HomeCultureHistory on the Rocks: Gin, Merriment, Madness and Malaria

History on the Rocks: Gin, Merriment, Madness and Malaria

A history of the liquid madness that takes a special place in literature and the edge off a “broiling” summer day. 

by Andrew J. Avery

I can distinctly remember my first gin and tonic, ordered in a hotel bar in Canakkale, Turkey, during the summer of 2010. A friend and I had walked inside to escape the heat, rest from our traveling and enjoy the view of the Dardanelles Straits. My friend Michael asked me if I’d ever had a gin and tonic. I hadn’t, but the image of mustachioed British colonizers wearing khaki linen suits came to my mind. This was the translucent elixir for the men Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described as “the loungers of empire.” My friend told me the gin and tonic was, in his humble opinion, the finest summer cocktail. Upon first taste I readily agreed. Since then, the gin and tonic and its various siblings have brought me substantial joy and, at times, side effects, perhaps channeling what Thomas Carlyle described as “liquid madness.” Gin has its own interesting and rollicking place in history and literature, ranging from London palaces to the work of Douglas Adams.

It is to the Dutch and Belgians, or rather their forbearers, that we owe our gratitude for the creation of gin. The spirit gained popularity in England following William of Orange’s ascent to the throne in 1688 during the Glorious Revolution but became a national problem during the “gin craze” of the 18th century. The roots of the craze grew, in part, in the fertile soil of national rivalry; Protestant Britain passed legislation that stymied the import of brandy from Catholic France, thus making domestically produced gin a cheap and accessible spirit. There were more tangible reasons for the popularity, though. Food prices fell and freed up more spending money for the working class and the lack of regulation led to the establishment of several gin distilleries in London.

Author Iain Gately points out in Drink: A Cultural History that gin’s potency and value had much to do with its appeal, writing, “Why work your way through porter at three pence a pot when the same money would buy a pint of gin?” Some of you may recall employing a similar line of logic during your youth and university years—or maybe last night. With accessibility came excess, however. Gately cites statistics from 1723 that, “suggested that every man, woman, and child in London knocked back more than a pint of gin per head per week.” For the first half of the 19th century, politicians, ministers and social reformers cited gin as the fuel for debauchery and vice in London. Artist William Hogarth illustrated the effect of this widespread consumption in his 1751 print “Gin Lane.” Upon viewing this piece, and its companion, “Beer Street,” some of you will no doubt recall similar scenes played out on fraternity house lawns or maybe in the living room at family Christmas parties. The perceived debilitating effect gin had on the population of London cannot be overlooked. Parliament passed five separate pieces of legislation concerning the “epidemic” in 1729, 1736, 1743, 1747 and 1751. Government regulation and the falling wages of the working class contributed to the end of the “gin craze.”

The gin and tonic is perhaps most synonymous with British imperialism. The cocktail didn’t merely quench the thirst of ruthless colonizers when they took a break from subjecting and exploiting the native populations of Africa and Asia, however. The gin and tonic emerged during the mid-19th century when British soldiers began mixing quinine—a powder rendered from the bark of the cinchona tree—with soda and sugar to create a rudimentary form of tonic water. Quinine served as a precaution against malaria. British civil and military personnel throughout India took daily rations of it to survive. Following the establishment of the first commercial tonic water company by Erasmus Bond in 1858, Britons living and working in India began drinking their daily ration with gin, thus providing them with a delicious means of repelling the diseases that made mass subjection difficult. Wherever the imperial Britons nested they created specialty cocktails. One example is the Singapore Sling, created in the early 20th century by a Chinese bartender working at the Raffles Hotel—one of the more opulent bastions of white, British imperialists—in Singapore.

Upon reading this, some of you may be thinking that now you’ve got all the justification in the world to begin a stout regimen of gin and tonic drinking at work—“it’s medicinal, preventative care” or “it worked for the British empire,” et cetera, et cetera. You may consider the following question, one which few British imperialists asked themselves: should we really be trying to conquer a place that requires us to be drunk most of the time? Furthermore, let me remind of something before you replace the office water cooler with a 10-gallon jug of Schweppes tonic water: the gin and tonic didn’t keep the empire from sinking, but instead merely kept its agents floating, so to speak.

From the metropole to the periphery, the British have crafted many delicious cocktails with the spirit, the names of which are nuggets of their history; the Old Etonian, for instance, bears the name of Britain’s most prestigious public school (they count 19 prime ministers as alumni); the Pimms No. 1 Cup originated in a 19th century London oyster house located near the Bank of England and eventually made its way to New Orleans. There are also many historic gin distilleries scattered throughout Britain that produce several types of gin using a variety of different flavors and methods. I will leave the subtle chemistry of these differences to someone much more qualified to discuss the finer points of distilling and distillation. My expert opinion is this: due to the spectrum of styles and flavors, a gin exists for you.

Given this brief historical sketch, it will not surprise readers to find that gin has found its way into the pages and the bodies of many esteemed writers and their work. After all, William Faulkner once wrote that “civilization begins with distillation.” According to Mark Bailey’s book Hemingway and Bailey’s Bartending Guide to Great American Writers, novelist and lightweight F. Scott Fitzgerald preferred gin because he thought it couldn’t be easily detected on his breath. He included the Gin Rickey in his masterwork, The Great Gatsby. During the tense luncheon at the Buchanans in chapter seven, Daisy orders the rickey to drink, hoping the cool libation will take the edge off of the “broiling” later summer day.

Fitzgerald was not alone in his love of gin, though. Raymond Chandler enjoyed gimlets, a cocktail Slate columnist Troy Patterson dubbed, “the most unscrewupable of cocktails.” One can see why, Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe described the perfect Gimlet recipe in The Long Goodbye, saying it is, “half gin and half Rose’s Lime Juice and nothing else.” Walker Percy’s Thomas More preferred drinking Ramos gin fizzes in Love in the Ruins; Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet features a variation on the fizz in several scenes. Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, invented the Vesper in the pages of Casino Royale. Bond recites the order to a bartender, noting that it should be served in a champagne goblet, listing the ingredients as: “Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel.”

Why does gin endure and new gin distilleries continue to pop up across the globe? The Sipsmith microdistillery opened its doors in 2009, and its website boasts that it’s the “first copper pot distillery” to open in London for “nearly two hundred years.” Closer to home, the St. Augustine Distillery in Florida began producing small batches of gin just a few years ago, as did Catoctin Creek in Virginia. In New Orleans, Cajun Spirits Distillery makes 3rd Ward Gin and Atelier Vie produces Euphrosine Gin #9 pot-distilled in small batches from nine herbs and botanicals.

Gin endures because, like any good spirit, of its versatility. The wide array of flavors and strengths allows consumers to choose how they wish to engage with gin’s distinct, sharp flavor. The amount of gin recipes is exhaustive and this article didn’t even touch on martinis, which warrants a separate category all its own. However, no matter how it’s prepared, the sharp and distinctive flavor of gin shines through in marvelous style. So, dear reader, in the spirit of gin’s egalitarian history and appeal, I raise my glass to you.

Andrew J. Avery is a History Ph.D student at the University of Kansas and is originally from Kentucky. Read his piece about the history of wassail here

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