“CIVILISATION begins,” William Faulkner once pronounced, “with distillation.” He may have felt differently had he considered Georgian London, a major step back for civilisation by any standards. It was here that the city’s fetid backstreets spawned the Gin Craze, causing decades of soul-searching among philanthropists, politicians and magistrates about the wretched lives of the poor. Gin’s reputation as the crack cocaine of its day was cemented with lurid press tales about gin-fuelled degradation and squalor, culminating in William Hogarth’s infamous 1751 engraving “Gin Lane” (pictured).
These days, however, gin is indeed rather civilised. Britain is its greatest exporter, with 56 new distilleries opening in the past two years alone, and the government is hoping to make it into the new whisky—prestigious and lucrative. In the 1990s this popularity explosion would have been a distant dream. From the 1960s until recently, gin makers were forced to batten down the hatches in the face of dwindling interest. Now they cannot export it to Brazil, Spain, India and China fast enough.
This is in large part due to the cluster of “craft” gins that set up shop at the turn of the century. Since Hendrick’s and Martin Miller’s launched in 1999, coinciding with the British cocktail bar boom, gin has become unstoppable, as more and more distillers compete to become bartenders’ and tipplers’ favourite. Even the recession did not prove much of a hiccup, as a general consensus to drink “less but better” seemed to win out. Drinkers in droves, then and now, are willing to pay £7 and up for a punchy Negroni or a delicate White Lady, rather than the cheaper but boring spirit-and-mixers they drank before.
Though the Roaring 20s get more attention, cocktails in fact took off in Britain in the early 19th century, when the development of gin-based long drinks helped to lift the spirit out of the gutter. An early success came from Pimm’s Oyster Bar, opened in London in 1823 and selling a winning mixture of gin, liqueurs and fruit to aid digestion. From 1859, the namesake drinks were bottled to be sold beyond the Oyster Bars and from there, Pimm’s No 1 Cup became a firm fixture of summertime drinking.
Londoners’ new love for these “mixed drinks” was confirmed during the Great Exhibition of 1851. Alexis Soyer, a Frenchman who worked at the Reform Club on Pall Mall, opened the Victorian equivalent of a pop-up bar with a wondrous choice of 40 cocktails in Hyde Park. The Exhibition organisers had asked him to make non-alcoholic cocktails, which affronted him. Soyer instead set up shop next to the Exhibition, where he could make his drinks as strong as he wanted, his ambition reflected in his venture’s name: the Gastronomic Symposium of All Nations. It drew 1,000 visitors a day. Although he spent so much money on the decoration, entertainment and ingredients that he actually plunged himself into debt, it did show a more prudent businessman that there was money to be made in cocktails.
The rise of the fashionable mixed drink coincided with the British Empire’s expansion, during which quinine (originally from South America) became widely invaluable as an anti-malarial, especially in India. Unfortunately it was extremely bitter, and the daily dose was dreaded among colonialists. To turn this chore into a treat they began to stir it in with sugar, water and gin, creating a proto-gin-and-tonic. (The bubbles came when Johann Jakob Schweppe, descendant of a German jeweller based in Geneva, used his newly patented bubbling device on a mixture of oranges, sugar and quinine and named it Schweppes Indian Tonic Water.) The GT was soon accompanied by other “medicinal” drinks, such as the gimlet with lime juice, to avoid scurvy on ship, and pink gin, which was said to ease seasickness. These concoctions were brought back and popularised in Britain, their medical pretexts soon forgotten. By 1849 gin was respectable enough to be included in the Fortnum Mason catalogue for the first time.
Gin would reach the height of glamour when it became the fuel for the parties of debutantes and bright young things after the first world war. Gin brands benefited hugely from aristocratic endorsements, and in particular that of the young Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who would later make the Windsors a family of gin-drinkers. Thanks to Prohibition, renowned bartenders flocked to London, where they were revered for their skill. Many brought out their own glossy cocktail books, as celebrity chefs do now.
With the help of all these sociable aristocrats, inventive colonialists, and daring distillers, gin’s disreputable past is a fading memory. But for those government ministers seeking to make lifelong gin-drinkers out of the hipsters who rehabilitated absinthe and blue-collar American lagers, gin’s rakish past might be its greatest asset.