I love gin. Gin and tonic has always been my go to drink, it reminds me of warm summer evenings and being on holiday. Recently a good friend gave me a book called Gin The Manual and reading Broom’s excellent chapter on the history of gin, as well as listening to In Our Time’s podcast on The Gin Craze, inspired me to write this post. During the eighteenth century London was mad about gin, sales were extremely high for various reasons, and this had serious consequences. This post is just a snapshot into this fascinating phenomenon.
Bring on the gin.
William of Orange, the King of England from 1689 to 1702 is often credited with introducing gin to England. Jupiter berries had been used in medicine and as flavourings since ancient times but it is unknown exactly when gin proper originated. The earliest written reference to genever (Dutch name for what became gin) is in a 13th century encyclopaedic work. However, we do know that, by the mid-17th century, Dutch and Flemish distillers had popularised the re-distillation of malt spirit or malt wine with juniper and other ingredients.
William as the leader of the Dutch Republic is said to have imported and popularised this drink in England. However, the gentry of England were already drinking Hollands along with brandy (a term used for any distilled spirit) by this time. What really launched gin’s popularity in England was William’s ‘Act for encouraging the distilling of brandy and spirits from corn’ (1690). This act rewarded using English corn to produce ‘spirits’ or gin and temporarily banned French brandy. This Act wasn’t a royal encouragement to make and drink gin – though it seems that way – but an effort to provide a market for the corn surplus experienced by the country’s landowners. The Act consisted of a deregularisation of the production of this spirit – anyone could distil or compound gin. Due to the cheapness of corn, prices of gin were very low and in a period of 16 years, consumption went from 2,600,363 gallons to 5,455,308.
In the early 18th century London was growing, with growing slums. William III imported lots of soldiers and sailors to the town – used to drinking hard spirits. This influx of men drew in women from the country – coming to work and meet men – who were often drawn into prostitution and, of course, into the new drinking culture.
William of Orange, painted by Sir Peter Lely. See this painting at Attingham Park.
Although we now use the term more generally, gin was also known as Dutch Courage. It was drunk by soldiers before battle, or sailors on board ship, to give them courage and steady their nerves. The popular story is that English soldiers during the Thirty Years’ War drunk Dutch gin for its warming properties or its calming effects and named it ‘Dutch Courage’. Historians have asked whether English soldiers played a role in the gin craze by bringing gin back from the battlefields of the Netherlands. However, others suggest that the contribution of soldiers was more in the drinking of the spirit than its importation. When soldiers returned from the wars they were often unemployed and at that point in time gin was the cheapest spirit available.
Gin Takes Over
By 1720 gin was at the height of its popularity. Its supporters said the drink had many health benefits, such as countering the effects of tea drinking. Gin was often sold as a medicine and middle class and upper class women often used this excuse for drinking their gin. Amusingly, gin was said to revive marital bliss by firing up tired husbands and making worn-down wives desirable. More realistically, gin helped many of the vast poor of London to confront the grimness of their days. Life for the poor of this city could be tough. Gin would stave off the cold, reduce hunger pains, and offer an escape for a few pennies.
Gin was seen in England as a patriotic drink. Not only was it produced in the country, as an explicit replacement for French brandy, but it was the drink of the soldiers. Gin was therefore perceived in the popular imagination as a Protestant drink. The liquid fired up the protestant soldiers who were leaving the country to valiantly fight Catholics in Ireland and Europe.
London was the focus of England’s gin drinking; 90% of England’s spirits were produced in London. By the 1730s there were about 1500 distillers in the city. Around 1300 of these were small distillers who only compounded liqueurs – adding flavourings to the spirit, watering it down and getting it ready to sell. Only 100 to 200 distillers were big and produced the main spirit.
What were they Drinking?
So what were people actually drinking in the eighteenth century? What do we mean by ‘gin’? Well, these question are difficult to answer in some ways. We know that mostly people drank flavoured gin which would be watered down. We can’t tell what proof the alcohol was as there was no means of measuring proof until the 19th century. Gin was often ordered in quarterns (¼ pints) from a variety of places, gin shops, taverns, coffee shops etc. These seemed to be shared between people and were perhaps the equivalent of three modern doubles. Though this doesn’t sound like a lot, there is no question that people were getting very drunk on gin. Wealthy drinkers were more likely to be drinking imported ‘Hollands’ or Dutch gin. On the other hand, there are reports that cheaper gin was ‘flavoured’ or adulterated with various substances, including turpentine and sulphuric acid. It, of course, was the poor who were drinking these versions of gin. During the early 18th century there was a massive rise in gin consumption in the lower classes, for the government and many commentators this was a huge problem.
Knocking it Back?
How much were people actually drinking? When talking about the gin craze it is important to remember that at this time everybody drank all day anyway. Men, women, and even children (who drank weak beer) would drink from breakfast to bedtime. This was partially to due to the bad water but also because London did have a hard drinking culture. Though the population in general weren’t really drinking hard spirits, people were getting drunk. Some narratives of the gin craze imply that gin came along and wreaked havoc in a more or less sober society, but of course this is not the case. Common drinks were beer, ale, and wine, along with a wide range of alcoholic drinks we don’t drink anymore, such as cordials and punches. However, perhaps due to its cheapness or its appeal to women, gin drinking does seem to have encouraged more heavy drinking and lead to an increase number of drunkards in the streets of the city.