Gin is a juniper berry-flavored grain spirit . The word is an English shortening of Genever, the Dutch word for juniper. The origins of Gin are rather murky. In the late 1580s a juniper-flavored spirit of some sort was found in Holland by British troops who were fighting against the Spanish in the Dutch War of Independence. They gratefully drank it to give them what they soon came to call “Dutch courage” in battle. The Dutch themselves were encouraged by their government to favor such grain spirits over imported wine and brandy by lack of excise taxes on such local drinks.
A clearer beginning was a few decades later in the 1600s when a Dr. Franciscus de la Boë in the university town of Leiden created a juniper and spice-flavored medicinal spirit that he promoted as a diuretic. Genever soon found favor across the English Channel; first as a medicine (Samuel Pepys wrote in 1660 of curing a case of “colic” with a dose of “strong water made with juniper”) and then as a beverage.
When the Dutch Protestant William of Orange and his English wife Mary became co-rulers of England after the “Glorious Revolution” drove James II from the throne, he moved to discourage the importation of brandy from the Catholic wine-making countries by setting high tariffs. As a replacement he promoted the production of grain spirits (“corn brandy” as it was known at the time) by abolishing taxes and licensing fees for the manufacture of such local products as Gin. History has shown that prohibition never works, but unfettered production of alcohol has its problems too.
By the 1720s it was estimated that a quarter of the households in London were used for the production or sale of Gin. Mass drunkenness became a serious problem. The cartoonist Hogarth’s famous depiction of such behavior in “Gin Lane” shows a sign above a Gin shop that states, “Drunk for a penny/Dead drunk for twopence/Clean straw for Nothing.” Panicky attempts by the government to prohibit Gin production, such as the Gin Act of 1736, resulted in massive illicit distilling and the cynical marketing of “medicinal” spirits with such fanciful names as Cuckold’s Comfort and My Lady’s Eye Water.
A combination of reimposed government controls, the growth of high-quality commercial Gin distillers, the increasing popularity of imported rum, and a general feeling of public exhaustion gradually brought this mass hysteria under control, although the problems caused by the combination of cheap Gin and extreme poverty extended well into the 19th century. Fagin’s irritable comment to a child in the film Oliver -“Shut up and drink your Gin!”-had a basis in historical fact.
Starting in the 18th century the British Empire began its worldwide growth; and wherever the Union Jack went, English-style gins followed. In British North American colonies such celebrated Americans as Paul Revere and George Washington were notably fond of Gin, and the Quakers were well-known for their habit of drinking Gin toddies after funerals.
The arrival of the Victorian era in England in the mid-19th century ushered in a low-key rehabilitation of Gin’s reputation. The harsh, sweetened “Old Tom” styles of Gin of the early 1700s slowly gave way to a new cleaner style called Dry Gin. This style of Gin became identified with the city of London to the extent that the term “London Dry” Gin became a generic term for the style, regardless of where it was actually produced. Genteel middle-class ladies sipped their sloe Gin (Gin flavored with sloe berries) while consulting Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (a wildly popular Victorian cross between the Joy of Cooking and Martha Stewart lifestyle books) for Gin-based mixed drink recipes.
The British military, particularly the officer corps, became a hotbed of Gin consumption. Hundreds of Gin-based mixed drinks were invented and the mastery of their making was considered part of a young officer’s training. The best known of these cocktails, the Gin and Tonic, was created as a way for Englishmen in tropical colonies to take their daily dose of quinine, a very bitter medicine used to ward off malaria. Modern tonic water still contains quinine, though as a flavoring rather than a medicine.
In Holland the production of Genever was quickly integrated into the vast Dutch trading system. The port of Rotterdam became the center of Genever distilling, as distilleries opened there to take advantage of the abundance of needed spices that were arriving from the Dutch colonies in the East Indies (present-day Indonesia). Many of today’s leading Dutch Genever distillers can trace their origins back to the 16th and 17th centuries. Examples include such firms as Bols (founded 1575) and de Kuyper (1695).
Belgium developed its own juniper-flavored spirit, called Jenever (with a “j”), in a manner similar to that in Holland (which controlled Belgium for a time in the early 19th century). The two German invasions of Belgium in World Wars I and II had a particularly hard effect on Jenever producers, as the occupying Germans stripped the distilleries of their copper stills and piping for use in the production of shell casings. The remaining handful of present-day Belgian Jenever distillers produce Jenever primarily for the local domestic market. Gin may have originated in Holland and developed into its most popular style in England, but its most enthusiastic modern-day consumers are to be found in Spain, which has the highest per capita consumption in the world. Production of London Dry-style Gin began in the 1930s, but serious consumption did not begin until the mix of Gin and Cola became inexplicably popular in the 1960s.
Gin production in the United States dates back to colonial times, but the great boost to Gin production was the advent of National Prohibition in 1920. Moonshining quickly moved in to fill the gap left by the shutdown of commercial distilleries, but the furtive nature of illicit distilling worked against the production of the then-dominant whiskies, all of which required some aging in oak casks. Bootleggers were not in a position to store and age illegal whisky, and the caramel-colored, prune-juice-dosed grain alcohol substitutes were generally considered to be vile.
Gin, on the other hand, did not require any aging, and was relatively easy to make by mixing raw alcohol with juniper berry extract and other flavorings and spices in a large container such as a bathtub (thus the origin of the term “Bathtub Gin”). These gins were generally of poor quality and taste, a fact that gave rise to the popularity of cocktails in which the mixers served to disguise the taste of the base Gin. Repeal of Prohibition at the end of 1933 ended the production of bootleg Gin, but Gin remained a part of the American beverage scene. It was the dominant white spirit in the United States until the rise of Vodka in the 1960s. It still remains popular, helped along recently by the revived popularity of the Martini.