The Folklore of Gin

Gin image by Bernadette Wurzinger from Pixabay

Britain has experienced a resurgence of gin distilleries over the past decade. At the end of 2018 there were 419 gin distilleries compared with 113 in 2009 according to official statistics. A number of the gin distilleries have developed very effective branding, image and promotion which associates their product with folklore and its associations. The association may seem curious initially, until one examines the extensive use of the herbal ingredients in the gin distillation. Folklore has a very long and deep association with herbs and herbal remedies, which have been amply examined by folklorist since antiquarians developed an interest in examining the oral and written documentation in the early Victorian era.

The associations between gin and folklore have deep, historic roots, which provide a good source of material on myths, widely held but false beliefs, and legends, traditional stories unauthenticated. A brief history of gin may help by way of introduction. Gin evolved in the Middle Ages. Lead by monastic religious orders, gin evolved from a crude raw spirit through the addition of juniper berries and other herbs to consumption as a medicinal remedy. How effective medicant was in fighting the plagues and diseases of the age is a matter of conjecture and certainly cannot be substantiated.

While the invention of gin or rather Genever (“Dutch Gin”) is credited to 17th Century Dutch physician, Franciscus Sylvius, at the time 400 small Dutch and Flemish distilleries of gin were recorded in 1660’s. They added their own secret ingredients of herbs as such as cardamom, caraway, aniseed, juniper, coriander as well as less palatable extracts from plants, leaves and the bark and liquid extracts from trees. The gins were taken by soldiers as medicine, which is how the spirit founds its way to England through soldiers and merceneries from England fighting in the Thirty Years War.

Both the return of soldiers and mercenaries to England after the Thirty Years War and the accession of William and Mary to the English throne in the “Glorious Revolution” contributed to the popularity of genever (Dutch gin) in England and Wales. At the same popularity of the rougher, less sophisticated medicinal “home distilled” versions increased. The absence of taxation and proliferation lead to its extensive consumption by all classes of the population in the UK but particularly the poor and artisan classes. Hogarth’s effective exaggeration of the problem of gin in the cartoon Gin Lane conveyed the growing social and medical problems arising from the consumption of gin. A number of Gin Acts both restricted the sales of gin, and indirectly improved the quality. The Gin Act of 1729 increased the retail tax of gin to 5 /- per gallon. The Gin Act of 1736 imposed a higher licence fee for gin retailers and increased the tax to 20/- per gallon but was met with riots and other protestations by the drinking classes. Finally The Gin Act of 1751 prohibited gin distillers from selling to unlicensed merchants, restricted license holder to property owning classes and charge higher licence fees. Tea drinking and beer drinking were encouraged through lower taxation of these products.

The popularity of gin fell during the latter half of the 18th century but the quality if gin and the size of distilleries increased. Concurrently a sweeter form of gin known as old Tom gins, sweeter and smoother emerged. Old Tom gin survived into 20th century and is referenced in several of Charles Dicken’s novels. Quinine dissolved in mineral water and so evolved “gin and tonic.” Such attributes encouraged the consumption of gin in the Royal Navy. The establishment of British Colonies helped popularise gin. Gin travelled well and was used to mask the effect of quinine, the antidote to malaria.

Over the past two hundred years gin, like other spirits, has experienced periods of popularity and decline through cultural and political reasons, witness the post-World War 1 “roaring twenties” followed by prohibition in the USA. Gin is currently enjoying a revival in popularity in the UK. Mindful of the effects of gin in the early 18th century, HMRC was reluctant to grant distilling licences to small gin distilleries. None were granted from 1820 until 2009! By contrast, HMRC has no inhibitions in granting licenses to small whisky distilling! The new “craftdistilleries” have brought some imaginative ideas on additional ingredient to the basic neutral distilled product.

Let’s look at some of the more popular myths and legends about gin.

Gin and tonic, by Ernest Roy from Pixabay.
Gin and tonic, by Ernest Roy from Pixabay.

“Genever is a gin”

The invention of gin is often erroneously credited to a German medical doctor, Dr Sylvius, who practised medicine in Amsterdam during the middle of the 17th century. His medical research encompassed distillation of medical potions including juniper berry oil. The demand for his potions grew to such an extent that he sought the assistance of small distillers of genever to meet the industrial levels of demand. Distillations using juniper berries is referenced in commercial in Bruges and Antwerp from 14th century onwards, and even referenced in a play by the minor English Jacobean playwright, Massinger, in The Duke of Milan in 1620’s.

Genever oude, or “Geneva gin” as it is sometimes known, predates the London dry gin, we drink today. Genever contains high amounts of malt wine, over 15%, as well as the herbal additions of London dry gin. A genever jonge is also distilled but contains less than 15% malt wine.

The London dry gins, which we drink today, have evolved since the Middles Ages separately in the form of raw neutral alcohol.  Over the centuries they have been refined and flavoured with seeds berries fruits and herbs, reflecting and responding to the popularity, fashions and tastes of the times.

“Dutch Courage”

Dutch courage is attributed to genever gin, which British soldiers and mercenaries consumed to fortify their courage before going into battle in the Thirty Years War.

To quote Edmund Waller, the poet, politician and refiner of the rhyming couplet:

“The Dutch their wines ad their Brandee lose,
Disarmed from that, of which their Courage grows.”

