A Brief History of Gin
Obligatory Happy Thanksgiving!
OK, that’s out of the way. Let’s talk about liquor.
Gin is, depending on who you ask, revered, reviled, or simply misunderstood. Too often these days, ask for a martini and you’ll be served a vodka drink. Ask for a tonic, and ditto. Ask what Eli Whitney has to do with any of it, and you’ll be told “That’s the ‘cotton gin’ and is totally unrelated. How do you know his name but not know that? Anyway, since you sort of asked, the device’s name is derived from a shortening of the word ‘engine’ and was first patented in the 1790s.”
Wow, I digressed much faster than usual there. Back to booze!
Gin, in its most basic terms, is a liquor of approximately 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof) or greater that is derived from grain distillation and primarily flavored with juniper berries (or juniper extract).
In FACT… gin gets its name from the Dutch word for juniper, which is genever. If you only remember one thing from today, it’s to send me money. If you remember two things, go ahead and make it that fun fact. For indeed it is juniper, that humble conifer, that tree of twisted trunk and gnarled bough, that sets gin apart from all other types of liquor, for indeed it is juniper that officially must be the prevailing aroma and flavor for a liquor to be classified as gin.
Gin likely traces its origins to liquors produced back in the Middle Ages, with references to a spirit flavored with “genever” referenced in a 13th Century Flemish manuscript. By the 1600s, the Dutch were producing gin in earnest, with hundreds of distilleries in the city of Amsterdam alone.
Gin, like so many things (Coca-Cola and heroin come to mind), was originally produced as a medicine. It was distributed by “chemists” for the treatment of ailments such as gout and dyspepsia. Consumed in large enough quantities, it likely did help ameliorate perception of the symptoms associated these issues and many others, such as “Coward’s Fist,” though only for a few hours at a time. Gin gained in popularity doing the Thirty Years’ War, when British soldiers fighting on Dutch land were bolstered with “Dutch Courage” by, y’know, drinking gin.
It didn’t take long for this lovely liquor to hop across the English Channel in a big way. In the latter half of the 17th Century and in the early years of the 18th Century, gin rapidly gained popularity in England, cementing the association it still enjoys with that nation. In fact, by the year 1720, some experts estimate that as many as a quarter of the households in London frequently produced their own gin. The period in the storied city’s history became known as “The Gin Craze,” an era that was so awesome Parliament had to pass no fewer than five major legislative acts over the course of 22 years in a vain attempt to rein in the population’s consumption of gin.
Gin remained popular with the Brits, notable for its use by soldiers and colonials living in lands prone to malaria infections: gin was excellent at masking the unpleasant, bitter flavor of the anti-malarial alkaloid quinine, a necessity for the susceptible foreigners. This medical elixir developed into the Gin & Tonic we know and love to this day.
In the modern era (AKA don’t even bother with that qualification, just start the sentence) gin has seen a resurgence in popularity as mixology has gone mainstream. From the classic martini to the Gimlet to the Tom Collins, the same cocktails that knocked F. Scott Fitzgerald and his cronies cockeyed are again being shaken and stirred up at taverns everywhere.
Certain types of gin can be enjoyed neat or on the rocks, such as Bombay Sapphire, a variety produced with no fewer than 10 “botanicals,” including juniper and lemongrass. Other gins are perfectly suited for blending in cocktails. Tanqueray comes to mind: it has been distilled according to the same basic recipe for nearly 200 years now. And for the record, that makes it a relative newcomer. Many distilleries have been producing the same type of gin since the early 1700s.