In this article, we dive deep into the story of Gin, how it originated, how it’s made, and what goes into the distillation process.
I’m sure you will learn something new about Gin that you didn’t know already, I certainly did when conducting research for this piece. Enjoy!
Gin History – The Origins & Development of Gin
The first confirmed date for the production of gin is the early 17th century in Holland, although claims have been made that it was produced prior to this in Italy.
In Holland, it was produced as a medicine and sold in chemist shops to treat stomach complaints, gout, and gallstones. To make it more palatable, the Dutch started to flavor it with juniper, which had medicinal properties of its own.
From Dutch Courage To William of Orange
British troops fighting in the Low Countries during the Thirty Years’ War were given ‘Dutch Courage’ during the long campaigns in the damp weather through the warming properties of gin.
Eventually, they started bringing it back home with them, where already it was often sold in chemists’ shops. Distillation was taking place in a small way in England, but it now began on a greater scale, though the quality was often very dubious. Nevertheless, the new drink became a firm favorite with the poor.
The formation by King Charles I of the Worshipful Company of Distillers, where members had the sole right to distill spirits in London and Westminster and up to twenty-one miles beyond improved both the quality of gin and its image; it also helped English agriculture by using surplus corn and barley.
When King William III – better known as William of Orange – came to the English throne in 1689, he made a series of statutes actively encouraging the distillation of English spirits.
Anyone could now distill by simply posting a notice in public and just waiting ten days. Sometimes gin was distributed to workers as part of their wages and soon the volume sold daily exceeded that of beer and ale, which was more expensive anyway.
License To Sell
In 1729, an excise license of £20 sterling was introduced and two shillings per gallon duty was levied. In addition to which, retailers now required a license. This almost suppressed good gin, but the quantity consumed of bad spirits continued to rise.
In 1730 London had over 7,000 shops that sold only spirits. Daniel Defoe wrote of “the prodigious number of shopkeepers whose business is wholly and solely the selling of spirits”. In certain areas, spirits were sold on average from one private house in four.
Little nips of Whiskey
Little drops of Gin
Make a lady wonders, where on earth she’s bin
The abuse of alcohol by the poor became a major problem. Smollett, the 18th-century Scottish novelist wrote: “In these dismal caverns (‘strong water shops’) they (the poor) lay until they recovered some of their faculties and then they had recourse to this same mischievous potion”.
Lord Hervey declared: “Drunkenness of the common people was universal, the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from morning till night.” William Hogarth in his ‘Gin Lane’, an engraving of about this period, portrays a scene of idleness, vice, and misery, leading to madness and death.
The Gin Riots
The problem was tackled by introducing The Gin Act at midnight on 29 September 1736, which made gin prohibitively expensive.
A license to retail gin cost £50 and duty was raised fivefold to £1 per gallon with the smallest quantity you could buy retail being two gallons. The Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, and Dr. Samuel Johnson were among those who opposed the Act since they considered it could not be enforced against the will of the common people.
They were right. Riots broke out and the law was widely and openly broken. About this time, 11 million gallons of gin were distilled in London, which was over 20 times the 1690 figure and has been estimated to be the equivalent of 14 gallons for each adult male.
But within six years of the Gin Act being introduced, only two distillers took out licenses, yet, over the same period of time, production rose by almost fifty percent.
Respectability, High-Quality & Patronage
The Gin Act, finally recognized as unenforceable, was repealed in 1742 and a new policy, which distillers helped to draft was introduced: reasonably high prices, reasonable excise duties, and licensed retailers under the supervision of magistrates. In essence, this is the situation that exists today.
These changes led to more respectable firms embarking on the business of distilling and retailing gin and it became the drink of high quality, which it has since remained. Many companies established themselves as well-to-do manufacturers, often becoming patrons for major enterprises; one such was the sponsorship of the attempt to discover the Northwest Passage 1829-33: the attempt failed, but the expedition did establish the true position of the North Magnetic Pole.
Gin had been known as ‘Mother’s Milk’ from the 1820s but later in the century it became known as ‘Mother’s Ruin’, a description perhaps originating from the earlier ‘Blue Ruin’ of the prohibition era in the previous century.
From Gin Places to High Society
By this time the battle for trade was hotting up between the beer shops and the gin shops. Following the 1820’s Beerhouse Act’, beer was sold free of licensing control, and 45,000 beer shops – aimed to be the cozy homes from home – had appeared by 1838.
Spirit retailers still required licenses and, to compete with the beer shops, they devised the ‘gin palaces’ which first appeared about 1830. These were designed to be an escape from home.
As a home for the poor – who continued to be gin’s main supporters – was often a sordid slum, the gin palace was large, imposing and handsome and even luxuriously furnished.
By the 1850s there were about 5,000 such places in London and Charles Dickens describes them in his ‘Sketches by Boz’ in the mid-1830s as “perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and dirt we have just left.”
In the mid-1830s the temperance movement started. Whilst it failed to make a big impact, it did encourage much debate on drink which was still a problem.
Thomas Carlyle wrote of gin as “liquid madness sold at tenpence the quartem”. By 1869 this led to an Act licensing the sale of beer and wine (spirits were still licensed).
