When you think gin, do you think English? British gin, and specifically English gin, has an evocative backstory that involves the clash of classes, the impact of technology, the adventure on the high seas and so on. Here’s a quick overview of the long and often tempestuous history of English gin.
When William III came to the English throne in the 1600s, his tax on cognac was designed to disadvantage the French. This coincided with the introduction of tax concessions for spirit producers in England. Boom! Gin was said to be cheaper than beer, pint for pint. Some records say that around a quarter of London households in the 1700s were involved in homemade gin production on a regular basis. No wonder this became known as ‘The Gin Craze’.
The trouble was, of course, that indiscriminate drinking culture brought massive social problems of its own. It became a reason to drown sorrows and a go-to for those seeking refuge from the hardships of life. What’s more, the complete lack of regulation on all the questionable additions to the popular drink means the whole industry was getting extremely dangerous. Sawdust, turps, even sulphuric acid would frequently make its way into English gin. Something had to be done.
So then there was a mass of legislation and licensing laws, and they required such an expensive license for permission to produce gin that practically no one could afford it anymore. What’s more, this went alongside hefty financial incentives for the public to inform the authorities about any suspicions or tip-offs on illegal gin production. Those measures created a massive cultural shift, which turned out to be a very effective way to control gin-making activities and to promote good practice in the industry.
Fast forward to 1830, and modifications in gin-making technology and the medical necessity for sailors to drink the bad-tasting quinine (as found in Indian Tonic Water) meant that legitimate gin production got a new lease of life. Rum helped to mask the disgusting flavour of quinine, which was essential in helping the British Navy avoid outbreaks of malaria in crew members as they sailed around the world.
These days craft gin has a very different reputation and no longer carries the evil drink connotations of its colourful history. Sipsmith, Pinkster, Silent Pool and Chapel Down are examples of prestigious English gin brands that belong in any serious drinks cabinet.
As a cocktail base, or simply poured on the rocks, gin drinking has become a seriously classy part of British culture, losing the bad reputation of its earlier years. If you’re looking to try some samples for yourself, the Real English Drinks House has a wide range of quality English gins, as well as other wines and spirits for you to enjoy.
The story of English gin reads like proof that creative and inspiring things can come from difficult and turbulent beginnings. Whatever the troublesome history of gin in this country, its future is certainly bright. London Gin, anyone? Cheers!