Gin, spirit of London…

Ok, hands up – Gin is my white spirit of choice. I just simply love the juniper- laden scent of Tanqueray, the dryness of Beefeater, and the floral notes of Bloom. To my tastebuds, it beats Vodka into a cocked hat – although it could be said that Gin is really flavoured Voddy anyway. ( Don’t say that near me mind you, you could set me off…)

In the Middle Ages, Alpine monks would infuse grain alcohol with Juniper berries as a form of medicine, and as the basic recipe spread, by early modern times, this concoction was taken to the hearts of the population of The Netherlands. this spirit became a staple to the Dutch, who corrupted the French “Genevre” into “Geneva” . It was still a long way from the crystal clear dry beverage we know today, and most Geneva was stored in oak barrels, gaining colour and a little vanilin flavour along the way. Some Geneva was aged, producing “Zeer Oude” (very old) Geneva – still a traditional Dutch drink to this day. Most Geneva would be sweetened with cane sugar at this time.

DUTCH COURAGE & LOYAL CITIZENS

During the religious wars of the seventeenth century, English soldiers and mercenaries fought across the Low Countries of northwest Europe – The Netherlands in particular. Soldiers being what they are, they picked-up a taste for the local brew, which they noticed was drunk before battle – “Dutch Courage”.

With the coup that put William of Orange on the throne, Geneva drinking soon became a fashionable way to show loyalty to the new regime amongst the ruling elite. The fashion quickly spread to the lower classes, particularly those in Britains largest port – London, where by the mid- eighteenth century, there were estimated to be 4,000 gin distilleries and shops, catering for a population of less than one million! As the imported (and more expensive) spirits such as Brandy were beyond the reach of ordinary people (save smugglers), we had our first drug epedemic…

GIN LANE & BEER STREET…

If you ever wondered where all the Alcopop panics and public concern over booze started, then look no further than Gin. By the mid-Eighteenth century, there were over 5,000 gin stills in London alone ( with a population of under a million), producing anything from high class product to rotgut turpentine. Explosions were frequent in this unregulated cottage (or rather hovel) industry, and Gin had definitely gone down class, although the medicinal side of gin was dubiously upheld by it being “Mothers Ruin” – in effect, if you drank enough, you would either miscarry, or Gin was used to mask the pain of backstreet abortions. In fact, forget alcopops, Gin was the Crack of its day.

This sorry state of affairs led to the regulation and licensing of distillation in the Gin Acts, and to the start of the first Temperance movement, curiosly enough, in the early movement, Beer was seen as the healthy alternative (sensible, given the state of drinking water), and this is encapsulated in two of the most famous illustrations of the time – Hogarth’s “Gin Lane and Beer Street”. In its early days, Temperance did not mean outright prohibition.

However Gin took an awfully long time to recover from the image of “Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence”, and it was the invention of the column still by Anneus Coffey that helped to bring Gin into the Industrial age…

Gin cleans up its act…

With the advent of column stills, the whole process of distilling became safer and much easier to regulate, as the industrial process required the kind of expertise and capital that simply could not be found by small producers working in backyards. Names such as Gordons, Greenalls, Tanqueray, Burroughs and Booths started to dominate the trade, and a new style came to dominate tastes in the Nineteenth Century. Drier, with a more pronounced citrus note, “London Dry Gin” became the standard – largely the Gin we know today, although for worldwide sales, the biggest seller was one with a more coriander based gin – Plymouth. It was Plymouth Gin that The Royal Navy carried on every vessel, and that fueled countless Pink Gin parties in what was then the worlds largest Navy.

Gin also became popular as our Empire grew in the east, particularly with Jacob Schweppes invention of a Quinine based fizzy drink- Indian Tonic Water. Gin and Tonics were guzzled down by the administrators of The Raj as a way to stave off Malaria, or, if you read George Orwells “Burmese Days”, boredom.

This was also the beginning of Cocktail culture – The Martinez, the Tom Collins, The Pink Gin all came into existence by the mid-century, and gin regained  some of its former respectability, not least due to these concoctions.

My personal favourite is the Pink Gin – take a small wine glass, or a martini glass, drop in three dashes of angostura bitters. Now cup the glass in your hands and swirl, coating the glass and releasing the aroma. Opinions differ at this point, but I like to shake the bitters out, leaving a pinky residue. Add 50ml of chilled Plymouth Gin, and serve with a small jug of chilled still water to add at your discretion. The secret is in the release of the aromas of angostura, and I find this a very pleasant aperatif, though be warned – like the Martini, more than two can be too many!

