Skip to navigationSkip to content

Gin: How the liquor known as “mother’s ruin” went from scourge to savior🍸

By Stacy Conradt

Bottoms up

Gin is having a moment in the UK. Supermarkets can’t keep hipster micro-distilled brands on their shelves, and tourists are flocking to themed spas and hotels that celebrate the liquor’s long history. And what a history it is: Gin was long a societal scourge, blamed for addiction and depredation, until it began its slow march toward respectability—helped in large part by being paired with a bitter antimalarial drug.

Even today, most people have high-proof opinions about the liquor once known to Brits as “mother’s ruin.” Enthusiasts cite its sophisticated botanical notes; the less enthused claim that it tastes like a Christmas tree.

The haters aren’t wrong about the flavor. The word “gin” is derived from the Dutch “jenever,” a liquor made of juniper berries, which come from a conifer tree in the cypress family.

All gin is flavored with juniper berries. The other ingredients—from rye, barley, wheat, and corn to cinnamon, ginger, anise, and coriander—are optional. But a neutral opinion on the complex and controversial spirit known as “Madame Geneva” is not.

Who drinks the most gin?

In the modern era, Filipinos drink the rest of the world under the table when it comes to gin consumption. The liquor took root in the Philippines during the Spanish colonial era, and the Ginebra San Miguel distillery, founded in 1834, remains the country’s dominant gin manufacturer. The base is locally grown sugar cane, similar to rum.

Gin and powdered pomelo juice (known as a Gin Pom) is reportedly the country’s most popular cocktail, along with the bracing Expired—beer mixed with gin, sometimes with some menthol candies for extra flavor. Yum!
And what about Slovakia? The country’s presence near the top of the league table is due to a national love of borovička, a local juniper berry-based liquor.

Better know a gin

Bon Appetit explains:

London Dry. A classic style that originated in… guess where. Juniper is the dominant flavor, though citrus is often highlighted as well. Brands: Beefeater, Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire.

Old Tom. Drier than Dutch Genever, but sweeter than London Dry due to naturally sweet botanicals or added sugar. According to some experts, the mild flavor has been known to convert gin naysayers. Brands: Ransom, Hayman’s, Jensen’s.

Genever. The OG gin, with a malted grain base that’s similar to whiskey, with flavors that can include nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and caraway. Brands: Boomsma, Bols, Anchor Genevieve.

Plymouth. Produced exclusively in the city of Plymouth in Devon, England, this variety is drier than London Dry, with spicy notes of coriander seed, dried orange peels, cardamom, Angelica root, and Orris root. Brands: Plymouth. (And only Plymouth.)

New American. A modern style of “craft” gin heavy on the botanicals. Brands: Hendrick’s, Aviation, Dry Fly.

Fun fact

Juniper berries aren’t actually berries. They’re cones–like pine cones–with extremely fleshy, merged scales that make them resemble berries.

A brief history

A great power in the throes of economic protectionism and deregulation falls prey to a crippling, nationwide addiction, sending its death rate soaring. The time was 18th-century London, and the drug of choice was gin.

Gin became popular in England around 1688, when William of Orange took the throne and brought the tipple with him from Holland (English soldiers stationed in the Netherlands coined the phrase “Dutch courage,” for alcohol’s fear-lessening effects). William promptly slashed gin taxes, hiked import duties on French brandy, and ended the monopoly of the London Guild of Distillers.

The Brits’ enthusiasm for the spirit, nicknamed “the mother’s ruin,” got out of hand by the 1700s. It was cheap, it warmed empty bellies, and it provided a bit of relief from a hard, brutal life. By 1730, an estimated 7,000 legal gin shops could be found in London, not to mention countless illegal operations. The English stuff was far more potent than its Dutch counterpart, and more toxic—additives included potentially fatal mixers such as turpentine and sulfuric acid.

By 1743, England was drinking 2.2 gallons (10 litres) of gin per person annually—even children were addicted to the stuff. At the height of the gin epidemic, London’s death rate surpassed its birth rate. As the downward spiral deepened, Parliament passed a series of laws that raised taxes and restricted production. That did not go well: Londoners rioted in the streets, chanting “no gin, no king.”