Two years later a further Act was introduced which would have halved the number of public houses in the country, but public opinion was outraged. One bishop stating in the House of Lords that he would “prefer to see all England free better than England sober” and the act was withdrawn.
As reforms took effect, so the gin production process became more refined. So gin evolved to become a delicate balance of subtle flavors, and began its ascent into high society.
The Production of Gin
There are several methods of producing gin but the European Community Regulation which governs spirit drinks (No. 1576 of 1989) defines only two methods:
- First, and by far the more important, is ‘distilled gin’ (of which London gin and Plymouth gin are recognized as types) which is produced in the traditional method, described below.
- Secondly, gin can be produced simply by flavouring suitable alcohol with natural flavoring substances which give a predominant taste of juniper: this method is known technically as ‘compounding’.
The Basic Spirit
Gin can be made from any spirit alcohol which meets the requirements of original (agricultural) strength (at least 96% alcohol by volume – ABV) and purity (given maximum levels of residue) of the EC Regulation.
The finest base for this ‘neutral’ spirit is either grain (normally barley and maize) or molasses and has no flavor at all.
The flavoring ingredients are all-natural and are referred to as ‘botanicals’. The type and quantity of each producer’s botanicals vary according to their own closely guarded recipes; all are carefully selected and tested for purity and quality.
All gins include juniper as an ingredient: other botanicals used are coriander, angelica, orange peel, lemon peel, cardamon, cinnamon, grains of paradise, cubeb berries, and nutmeg. Typically a fine gin contains six to ten botanicals.
The detailed processes for the distillation do vary between producers. In most cases, the spirit is diluted by adding pure water to reach the required strength of about 45% ABV. This is pumped into a still normally made of copper and the flavoring ingredients are added to it and it is then left to steep. Some producers place the botanicals in a tray over the spirit.
The still is heated, using a steam coil or jacket, to remove from the botanicals the essential oils (less than 5% of the weight) which give the flavoring to the spirit. The first distillate ‘runnings’ are re-circulated until an appropriate standard and strength (over 90% ABV) is reached.
The lower quality early part of the run (‘foreshots’) and end of the run (‘feints’) as judged by the skill and experience of the ‘Stillman’ are run off to be redistilled. Only the ‘middle run’ is used to produce high-quality gin; this is run off at about 80-85% ABV. The product then goes through a quality control ‘Tasting Panel’ and may also be analyzed by gas chromatography to ensure that it meets the required specification. This ensures product consistency.
The gin is then brought to the required EU legal minimum alcohol level – at least 37.5% ABV to meet EC regulations, although some gins have a higher level – by the addition of pure demineralized water. It is now ready for bottling as it does not require any period of maturation.
There is a cheaper method of producing gin. Essential oils are either extracted from botanicals by distillation or pressed out. These are added to the appropriate water. The product of this ‘cold compounding’ may be called ‘gin’ under EC rules but not ‘distilled’ or ‘London’ gin.
This process used to be used to ensure that the quality of the alcohol was satisfactory before the distillation process took place. Advances in the production of neutral spirit have made this process unnecessary.
How Gin Is Made
- The neutral spirit has no color or flavor at all. It is at least 96% alcohol by volume (ABV).
- Adding the Botanicals. These are the mixture of herbs and spices used to flavor gin. All use Juniper – others vary from brand to brand but could include coriander, angelica, orris root, licorice, caraway, cinnamon, grains of paradise, lemon, and orange peel.
- The still is heated to remove the essential oils from the botanicals.
- Finally, pure water is added to bring the strength down to the EU legal requirement, a minimum of 37.5% ABV.
Gin – The Modern Drink
Gin triumphed in the 1920s – the first ‘Cocktail Age’ – after having been scarce during the 1914-18 World War. Now recognized as a cosmopolitan and refreshing drink, gin became the darling of the famous Cunard cruises.
During the 1920s and 1930s, the newly popular idea of the ‘Cocktail-Party’ crossed the Atlantic from the USA to Britain via an American hostess who wanted to fill in for her friends the blank time between teatime and dinner.
London dry gin, with its subtle flavor, made it easy to mix and it quickly became the staple ingredient in a host of fashionable drinks – including the world-famous and enduring Martini.
Over the next twenty or thirty years, many other cocktails with improbable names came to reflect the dizzy and sophisticated society which created them.
During prohibition W.C Fields was asked:
why, if he didn’t have a drinking problem, did he buy 300 cases of gin before it started.
I didn’t think it would last that long.
By 1951 the Bartenders’ Guild had registered 7000 cocktails on its files! At the same time, gin had become one of the three essential drinks for home entertainment. Gin and tonic has remained one of the most popular and refreshing drinks right up to the modern-day.
And the latest fashion for cocktails – with even a hit American film of the same name – has resulted in a new career for likely young men who want to be seen hobnobbing with the rich and famous. ‘Mixologists’ are the new breed of bartenders who invent and serve the newest cocktails – often including fresh fruit juices from all manner of exotic sources.
Seen at a glitzy, modern, chrome and mirrored venue near you – gin has come a long way from the ‘palaces’ of the early nineteenth century.