The History of Gin:

Medicine - Mass Drug - Modern Drink

Gin was not always as 'in' as it is today. On the contrary: Originally, the Dutch spirit, then still called Genever, was intended for medical purposes. The name Genever is derived from the Dutch term for juniper 'jeneverbes' or the botanical term 'juniperus'. Over time, this has evolved into the Gin we know today, whose name is an abbreviation of Genever.


Medicine: Miracle Cure Juniper

The juniper plant was said to have a number of healing properties in past times: in the Middle Ages, whole villages were fumigated with the leaves to prevent the spread of the plague. The plant is also said to purify from negative influences and pent-up emotions. The Dutch Genever was originally developed in the late 16th century as a medicine based on the active ingredient juniper, which was supposed to help against kidney diseases and tuberculosis. Of course, the intoxicating effect of the medicine did not go unnoticed for long.

William III of Orange brought the Genever to England when he ascended the throne in 1689. At that time, the newly crowned king had a dispute with the Catholic French, who had granted asylum to William's predecessor and father-in-law King James. Without further ado, he taxed French cognac and brandy with very high punitive duties, thus making his Genever more affordable and popular with the people. Many of his subjects also produced the Dutch noble brandy themselves and only 20 years later every fourth household was already distilling Genever. One of the reasons for this was that Queen Anne, who was crowned at the beginning of the 18th century, continued the feud with Catholicism and France. She allowed every household in Great Britain - which in 1707 merged from England, Scotland and Wales - to distil Genever or Gin without a license.

Mass Drug: The Gin Crisis

This also marked the beginning of a dark chapter in the history of Gin, a period later called the 'Gin Crisis'. Juniper and spices were not available and affordable to everyone in England, so there was much trickery to imitate the aroma of Gin: Sulphuric acid was supposed to give a 'certain kick' to bad alcohol, turpentine was added to suggest juniper aromas, sugar and potassium carbonate softened the distillates. Due to the permanent availability, Gin became cheaper and cheaper - for just one penny people could buy Gin in some London pubs. The quality, on the other hand, became worse and worse and more dangerous to health. Here are a few statistics: The number of alcoholics rose dramatically. In 1723 the death rate exceeded the birth rate in London. In 1751 9,000 children died of alcohol poisoning. In the end, the state had to intervene by regulating the Gin market and introducing definitions like 'Dry Gin' (= unsweetened Gin). Eventually, the taxes on Gin were increased as well.

During the time of the Gin Crisis in the first half of the 18th century, many Gin distilleries and brands still known today were established. The Black Friars Distillery in Plymouth was founded in 1697. It is now called Plymouth Distillery and still produces Plymouth Gin, which now also has a legally Protected Designation of Origin. In 1740, the Finsbury Distillery was opened in the town of the same name near London. Finsbury is now a district of the city and is known for its particularly pure water. This is, of course, also an important prerequisite for the distillation of spirits. The Gin distilleries Gordon and Bloomsbury (Tanqueray), too, moved to the London district of Finsbury at the beginning of the 19th century due to the good water quality.

At that time Gin was distilled in so-called 'Carter Head Stills'. These were developed by the Carter brothers, who learned their craft from Aeneas Coffey. He was the inventor of the Coffey still for continuous distillation. Thus, at the beginning of the 19th century, Gin was produced using the continuous distillation process, as well. This was a quick and inexpensive way to obtain 'clean' base alcohol for Gin. As industrialization also arrived in the spirits industry, the production of higher quality Gin became possible. Connoisseurs enjoyed this Gin, that tasted better and was less hazardous to their health, especially the workers who moved from the country to the city and adapted to the urban customs.

Gin & Tonic
Gin & Tonic

Modern Drink: Gin is in

With the better quality, the image of Gin also changed noticeably. After World War II, juniper spirit had completely changed from a popular drug to a fashionable drink. Ever since Gin has become an indispensable part of the spirits and bar scene - even the Queen Mum came out as a Gin fan.

One of the most important Gin trends was set by the military in the British Colonies: The soldiers were advised to drink tonic water containing chinine as a malaria prophylaxis. They mixed the bitter drink with Gin from their homeland to make it more mild and enjoyable. And the classic long drink 'Gin & Tonic' was born. At first, the production and consumption of Gin was still strongly limited to England and Great Britain. But at the beginning of the 20th century, more and more 'bars' opened up in Europe. The English word originally referred to the shape of the counter where drinks were served. In these bars, professional barkeepers experimented a lot, first with Dutch Gin, then with English Gin, and other cult drinks were created, such as the Dry Martini or the Gin Fizz.

Gin, like all spirits, suffered from prohibition in the USA, where a nationwide ban on the production, transport and sale of alcohol was enforced from 1919 to 1933. But soon after, Gin was once again the number 1 among mixed spirits. Although Vodka, Tequila and even Rum were very fashionable at the beginning of the 21st century, the Gin economy has been booming since the 2010s: new brands and distilleries are springing up, as are new tonic water varieties. For sure: Gin is in!