It wasn’t until after a final Gin Act in 1751 that the craze began to abate. According to historian Peter Ackroyd, “This had nothing to do with the attempt at prohibition … Bad harvests rendered gin more expensive. The influence of Methodism was growing even among the urban poor. And, suddenly, there was the new fashion for tea.”

And then there was the enchanted cat…

A conman/adventurer named Dudley Bradstreet took advantage of the 1751 crackdown to start his own bootlegging business, with help from a giant cat-shaped vending machine:

“I then caused a leaden pipe, the small end out about an inch, to be placed under the paw of the cat, the end that was within had a funnel to it … When the liquor was properly disposed, I got a person to inform a few of the mob that gin would be sold by the cat at my window next day, provided they put money in his mouth … at last I heard the chink of money and a comfortable voice say, ‘Puss, give me two pennyworth of gin!’ I instantly put my mouth to the tube and bid them receive it from the pipe under her paw.”

Ginflation

Gin recently became part of the UK “shopping basket”—a hypothetical list of common household goods that’s used to calculate inflation. Other additions to the 2017 shopping basket included chocolate-coated biscuits, cough syrup, bicycle helmets, and children’s scooters.

State of the art

“Gin Lane” was an etching by William Hogarth, created in support of 1751’s Gin Act. The depiction of debaucherous and evil-looking gin drinkers—including scenes of infanticide and disease—was intended to be shown alongside a sister painting, Beer Street, which showed a happy, healthy, pacified public.

What are gin blossoms?

The US rock band known for songs like “Hey Jealousy” is named after the slang term for the facial flush sometimes associated with alcoholism. But the term is a misleading one: Many people are prone to react like that after consuming even small amounts of alcohol. And rosacea—a phrase used interchangeably with gin blossoms—actually has little to do with alcohol consumption.

Drink two G&Ts and call me in the morning

The British obsession with gin took a different turn in the 1800s when colonialists in India used it to make malaria prevention more palatable.

The antimalarial quinine, derived from the bark of Cinchona trees, was effective but tasted awful, so colonialists mixed it with sugar and gin to cut the intense bitterness (the fizzy water came later). Thus, the gin and tonic was born. (A surefire way to ID quinine in your drink: It glows blue under a UV light.)

But why do gin and tonic water make for such a tasty combination?

Matthew Hartings, a professor of chemistry at American University, told Quartz that the chemicals responsible for the flavors in gin and in tonic, although different from each other, come in two kinds of broadly similar chemical structures—the reds and the purples in the diagram below.

The reds in gin attract the reds in tonic, and the same with the purples. The attraction between these molecules creates aggregates, which taste different—and many would say better—than how the substances taste on their own.

Quartz’s mixologists recommend this G&T recipe by Dave Arnold, the author of Liquid Intelligence:

What you need: Use a standard highball glass, 1.75 ounces (about 50 ml) of gin, 3.25 ounces of tonic water, a wedge of lime, and ice. Put the glass and the gin in the freezer ahead of time.

How to make it: The order matters for better mixing. Cut a lime into quarters. Pull glass and gin out of the freezer. Pour gin first. Add tonic water slowly. Squeeze as much of the lime juice from the wedge as you can. Fill the glass with ice cubes and lay the wedge on top.

Quotable

“The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”

– Winston Churchill

Rub-a-dub-dub

America has its own sordid history with juniper juice, especially from 1920 to 1933. “Bathtub gin” became popular during Prohibition, when people skirted the law by using their home bathtubs to make alcohol. But it’s highly unlikely that there were entire tubs full of booze.

The website Distilled History writes that so-called “bathtub” gin “requires combining grain alcohol, water, juniper berries (and other ingredients) in a large jug and allowing the mixture to steep for a short period of time. Since the jug was often too large to fit under a sink tap, a bathtub tap was used.”

The Speakeasy Science blog reports that in Brooklyn, New York, most so-called gin served at bars “was industrial alcohol, re-distilled to try to remove the wood alcohol content.” But out of necessity came invention, in the form of new cocktail recipes designed to cloak “the raw sting of the spirits,” including the Bees Knees and the Gin Fizz.

Take me down this rabbit hole

What goes around comes around: Britain is once again obsessed with gin. The Guardian takes a dive into the bewildering array of craft distilleries along with spas, hotels, and other businesses devoted to the one-time mother’s ruin.