A Brief History of Gin in England
While gin today has a refined image, both as the star in a gin and tonic, or as a base for a sophisticated cocktail, the drink has a long and chequered history in its homeland of England. From a soldier’s reinforcement to a sophisticate’s refreshment, let’s take a look at how gin became the spirit we know today.
We can trace what we know as gin today back to the Dutch drink jenever, a punchy, juniper-flavoured spirit said to have medicinal properties. Jenever is still produced today, and has a delicious and distinct taste, perfect as a curve-ball in a cocktail. English soldiers’ discovery of and fondness for the stuff during the Anglo-Dutch wars gave us the phrase “Dutch Courage”, for a stiff drink before doing something ill-advised. The anglicisation of the word (and the drink) gave us something more like the modern gin.
The Gin Craze
By the 1700s, this newfound gin was ubiquitous in England and very popular. The spicy and powerful flavour of jenever had been rounded off with other botanicals, and the spirit, entirely unencumbered by regulation, was cheap and plentiful. By 1743, the English people were drinking about 10 litres per person annually; a phenomenal amount of gin.
While William Hogarth’s famous Gin Lane etching is obviously exaggerated for artistic effect, it does have some sort of basis in fact. In order to compete with French wine and cognac, taxes on English gin had been removed, to the point where a pint of gin was cheaper than a pint of beer. Given the conditions the poor of London were living in at the time, it’s no surprise that this surplus of cheap spirit led to high consumption and attendant social problems. Many of society's ills were attributed to gin drinking, and controls on the strong liquor were apparently necessary.
The Gin Act of 1751 aimed to put a stop to all this - taxes were raised, beer and tea were promoted, and gin’s image began to be rehabilitated. This helped to give us the standardised, tasty drink we still enjoy today.
The British Navy & Colonisation
As with a lot of British history, the country’s colonial seafaring past inevitably features. The birth of the gin and tonic can be attributed to the use of quinine as an anti-malarial; the disease was rife in India, and a gin topped up with “Indian Tonic Water” became the preferred way to take the harsh-tasting medicine.
The birth of Navy gin can also be attributed to the period, with the spirit (as the name suggests) proving very popular with the British Navy, with the home base of Plymouth also giving rise to the iconic Plymouth gin. Navy Strength gins, such as our Aranami Strength, are so called because of their natural flammability; gunpowder remains useful even if a barrel of navy strength gin is spilled on it. The historical link with seafaring continues to this day, both in the nomenclature and the iconography of many classic gins.
The Modern Drink
While gin has been more or less fashionable over the years, it has never gone away. From a soldier’s plonk in the 1700s, to a shipman’s fortifier in the 1800s, to the base of the perfect martini today, gin remains diverse, versatile and delicious. Whether you’re channelling art deco elegance or postmodern refinement, gin works beautifully as a platform for your drink. Have a look at our gin styles blog for more information about today’s broad gin world, or try one of our premix cocktails for a taster of what gin can do on your palate.