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Dictionary > History of Gin

gin
History of Gin

The first confirmed date for the production of gin is the early 17th century in Holland, although claims have been made that it was produced prior to this in Italy. In Holland it was produced as a medicine and sold in chemist shops to treat stomach complains, gout and gallstones. To make it more palatable, the Dutch started to flavour it with juniper, which has medicinal properties of its own.

British troops fighting in the Low Countries during the Thirty Years' War were given 'Dutch Courage' during the long campaigns in the damp weather through the warming properties of gin. Eventually they started brining it back home with them, where already it was often sold in chemists' shops. Distillation was taking place in a small way in England, but it began on a greater scale, though the quality was often very dubious. The new drink became a firm favourite with the poor.

Members of the formation by King Charles I of the Worshipful Company of Distillers hold the right to distill spirits in London and Westminster. It improved both the quality of gin and its image, it also helped English agriculture by using surplus corn and barley.

When King William III, better known as William of Orange came to the English throne in 1689, he made a series of statues actively encouraging the distillation of English spirits. Anyone could now distill by simply posting a notice in public and just waiting 10 days. Sometimes gin was distributed to workers as part of their wages and soon the volume sold daily exceeded that of beer and ale, which was more expensive.

In 1729 an excise license of 20 was introduced and two shillings per gallon duty was levied. Retailers also required a license. This almost suppressed good gin, but the quantity consumed of bad spirits continued to rise.

In 1730 London had over 7,000 shops that sold only spirits. Abuse of alcohol by the poor became a major problem, which was tackled by introducing The Gin Act at midnight on 29 September 1739, making gin prohibitively expensive. The Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole and Dr. Samuel Johnson were among those who opposed the Act since they considered it could not be enforced against the will of the common people. They were right. Riots broke out and the law was widely and openly broken. About this time, 11 million gallons of gin were distilled in London which was over 20 times the 1690 figure and has been estimated to be the equivalent of 14 gallons for each adult male. During 6 years of the Gin Act, only two distillers took out licenses, yet production rose by almost 50%.

The Gin Act was finally repealed in 1742 and a new policy was introduced with the help of distillers: reasonably high prices, reasonable excise duties and licensed retailers under the supervision of magistrates. In essence this is the situation which exists today. Since then many companies established themselves as well-to-do manufacturers and the gin became the drink of high quality.

Gin has been known as Mother's Milk from the 1820s but later in the century it became known as Mother's Ruin, a description perhaps originating from the earlier Blue Ruin of the prohibition era in the previous century.

Gin triumphed in the 1920s, the first Cocktail Age, after having been scarce during the 1914 - 1918 World War. Gin became the darling of the famous Cunard cruises. During the 90s and 30s the newly popular idea of the cocktail party crossed the Atlantic from the USA to Britain via an American hostess who wanted to fill in for her friends the blank time between teatime and dinner. By 1951 the Bartenders' Guild had registered 7,000 cocktails on its files.

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