Due to industrial methods, advances in technology and the dominance of Free trade at the time, Gin became the dominant white spirit before 1914. The Gin and It, Gin and French, Martini, Martinez, Collins and Rickey were all important libations of the day. Then, in August 1914, the whole economic and political structure of the World cracked, and by 1919, everything changed…

TOMMY GUNS AND BOOTLEG COPIES…

In 1919, The U.S Congress passed possibly the single most stupid legislation ever sanctioned by a Democracy, an Act that had consequences far and away from its intentions, criminalising millions at a stroke, and boosting organised crime into unheard of financial power. The Volstead Act prohibited the sale, consumption and production of alcohol in all but medicinal circumstances. A Republican President of the time called it ” the greatest social experiment in history”, proving that pretty much all Republicans since 1920 have been idiots.

The supply of all alcohol now was the province of such great human beings as Machine Gun Kelly, Dutch Schultz, Al Capone, and one Joseph.P. Kennedy(hey, I never said Democrats were better…), father of JFK.

At the top end of the scale, the rich had stockpiled choice wines and spirits in their cellars, and could afford to go abroad to Europe or Cuba to drink, and pay through the nose to smuggle the best stuff through Canada or Florida.

The rest of us made do with the hooch made in illicit stills, of varying quality and sometimes deadly. Wood Alcohol was often mixed with essences to create “Bathtub Gin”, which would then be masked in cocktails of course, to hide the unpleasant taste. You still find an echo of this in the various cheap own- brand “Cold Compound” Gins in some supermarkets – nasty but not deadly.

The one happy outcome of this debacle was the astounding growth of cocktail culture outside the USA. The Savoy American Bar in London, Harrys Bar in Paris, La Floridita in Cuba all became Meccas for serious imbibers across the world. The interwar period is one I always think of as being dominated by “The Two Harrys” – MaCclehone in Paris, and Craddock in London. Along with many others, it was they who set the golden standards   by which we are all judged today, drinks such as The Bloody Mary, Sidecar, White Lady, Aviation, Mojito and Negroni all came into their own, as writers artists and wealthy wastrels crowded through the nightspots of Paris, London and Berlin, along with Jazz, Modernism, Cinema and Surrealism. Josephine Baker, Hemmingway, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Brecht, Weil, Hollywood stars and the like all coalesced to create the lasting image of the roaring twenties, most with a glass in one hand, and a cigarette in the other…

YOU’RE THE TOPS…

With the Election of Roosevelt in 1930, Prohibition was repealed, with the great man himself mixing an Old Fashioned on newsreel to celebrate. FDR was also a great Martini fan, and with cocktail culture now legal stateside, Hollywood glamour presented the world with images of sleek sexy people, enjoying a libation now and then

…once again, a world war, fascism and communism stuffed all that up…

DARK TIMES, THEN THE DAWN…

Following the declaration of War in 1939, HM Government took the production of alcohol into state control as part of a planned war economy. By 1941, there was basically only one type of Gin available due to the effects of the U-boat blockade – “Victory Gin”.

High class spirits were exported by the government to offset Lend-Lease agreements, so domestic consumption was not a high priority. Victory Gin was pretty foul – a cold-compound that barely resembled its prewar cousins, although often bottled under their names. This basic spirit was described by George Orwell in 1984, when Winston Smith pours himself a cup of the “oily” unpalatable substance.

American glamour (and dollars) saved the image however, and gin was present at all the wartime conferences between “The big three”- Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill. On tasting a Martini at Teheran, Stalin pronounced it “too cold” for his taste, no doubt raising a wry smile from both FDR and Winston, no mean tipplers themselves.

With the end of the war, and with Britains’ economy in tatters, the return of high quality Gin was sensibly less of an issue than founding the NHS, or the start of the Cold War, and so it took until the 1950s for production to really get going. By then however, Gin had worldwide competition from another white spirit – one that “left you breathless”…

COLD WAR RIVALS AND WHITE WHISKEY…

In the 1940s, Heublein Inc in the USA started to promote a product that it had licensed from one Pierre Smirnov, former chief distiller to the Russian Czar – Vodka. Unsure of how the public would react, it first termed it “White Whiskey”, in an attempt to mask its Russian heritage as the Cold War began. It took the advent of cocktails such as The Moscow Mule and smart celebrity-led marketing, but Vodka became established as a major international spirit, and competitor to Gin.

Advertisements

The URI to TrackBack this entry is: https://doctordrink.wordpress.com/2010/09/22/gin-spirit-of-london/trackback/

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: