The Magazine

Shaken Not Stirred

How the opiate of the masses got gentrified.

Apr 15, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 29 • By MARTIN MORSE WOOSTER
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Gin has been with us for over 400 years, praised by one generation, excoriated by another. But even the most knowledgeable drinkers remain largely unaware of how gin was transformed from a concoction bubbling in the flasks of medieval alchemists into a spirit beloved by martini lovers around the world. Here, Richard Barnett provides an informative social history of how gin emerged as one of the world’s great beverages.

William Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ (ca. 1780)

William Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ (ca. 1780)


Barnett is a British author whose understanding of America is incomplete. He makes one major mistake when he discusses how the United States embraced Prohibition: The causes of Prohibition are many, but it is far from true (as Barnett charges) that a primary reason was outrage at abstemious American soldiers discovering spirits in the fleshpots of Paris. World War I accelerated the move towards Prohibition in many ways, including increased anti-German bigotry towards lager brewers. But America had largely embraced an alcohol ban long before the doughboys began to storm machine-gun nests.

When Barnett is writing about British or European history, he is on much sounder ground, and this lively little book provides a good introduction to gin’s influence on European social history and literature.

The process of distillation was likely invented in Baghdad around 800 a.d. Over the next several centuries, alchemists distilled a great many things, but no one seems to have realized that distillation produced a potent alcoholic beverage. For example, around 1250, Pedro Julião, in his Liber de Oculis (“Book of the Eyes”), described how to create a distilled product with such herbs as fennel, endive, and rue. All that would be needed to transform Julião’s product into gin was the addition of juniper. But Julião, a professor of medicine at the University of Siena, did not realize that his product could be consumed; he thought he was creating eyewash. Julião ended his alchemical research when he became a priest and rose rapidly through the ranks of the Catholic church, eventually becoming Pope John XXI. 

By 1600, gin production had begun in the Netherlands, and such enduringly important Dutch producers as Bols and De Kuyper were already in the gin trade. A century later, gin began to be produced in Great Britain. The first British gin maker was William Y-Worth. The money he made from gin enabled Y-Worth to pursue an alchemical career; Y-Worth called himself “Cleidophorus Mystagogus, Professor of Spagyric Medicine,” and churned out volume after volume of incomprehensible woo-woo.

Gin was cheap to produce, and unscrupulous producers made it even cheaper by adulterating gin with turpentine and sulfuric acid. Gin was avidly consumed by the poor and vigorously denounced by many of the leading writers of the day, such as Henry Fielding and Daniel Defoe. In a great series of engravings, William Hogarth contrasted the wretched “Gin Lane” with the heavenly “Beer Street.” In Gin Lane, the only businesses were the “Kilman” distillery, the undertaker, the pawnbroker, and the gin shop. The residents of Beer Street, by contrast, were happy and productive. “Gin Lane, Hogarth wrote, was a place where “idleness, poverty, misery, and distress” flourished. By contrast, “In Beer Street, all is joyous and thriving.”

Britain tried to combat the gin menace through a series of tough prohibitionist acts, including one that made licensing so stringent that 98 percent of gin palaces operated illegally. Eventually, in 1751, a Gin Act was passed that raised the cost of production so that gin became legal, but expensive. Gin consumption dropped by a third, yet remained profitable; such important British gin producers as Gordon’s, Greenall, and Sir Robert Burdett were created in this era. 

During the past two centuries, gin has alternately been celebrated and attacked. In his prolific career, Charles Dickens both praised and condemned it. In Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9), Ninetta Crummles is a midget who performs with her family as “The Infant Phenomenon.” She remained small, Dickens says, because her family placed her on “an unlimited allowance of gin and water” from her infancy. But in A Christmas Carol, written four years later, the humble Christmas of the Cratchit family (where Tiny Tim famously says, “God bless us, every one”) is enhanced by Bob Cratchit’s elaborate production of hot gin punch, a drink so potent that it makes Cratchit’s meager collection of glasses seem like “golden goblets.”