“Gin makes you sin”

Just as “brandy makes you randy” and “whisky makes you frisky”, so gin adds to the association of alcohol with the arousal of confidence sexual feelings and by contrast with relaxation. The chemical content of different spirits provokes different human reactions to their immersion in the body’s system. Observations and anecdote through television, film, literature and popular fiction and provide evidence to support the notion that “gin makes you sin.”

“Gin makes you sad”

All spirits are claimed to manifest aspects of the human psyche. Inevitably medical research has been conducted on the mood effects of different types of alcohol. Strong spirits make people feel energised, confident and “sexy.” Negative effects, not necessarily in equal measure, are produced by alcohol. Effects include aggression, restlessness and tearfulness. Emotions experienced by drinking alcohol relate to and differ by alcohol and its compounds. Understanding abuse and misuse of alcohol require analysis of the emotions presented by consumption of spirits among the age, ethnicity and social class of drinkers.

Combined image of Beer Street and Gin Lane. By William Hogarth - BeerStreet.jpg and GinLane.jpg, Public Domain,
Combined image of Beer Street and Gin Lane. By William Hogarth, Public Domain

“Gin was the most popular hard drug of 18th century (‘Mothers ruin’)”

We are all familiar with the Hogarth cartoon of the Gin Lane, which contrasts the clean living folk of Beer Lane with the depraved behaviour of the inhabitants of Gin Lane. Documents, anecdote and other written narrative do provide evidence of social and health problems arising from purchase of very cheap liquor. The analogy with contemporary hard drug problem is correct in the sense that Gin Lane illustrates the damaging effect of the prospective availability of cheap narcotics, if they consumptions and sale were decriminalised. Gin Lane serves to underline the problems of the availability of cheap adulterated drugs. However, the cheap availability of gin at retail outlets was not accompanied by the institutionalised violence, gang culture and its profiteering motives.

“The Gin Acts of the 18th Century were a Tory conspiracy to encourage the populace to drink beer”

Were the Gin Acts a response to the medical, social and economic problems of excessive consumption of cheap, frequently adulterated gin, or was it designed to address the reduction in consumption of beer? Beer consumption did increase after the Gin Acts. All brewers, large and small, were regional but normally one site operations. They were property owners, so where they were eligible to vote they probably voted Tory. However beer was taxed, albeit at a lower rate until the Beerhouse Act of 1830 permitted any rate-payer to brew and sell beer on payment of a license costing two guineas. The intention was to increase competition between brewers; lowering prices and encouraging people to drink beer instead of strong spirits. Thousands of new public houses and breweries throughout the country, particularly in the rapidly expanding industrial centres of the north of England.

The Act’s supporters hoped that by increasing competition in the brewing and sale of beer, and thus lowering its price, the population might be weaned off more alcoholic drinks such as gin. The Act was controversial. It removed the monopoly of local magistrates to lucratively regulate local trade in alcohol, and not applying retrospectively to those who already ran public houses. It was also denounced as promoting drunkenness. Under the new law 45,500 commercial brewers licenses were issued. The Act was the dismantled provisions for detailed recording of licenses, although this provision was restored by subsequent legislation. Interestingly, the passage of the Act during the reign of King William IV led to many taverns and public houses being named in his honour. He remains “the most popular monarch among pub names.”

“Gin palaces”

Gin palaces evolved in the 18th century as the larger licensed drinking establishments following the Gin Act 1736 which required gin shops to be licensed premises. Licensing brought an end to the multiplicity of neighbourhood gin shops. The term refers to the over ornate decorations, lighting and profusions of mirrors. More importantly, the design of gin palaces influenced the design of Victorian Public Houses some of which still exist today.

The term has also been used to describe large ostentatious river craft, normally plying the middle and upper reaches of the River Thames by which are equipped with a sun deck for entrainment accompanied by copious amounts of alcohol.

“Gin is always juniper flavoured”

Historically, juniper has been the base added ingredient of gin. Though sloes have been a popular derivative by reference to addition of sloe berries from hawthorn bushes. Pimms is another well know and branded gin based drink. Henry Pimm owned an oyster bar in the City of London. He commenced the sale of a gin based drink, to which were added a secret recipe of herbs and other liqueurs. In the 1850’s he started serving the drink in small tankards known as “No 1s.” While a number of other Pimms spirit based liquors are available, No1 the gin based variety enjoys popularity as a refreshing summer drink or cocktail base.

The increase in gin distilleries over the past 10 years, prompted by HMRC’s more liberal approach to granting distilling licenses to small distilleries, has enabled a new range of creativity in gins. The herbal, plant, leaf and fruit ingredient are profuse in range. The majority have a flavour which is anything but juniper. Some maintain a juniper base but the majority use an extensive range of fruit, lemons, oranges, raspberries, strawberries blackberries; herbs, nutmeg, pepper, cardoman; leaves barks and their oil/liquid extracts.

Those who market craft gin have been clever in adopting brands and images which project the English and Scottish natural world of plants, herbs, potions. Some have gone further in extending their brand image to folklore myths and legends to add to the mystery of the ingredients. The reality of distillation is of course very different but in an era when many wish to relate more closely to their roots, natural plants and potions, the marketing evokes strong, comforting and satisfying images to the consumer in uncertain times.

This article has attempted to provide “a warts and all” evaluation of gin over the centuries. Gin is currently experiencing a boom and high in terms of image- much better than spirits such as brandy and whisky. The gin distilling industry has successfully embraced the good images of gin, while skilfully avoiding and in some instances eliminating the damaging historic images of the spirit.