How Gin was born: a fascinating story

by Redazione Fine Taste

Gin lovers... Have you ever stopped to think about the origins of gin? Gin has a long and anecdote-rich history, a very fascinating story to tell. Here she is.

What is meant by Gin?

Gin, as we know it today, is a distillate which by definition must contain the characteristic aroma and flavor of the juniper berry. Even the name itself comes from the Dutch word for juniper 'genever', or from the French 'genièvre'. The quality of the berry and the way the gin is processed all play a role in determining the character of fine gins.

Where is gin born?

There are many stories about the origins of gin and how it was created. It is said that the origins of this classic drink can be traced back as far as the 11th century, when it was used as a medicine. The Benedictine monks of Salerno distilled liqueurs using juniper berries (which grew in abundance in the nearby hills) as a cure for a wide range of ailments, including indigestion and to treat infections of the stomach, kidneys and liver.

Juniper tonic

Gin, as we know it today, is based on an ancient Dutch liquor called "jenever," a blend of grain-based malt wine and a neutral spirit infused with juniper, which was used to mask its harsh flavor.

By 1340 the bubonic plague, or “Black Death,” had spread to Europe from Central Asia, and it is believed that people across Europe consumed a form of this juniper tonic in the vain hope of warding off the deadly disease. By mid-century, jenever production levels in the Netherlands (and Amsterdam in particular) were enormous.

The "Dutch Courage"

Fast forward to the 17th century, during the Netherlands' struggles for independence from Spain, when English soldiers were sent to war to assist the Dutch uprising against their Spanish Catholic rulers. It is said that the English had their first taste of gin here. As English soldiers fought alongside their Dutch allies, they would see troops drinking jenever before going into battle, to relax and sustain themselves with a generous drink of something they called "Dutch courage."

Gin migrates to England

Soldiers returned home with a fondness for this new alcoholic beverage and introduced gin to England, but it wasn't until the late 1600s that gin really began to spread to London. William of Orange ascended the throne and became King of England in 1689. In an attempt to support the British economy, he introduced heavy taxes on imported spirits such as French wine and cognac and instituted the "Corn Laws", tax breaks on domestic alcohol production and trade restrictions on imported food and grain.

The “gin craze”

This policy created a devastating effect in the country, the period known as the “gin craze”. Thousands of gin shops opened across London, anyone could make gin. A pint of gin had become cheaper than a pint of beer!

For many poor Londoners, gin became a cheap pleasure that could be had for pennies, an escape from cold and hunger. Some workers were even paid gin as part of their wages!

Thanks to the very poor regulation, to increase their profits, many producers began to use poor quality cereals mixed with toxic substances such as turpentine and sulfuric acid!

The result was devastating. The expression "Mothers Ruin" was coined in this period, testifying to the fact that this type of adulterated Gin became a source of misery throughout London. The result was an exponential increase in crime, prostitution, blindness and death. London was teeming with people who were drunk or driven mad by alcohol.

Smuggled gin

Parliament realized it had a huge law and order problem and tried to slow the city-wide thirst for gin by passing new, more restrictive and severe laws.

The Gin Act was then passed in 1736. Those who wanted to produce gin now needed a very expensive specific license and gin shops were heavily taxed. This only pushed the production of contraband. Smugglers were everywhere, producing domestic gin, in their homes, in every hidden place. This phenomenon gave rise to the curious expression "bathtub gin".

The beginning of artisanal gin

Then came the Gin Act of 1751 which radically changed the way gin was sold. Licensing fees were lowered and distillers forced to sell to authorized retailers. At the same time, due to a poor harvest, grain prices also increased leading to the production of a better quality distillate. Parliament introduced a minimum production requirement and doubled duties on alcoholic drinks, putting the price of gin out of reach of the lower classes and consumption began to decline. By 1757 the gin craze was over. Gin distilleries began producing only high-quality gin, and England once again became a nation of beer drinkers.

How one of the most iconic cocktails in the world, the Gin&Tonic, was born

It was the global deployment of the British Navy that allowed gin to become famous throughout the world. While in India, to combat scurvy, the Royal Navy began combining gin with a quinine-based anti-malarial drug. Pure quinine rations tasted so terrible that soldiers took to adding gin and a touch of lime to the quinine. Quinine is the basic ingredient of tonic water and thus Gin&Tonic was born!

The rise of craft spirits

The delicate and exotic botanicals that our master distillers use in gins today are a world away from the harsh spirit of times gone by. Gin has transformed from a medieval herbal tonic to a very sophisticated modern artisan spirit appreciated throughout the world.