Everything You Need To Know About Gin

Words: Jess Spiro

You may have noticed (unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of years) that gin is cool again. What was previously dismissed as a tipple for grannies and ladies who lunch, gin and tonic is now a widely accepted (and popular) drink of choice. If you’re not feeling completely up to speed just yet, read on as we tell you everything you need to know about gin.

everything you need to know about gin

Everything you need to know about Gin The History of Gin

You see, gin has a long history of popularity, prior to mothers-in-law telling you that you’re mixing it wrong. Once upon a time, around the 11th century, when the process of distilling was becoming better understood, juniper was the favoured botanical. This was partly because it was believed to have medicinal qualities, but also because it had a pleasant taste and aroma.

Dutch physician, Franciscus Sylvius, was originally credited with inventing gin in the 17th century (derived from the Dutch word for juniper– jenever) but there is conflicting evidence that may suggest it was discovered earlier, in the 1300s. At the time of its discovery, gin was used as a medical treatment for such as kidney and stomach problems, as well as gallstones and gout.

Is Gin Responsible for Dutch Courage?

The Dutch relied on the elixir so heavily during the Thirty Years’ War, that their English opponents took some back to England with them. Interestingly, this is where the term ‘Dutch courage’ comes from.

Everything You Need To Know About Gin

When William III, ruler of the Dutch Republic, (otherwise known as William the Orange because of his nationality) ascended to the British throne he relaxed distillation laws in the country. While the rich upper class were enjoying imported ‘jenever’ from Holland, the lower classes were distilling their own crude form of gin. People making their own gin, coupled with heavy taxes on imported spirits, seemed to set off what was known as ‘the gin craze’ in the UK. Before long, the working class began to earn more money, and, coupled with a drop in food prices, suddenly had excess funds to drink away. Reportedly, of the 15 000 drinking establishments in London alone, over half were gin bars. It didn’t take long, however, for gin to be blamed for many social ills.

Mother’s Ruin

The term ‘mother’s ruin’ was coined during this era because of the debauchery it was linked to in the 18th century, namely destroying families. As it was so cheap, it was reported that the heavy drinking caused men to become impotent and women to become sterile.

The Gin Act

To counteract this, in 1736, a Gin Act was introduced, effectively making gin expensive for the masses. After riots broke out – yes, riots, these people were serious about their gin – in response to the act, it was scrapped. In 1751, the Act was reinstated much more successfully, allowing the magistrates to control the production and consumption of gin.

everything you need to know about gin

Image: The Gin and Tonic Festival

How the G ‘n T came to be

It was during the early 19th century that the distillation process of gin was fine-tuned; the ‘London Dry’ style (unsweetened) was invented around this time too. To complement the clean, crisp taste, lemon and orange peel were introduced to the steeping process, along with other botanicals, to create the classic flavour notes of a London dry. Before long, soldiers in tropical British colonies, in an attempt to fight off malaria, were drinking gin to improve the flavour of the quinine. Quinine, a bitter tasting medication, was dissolved in carbonated water and became known as tonic.

Nowadays, we still drink tonic water, but only a minuscule amount of quinine is added in comparison to the 19th century. Throughout most of the 19th century, gin remained classified as a poor man’s drink, which at the time, accounted for a large portion of the English population. If you skip through the rest of gin’s history, it mostly speaks of the British government trying to control the consumption of the spirit. In the 1920s however, gin made the transition from the everyman’s drink to that of the elite.

Rumour has it that an American heiress served gin to her friends to fill in the space between lunch and tea time. From there, London dry gin became immensely popular with the wealthy and was made the primary ingredient in a host of cocktails – most notably the Martini.

Gin and out of Favour

So, for a drink that was reserved for the rich, then the poor and then the rich again, it was to be expected that gin would fall out of favour only to fall back into it once more. Right through the 20th-century gin remained popular, that was until around the 60s or 70s however, when travel and foreign flavours became more in vogue.

By the time the wild 80s rolled around the youths of those days likely chose to drink vodka and tequila over gin, because they were deemed exotic. Gin was pushed aside in favour of aperitifs like Cinzano and Campari and was pretty much an embarrassing drink of choice until around 2009. That’s when Hammersmith-based, Sipsmith Gin, distilled gin for the first time in London in 200 years. This was a turning point for mother’s ruin, as trend-setting Londoners were starting to take notice of gin.

everything you need to know about gin

Image: The Gin and Tonic Festival

The Craft Gin Explosion

Having said that, well known, quality brands like Hendrick’s, Tanqueray and Bombay Sapphire did well in holding the fort for the gin industry. It’s just that up until around 2009, no small distilleries were specialising in craft gin. And as trends do, gin seems to become an overnight success once again. But this time, distilleries are experimenting with new, refreshed flavours and botanicals.

It is reported that in the UK, the number of gin distilleries doubled between 2015 and 2016, and something similar has happened here in South Africa.

Five years ago, there were a handful of local distilleries specialising in craft gin, now, there are dozens of distilleries all creating their own and unique gins. There are even a couple of dedicated to gin, like Mother’s Ruin and The Secret Gin Bar. What is it about the once-hated tipple? Well, it’s probably the fact that gin itself is a rather neutral tasting base alcohol that is then re-distilled with all manner of interesting botanicals.

Hope on Hopkins is known for their Mediterranean offering, which has been infused with olives, rosemary, basil, thyme and cardamom, whereas Bloedlemoen is infused with – well– blood orange. Pienaar and Sons, a relative newcomer in the gin game, has become known for their ‘Orient’ gin, which features notes of allspice and ginger. Wilderer is also producing an award-winning fynbos infused gin. The clean base of gin allows the end product to take on pretty much any flavour, if a distiller can think it, they can do it.

everything you need to know about gin

Image credit: Caylin Groenewald

So, if gin is back and better than ever before, we’re not going to complain about it. All we ask is that it doesn’t follow its routine of falling out of favour again, as we’ve become rather accustomed to unashamedly ordering a gin and tonic.

Did you know? If you’re ordering a drink in the East End of London be sure to ask your barman for a ‘Philharmonic’ – the cockney rhyming slang for gin and tonic.

Now that you know everything there is to know about gin, perfect the art of the dirty Martini with this recipe for a Stilton-stuffed Olive Martini

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