Some things are so good that they need celebrating. Gin is quite definitely one of them… And it just so happens that this Saturday isn’t just any old Saturday, this Saturday 10th June 2017 is World Gin Day! In today’s Story from the Museum Floor, Judith from the Visitor Team takes an extraordinarily eccentric look at the turbulent history of the bottle at the back of the drinks cabinet of curiosities…
A Real ‘Ginaissance’
“The gin and tonic has saved more Englishman’s lives and minds than all the doctors in the Empire” – Winston Churchill
The history of gin is also a social history of Britain – from 18th century squalor to trendy Martini bars. In the 1935 Hollywood horror, The Bride of Frankenstein, Boris Karloff’s monster meets an old necromancer called Dr Pretorius. “Do you like gin?” he asks, nostrils flaring. “It is my only weakness.” Gin has always had a Jekyll and Hyde nature since its genesis over 300 years ago on the back streets of London – from sophisticated then seedy to frumpy then trendy.
But what is gin? There is a not-so-secret essential botanical element…
Juniper berries are the basis and the signature flavour of all gins. Nearly all juniper is picked wild and almost none is cultivated and in fact it’s not a true berry at all but a female seed cone from a conifer.
Juniperus-communis-juniper (Image from the Herbarium Collection, Manchester Museum)
Juniper was considered medicinal and available in pharmacies. During the plague years doctors wore duck-billed masks filled with crushed juniper berries as they thought the plague was spread by inhalation.
Copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel (a.k.a Dr. Beak.) a Roman plague doctor with a juniper filled mask – 1656
The Gin Craze – ‘mothers ruin’
“Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence, clean straw for nothing”
– A popular gin shop phrase
In England, gin was born around 1688 with the arrival of William of Orange, who declared a free-for-all on distilling, providing that it was produced from ‘good English corn’. Heavier taxes on beer increased the demand for gin – resulting in Britain’s first binge-drinking crisis! Poor Londoners sought to imitate the Dutch spirit Genever, an imported, fashionable drink among the elite, and ended up creating their own cheap version – gin. It became readily available, any time of the day or night, from street hawkers, shops, taverns, market stalls. At the height of the gin craze they consumed a staggering 10 litres per person per year and by 1726, London had 1,500 working stills and there were over 6000 places where you buy gin. This when gin acquired many of its pseudonyms; Blue or Mothers Ruin, Ladies Delight, Cuckholds Comfort or Strip Me Naked – to name a few!
In 1751, satirical social art critic William Hogarth created an engraving entitled Gin Lane which remain one of the most honest and graphic visual representations of the effects of gin during this time.
‘Gin Lane’, an engraving by William Hogarth depicting a scene of the gin-fuelled social breakdown (Image: British Museum)
Things got so bad that Gin Acts were passed in order to allow only licenced retailers to sell alcohol in the 1750s and gin began to improve in quality and standing as professional distilleries opened in London and other harbour cities. In the early 1800s new Regency gin palaces, emerged all over London where Britain’s poorest could hock back neat gin for less than it cost to drink beer.
An illustration of an early London gin palace (Photo: Alamy, available from telegraph.co.uk)
The Gin Palace
These new drinking spots fascinated a young Charles Dickens, who went to investigate their attraction. He explained to his educated readers how these elaborate, glass-fronted, gas-lit buildings were ‘perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and dirt of the street, thereby luring in many locals’. Eventually – like the Georgian gin shops before them – gin palaces were legislated out of existence.
Gin Punch – a favourite of Charles Dickens. Image (and recipe!) available at: thelondoneconomic.com)
An Imperial Tonic
As the British Empire expanded, quinine became invaluable as an anti-malarial but it was extremely bitter. To turn this chore into a treat, ex-pats began to stir it in with sugar, water and gin, resulting in a proto-G&T. This was soon accompanied by other “medicinal” drinks such as the gimlet, to avoid scurvy on ship, and pink gin, which was said to help seasickness. They brought their concoctions back to the UK and popularised them. By 1849 gin was respectable enough to be included in the Fortnum and Mason catalogue for the first time.
Thanks to the development of cocktails and long drinks, the spirit’s reputation improved again. Victorian favourites included combinations such as the summer gin punch at the Garrick club, which Dickens loved, consisting of lemon peel and juice, maraschino, gin and soda water, or the gin flip – a mix of egg white, sugar, nutmeg, warm beer and gin, made to froth up by twizzling a hot iron through it.
The Twizzling Continues – A Ginaissance
The twenty first century has seen gin (and tonic) shake off its colonial image of Empire, and evolve into something fresh, filled with curious flavours, with new bars and brands springing up everywhere. Gin is fast becoming one of Great Britain’s biggest exports.
So, what’s new? Small batches, capturing a balance of the delicate taste of the forest and subtle regional flavours – the key to which lies in the botanicals …
Botanicals are where the real magic lies …
Botanicals are the herbs, spices, fruits and other ingredients that give gin its flavor. The only botanical required in order to be gin is juniper. The rest is up to the distiller. The most popular gin botanicals have all been used in gins for centuries even common in 17th and 8th century gins. Most brands use the same core botanicals, including juniper, coriander, angelica, citrus peel and orris root.
Botanicals for gin (Image from: gourmetastic.com/the-gin-bar/)
Today’s distillers have expanded this list considerably and include newer flavours like cardamom, ginger, lavender and cucumber – the height of good taste for the gin renaissance.
The Museum Spirit
The Museum filled with inspiration from antiquity to postmodernity, and from all the corners of the globe, for inventing our very own gin, and it would be something delectably curious…
Eccentric elegance – some of the specimens and illustrations of the beautiful botanicals in the Herbarium Collection at Manchester Museum.**
Wishing everyone Happy World Gin Day! And remember to enjoy responsibly.
With very special thanks to Dr Rachel Webster, Curator of Botany, for the, whose botanicals have added elegance and spice, and all things nice…
** Angelica, bitter orange, caraway seed, chamomile flower, corriander seed, cubeb, elder, juniper, lemon, yarrow.