A History of Gin
A Brief History of Gin
When you think of gin, you probably think of England–of royals and aristocrats properly sipping on gin and tonics, while perhaps engaging in a subdued game of lawn bowling.
Gin is a dignified drink, with a rarefied past, right? Wrong. The real history of gin is positively rollicking.
Not only did gin not start in England, until somewhat recently, it was likely to be distilled—and consumed—in back alleys and bathtubs, by people who were far from proper.
Gin’s main ingredient, juniper, has been combined with alcohol as far back as 70 A.D., when a physician named Pedanius Dioscorides published a five-volume encyclopedia about herbal medicine. Dioscorides’ writings include a detailed description of the use of juniper berries steeped in wine to combat chest ailments.
By the 16th century, the Dutch were using juniper berries in a spirit they called “genever”, basically malt wine with juniper berries to mask the flavor. The English, who were in Holland then fighting the Thirty Years War, saw Dutch soldiers drinking genever to lift their, ahem, spirits before heading into battle. The term “Dutch Courage” was born and the English promptly took genever for themselves.
The spirit caught on quickly with the English people, particularly the peasants. Thanks to some new laws that made spirits incredibly cheap to make and buy, a gin craze swept the nation, resulting in a pint of gin being cheaper than a pint of beer.
The biggest boost to gin came, however, in the 1800s, when sailors in the British Royal Navy accidentally invented one of the world’s favorite cocktails. Malaria was prevalent in many of the destinations where the sailors were sent and quinine was a useful remedy to fight the disease. Because quinine tasted awful, the Schweppes company created a drink called Indian Tonic Water to mask the flavor. The sailors already had gin on hand because it was less likely to spoil than beer, and limes were on board to help them prevent scurvy. At some point, some clever sailor thought to mix the three and –blimey!—the Gin and Tonic was born.
During prohibition with home spirit manufacturing gin was a favorite since the juniper masked the bitterness of homemade alcohol.
In the years since, gin has only continued to grow in popularity as people discover the subtle botanical beauty of the drink and distillers and mixologists find it to be a perfect, blendable medium for their most creative inclinations.