this led to what’s known as the ‘Gin Craze’. The city’s addiction to gin was corrupting social norms and causing medical problems to boot. William Hogarth’s famous print, “Gin Lane”, depicts this era with stark imagery. Image Wiki Commons.

Thankfully, various acts of parliament were introduced to curb gin consumption, leading to a more refined and controlled production of gin.

The Birth of London Dry: A Distinct Style

Beefeater London Dry

The 19th century saw the birth of what we now know as London Dry Gin. Ironically, the name doesn’t denote the origin but the process. It’s a method where the spirit is redistilled with botanicals, with the predominant flavour being juniper.

I’ve always believed that the beauty of London Dry lies in its simplicity. It’s a blank canvas, allowing the botanicals to shine. If you’re new to gin, I’d recommend starting with a London Dry, such as Beefeater. There’s an elegance to it, a clarity of flavour.

Morale Boosting Properties Of Gin

Morale Boosting Properties Of Gin

World War II, the global conflict that spanned from 1939 to 1945, reshaped political and cultural landscapes. Amidst the chaos, an unlikely hero emerged: gin. 

With its juniper-infused flavour, this spirit played a unique role in the war. British soldiers often consumed it to boost morale, while civilians found solace in gin during the Blitz.

Moreover, the drink’s antiseptic properties made it a valuable commodity in medical kits, and the well-known anti-malaria properties of quinine contained in tonic water were a further boon.

Today, as we sip this classic beverage, we’re reminded of its storied past and the strength of those who endured the war’s darkest days; as the war raged on, gin became a symbol of resilience and hope.

Popular Wartime Gin Cocktails

Gin cocktail

Gin cocktails gained popularity during or just after WWII because of the availability of ingredients and the need for simple, refreshing drinks during challenging times. 

They remain classics to this day, enjoyed by many around the world. Some of the most notable include:

1. Gin Gimlet

This simple cocktail consists of gin and lime juice. It’s said that British sailors drank it to prevent scurvy, thanks to the vitamin C in the lime. The drink became popular among soldiers and civilians alike during WWII.

2. The Martini

While the Martini predates WWII, its popularity surged during the war years. The classic Martini combines gin with dry vermouth then garnish with an olive or twist of lemon.

3. Tom Collins

The Tom Collins cocktail is one of my faves. This pre-WWII cocktail saw a resurgence during the war. Made with gin, lemon juice, sugar, and carbonated water, it’s a refreshing choice that was popular in the 1940s.

4. White Lady

Pretty much a gin-based Sidecar, The White Lady combines gin, Cointreau (or triple sec), and lemon juice. It’s a smooth and citrusy drink that was favoured by many during the war era.

5. Pink Gin

A simple mix of gin with a dash of Angostura bitters, it was a favourite among the British Royal Navy.

Global Spread Of Gin

Gin Spritz

While the UK, particularly London, is often seen as the epicentre of gin, this simple spirit has found fans across the globe.

The 21st century has seen a gin renaissance. Artisanal distilleries are popping up everywhere, and the range of flavours available is astounding. From floral to spicy, citrusy to herbal, there’s a gin for every palate.

The gin and tonic (‘gin-tonic’) is practically a national pastime in Spain. They’ve elevated this simple drink to an art form with specialised glasses, artisanal tonics, and a plethora of garnishes.

Australia and South Africa have entered the gin arena, focusing on local botanicals, creating gins that reflect their unique landscapes and the herbs, spices, fruits and flora that flourish there.

Future of Gin: What Lies Ahead?

Bombay Sapphire botanicals
Our Bombay Sapphire Distillery Tour

With the current pace of innovation and the global love affair with gin showing no signs of slowing, what can we expect from the future? I predict a continued focus on local botanicals and sustainability. 

Distilleries will look to reduce their carbon footprint and champion local ingredients. We may also see a rise in cask-aged gins, borrowing a page from the whisky playbook; however, it strays too far from what gin is all about.

My Gin Recommendations

Gin and Tonic

For Gin Purists

You can’t go wrong with a classic like Gordons, Tanqueray or Beefeater. They epitomise the London Dry style and have a legacy that’s hard to match.

For The Adventurous

Try something like Monkey 47. It boasts 47 botanicals and is distilled in the Black Forest of Germany. It’s complex and utterly captivating; I feel it’s the Jaegemeister of the gin world!

Fruity Flavours

The fruit-flavoured gin market is vast, but I’d recommend Sipsmith Lemon Drizzle Gin or Beefeater Blood Orange as great fruity gins to start with.

Delicately Floral

As mentioned, Bloom’s Jasmine & Rose is a treat. But also, give Caorunn Gin a go, as its floral notes are refreshing and fragrant.

Gin Beginners

If you are new to gin, I recommend starting with the classics. Spookily enough, I’ve written an entire article on 10 Best Gins For Beginners.

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Conclusion

Bombay Sapphire gin bottle  and cocktail

Gin’s history is as rich and varied as its flavours. From its medicinal beginnings in Holland as Genever to the gin palaces of London, it’s a spirit that’s seen the highs and lows of human endeavour. Today, we’re fortunate to be living in a gin golden age. 

So, here’s my final piece of advice: explore, sample, and try to discover your ultimate gin… It’s a quest for perfection with no achievable end, but hey… would you want it any other way?

References

wikipedia.org/wiki/Gin
sipsmith.com/gin-and-london-the-origin/
bythedutch.com/genever/
tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hogarth-gin-lane-t01799
wikipedia.org/wiki/TARDIS
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Further Reading

Below are some additional articles from The Drinks Geek blog. We write articles on several fascinating areas of drinks, including different brands, drink types, cocktail recipes and more.

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