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A brief history of gin

According to Lord Kinross in his book The Kindred Spirit (a history of Gin and The Booth Family)

"the story of Gin is a success story - that of an ardent spirit that rose from the gutter to become the respected companion of civilised man".


Historically the Babylonians were probably the first to use distillation methods to extract distilled alcohol, there were not many written accounts until around 300AD when Zosimos of Panapolis described the techniques of the Egyptian alchemist from about 100 AD, Maria the Jewess, who is believed to have invented the first Alembic Still.  Maria’s techniques and equipment are still used today, but you will probably know it best as Mary’s bath, the Bain-Marie, which is used in kitchens the world over.


Alchemists were using distillation techniques to try to create gold.


Fast forward to the 9th century and Abū Bakr al-Rāzī, also known as Rhazes codifies the use of spirits distilled from wine for medicines.


It was in the 11th century that Benedictine monks in Italy combined spirits with herbs and spices for medicine.  It is believed that as juniper was in ample supply in Italy at the time that they would have utilised it in their medicinal products.  Juniper has long been used for a variety of medicinal reasons from toothache relief to digestive tonics.


Genever or Jenever was in circulation from mid 13th/14th centuries.  In the Netherlands the distilling of malt wine, moutwijn was commonplace but as it didn’t actually taste very nice, they started to add botanicals including spices and juniper (Jeneverbes in Dutch) and jenever was created.  Jenever or genever is often seen as the predecessor or the inspiration for the modern gin, but the genever is more of a harmonious mix of whiskey and gin flavours.

Moving on there are some conflicting accounts but most credit a Dutch doctor, Franciscus Sylvius de la Boe with being the inventor of gin, or at least a schnapps distilled from juniper berries.  Some argue that the timeline doesn’t work, and that the Dutch government was already taxing genever as an alcoholic drink in early 1600s.  Also ‘jeneva’ was mentioned in a play by Phillip Massinger ‘The Duke of Milan’ in 1623.

During the thirty years war, both Dutch and British soldiers would drink genever before battle, coining the phrase ‘Dutch Courage’ as the drink calmed their nerves.

Slowly but surely the popularity of genever in Britain increased and when William of Orange banned brandy imports in 1689, the popularity for genever increased significantly.

In the 1690s small distilleries were popping up throughout England, trying to replicate the production of genever.  Due to the use of less refined spirits and techniques, a juniper rich spirit became mass produced, and the name was shortened and translated into ‘gin’.

Initially gin was different to the London Dry we know now; it had a refined flavour and was sweeter in taste and was known as ‘Old Tom’.  Again, there are many differing accounts, but the popular one is that it was such named Old Tom as the places selling the spirit had wooden tom cats affixed to the their walls.  Passing drinkers would pass some money through a slot and then Old Tom spirit would be fed to them via tubes.

And so, the gin craze of the 1700s began in England!  So much so that people started to create their own gin using their bathtubs, hence the name ‘bathtub gin’.  With little or no regulation, the streets were overrun with gin distillation and in fact it was cheaper to buy than beer.

It was felt that the production of gin and the social consequences of gin consumption were out of control, so the first gin acts started to appear from 1729 taxing the production of gin. In 1751 the British artist William Hogarth was commissioned to draw to contrasting pictures ‘Beer Street’ and the infamous ‘Gin Lane’.  The two prints showing the very contrasting effects of drinking gin verses beer.  The reverend James Townley writing the two inscriptions to describe the scenes.

Unfortunately, as the Gin Lane picture depicts the effects on women and their inability to care for their children whilst under the influence of gin, this coined the phrase still in use today ‘mothers ruin’.

The Tippling Act of 1751 was passed to try and control the distilling of spiritous liquors, it went on to be known as the gin act.  The act introduced an annual £50 distillers’ licence, about £1400 in today’s money!  This did see a reduction in gin production.  If found in violation, you faced at £10 fine and up to 3 months hard labour or several years on his majesty’s plantations.


Some of the synonymous names of gin began in the 1700s.  The Booth family moved to Clerkenwell in London in 1740 and began distilling gin, the oldest gin brand available today.  Greenall's Gin started in 1761, Gordons and Company in 1769.  Clerkenwell became the epicentre of reputable distilling due to the quality of its water.


In 1830, Aeneas Coffey revolutionised gin distillation with his column still invention.  This improved the quality of the alcohol produced and the London dry was born.  Exports of gin increased in the 1800s and with the creation of the quinine-based tonic by Erasmus Booth and the Indian tonic water by Schweppes in 1870, the invention of the gin and tonic was born.  


Back in the 19th century The British Navy would include gin payments for officers, and it became common place for gin to require an ABV of 57% or above. The reason for such a high strength alcohol was that it was stored on board with the gun powder, and if gin leaked into the gun powder, it wouldn't impact the ability of the gun powder to be set alight.  It is understood that from time-to-time officers would mix gin and gunpowder and attempt to light it, just to confirm that they were not being given a lesser strength gin by the British Navy!  The first commercial ‘navy strength gin’ was produced until the 1930s.

Moving on to the prohibition era in 1920s America which saw a high demand for quality gin from Britain and this was frequently shipped to Canada and America.  It also meant there was an influx of bar tenders and cocktail makers into London.


It is difficult to comprehend with the number of small-scale gin makers today, Collymoon Craft included the impact that the laws had on the production of gin in the 1700/1800s.  The use of stills less than 1800 litres was banned and so the larger companies were all that was left to supply the gin craze from the 1700s.  That is until the founders of Sipsmiths Gin challenged the historic laws, winning their battle in 2008, and the following year in 2009 Sipsmiths opened the first small scale distillery In London for over 200 years.  The rest as they say…

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