In the popular history of gin, the spirit (now so associated with the upper crust) was once, like lobster and the theater, viewed as a product only fit for the unwashed masses. Of course, all that’s changed for gin (and for lobster and the theater, as well), and a review of gin’s story reads like an object lesson on how the influences of European history and industrial advancements can fundamentally change a single product, forever.
When you strip away the flair, gin is basically some kind of “hootch,” or neutral spirit (distilled from grain, wine, fruit, even beets), infused or steeped (via various methods) with the aromas and flavors of botanical elements, primarily juniper berries. Even today, in the strictest sense of the definition, a gin’s flavor must be predominately from juniper berries. And those berries are where the story starts.
Once again, we can thank our long-gone buddies, southern European monks, for creating something we so enjoy today. While getting lit was a nice side-effect, medieval monks were using alcohol (most likely distilled from wine) to extract the health benefits of juniper, which was believed to provide protection from the bubonic plague and cure any numbers of bodily ills.
The practice made its way north over the centuries, especially in Flanders and Holland, where, by the mid-17th century, the jenever variation of gin took hold. Jenever was produced from neutral barley spirits or malt wine spirits infused and redistilled with juniper, anise, caraway, coriander and other botanicals (and was the origin of the phrase “Dutch courage” coined by English soldiers sharing the brew with their Dutch counterparts before battles during the Eighty Years War). Today, jenever, or genever, is considered its own separate spirit—it has a maltier nature than gin—and must be produced in Belgium or the Netherlands. Bols, By the Dutch, and Old Duff are excellent, widely available examples and worthy of a try or two.
But gin, as we think of it today, is an English development. While jenever made its way to the British Isles, local gin’s popularity got a gigantic boost from William of Orange’s Glorious Revolution in 1688. Not only was French brandy, by the far the most popular spirit at the time, hobbled with restrictions after the revolution, but unlicensed gin distilling was allowed and flourished, especially in residential houses, providing a popular alternative to nearly-impossible-to-get brandy and creating something of a Gin Craze.
Many small producers, even households, took advantage of abundant, cheap barley unfit for beer brewing as the base of their wares (an estimated 1,500 residential stills were in use in London alone by 1726). Of course, in this free-for-all, unregulated environment, ingredients were often indifferently used; any source of neutral spirits was on the table, and while most makers continued to lean into juniper berries as a primary flavoring, all sorts of things made it into the mix, including, occasionally, turpentine. This abundance and lack of quality control led to low prices, low prices led to ubiquity, ubiquity often led to abuse, and a pallor of low-class sinfulness descended on gin.
The official Gin Acts of 1736 and 1751 helped clean up the mess with some needed regulation, but it was the invention and introduction of the column still in the early 1800s that led to gin’s ultimate refinement. The multi-stage column still allowed for more exact and practical control over gin production, enabling redistilling of the base spirit with the botanicals in the mix and also the possibility of adding a “gin basket” to the line, wherein alcohol vapors were passed through the aromatic and flavor-adding elements. Kind of like brewing tea, appropriately. The dry “London” style of gin we know today is the product of this technology, and since column stills could only be afforded by larger distillery operations, home-brew fell by the wayside.
Gin got its next push into social acceptability during the golden era of British Colonialism, with a nod to some additional medicinal benefits. In tropical colonies, from the Caribbean to Africa to India, gin was used by expats, from territorial governors to the soldiery, to counter the bitterness of quinine, the only effective compound to combat malaria at the time. Quinine was dissolved in soda water to create tonic water, and gin was added. That’s right, the birth of the gin and tonic.
Today, we all celebrate gin’s ascendancy with any number of sophisticated cocktails: The G&T (Spain has annexed this British invention and introduced wildly inventive variations), the Negroni, the Pimm’s Cup, and, of course, a proper martini. However, gin’s loosely defined, inclusive nature has provided for a multitude of variations and styles, with far-flung and exotic ingredients like citrus peel, angelica root, orris root, licorice, almond, anise, cinnamon, cubeb, savory, dragon eye, baobab, frankincense, coriander, nutmeg, cassia bark and other herbaceous elements joining the lowly juniper berry in the alchemy. Just take it easy on the turpentine, please.