The Northumberland Gin Company
The Northumberland Gin Company

History in a Bottle (of Gin)

The first confirmed date for the production of gin is the early 17th century in Holland, although claims have been made that it was produced prior to this in Italy. In Holland it was produced as a medicine and sold in chemist shops to treat stomach complaints, gout and gallstones. To make it more palatable, the Dutch started to flavour it with juniper, which had medicinal properties of its own. 


English troops fighting in the Low Countries were perhaps the first importers of gin to British shores. In 1585 the Earl of Leicester’s troops took some Dutch Courage (a tot of gin) prior to battle as they allied themselves to The Netherlands in their conflict with Philip II of Spain.

The English were in need of this courage once again before fighting in Holland, this time during the 30 Years War. These troops undoubtedly returned home with some gin, where already it was often sold in chemists' shops. In the 1660’s the famous diarist Samuel Pepys wrote of “strong water made with juniper” used as a treatment for colic.


Distillation of gin in England started to grow, though the quality was often very dubious. Nevertheless, the new drink became a firm favourite with the poor. 


The formation by King Charles I of the Worshipful Company of Distillers, where members had the sole rights to distil spirits in London and Westminster and 21 miles beyond, improved the quality of the gin and also its image.   


The story continues with King William III - William of Orange - who ascended the British throne in 1689 and immediately banned French imports. Bizarrely , he passed new laws encouraging all his new subjects to distil... an edict that was wholeheartedly endorsed !! Anyone could now distil by simply posting a notice in public and just waiting ten days. Sometimes gin was distributed to workers as part of their wages and soon the volume sold daily exceeded that of beer and ale, which was more expensive anyway.


In 1729, an excise licence of £20 was introduced and two shillings per gallon duty was levied. In addition to which, retailers now required a licence. This almost suppressed good gin, but the quantity consumed of bad spirits continued to rise. This actually put many reputable sellers out of business, and made way for the 'bootleggers' who sold their wares under such fancy names as Cuckold's Comfort, Ladies Delight and Knock Me Down.


In London by 1720, a quarter of all houses were actively distilling lethal concoctions masquerading as gin. In 1730 London had over 7,000 shops that sold only spirits. Daniel Defoe wrote of "the prodigious number of shopkeepers whose business is wholly and solely the selling of spirits". Notices could be seen all over London. The message was short and to the point, 'Drunk for 1 penny, Dead drunk for tuppence, Straw for nothing'!!


It would appear that during this time in history, the working classes seemed permanently without their faculties, public health suffered, people became simply unemployable, vice reigned supreme and an early death predictably came none too soon. Lord Hervey declared: "Drunkenness of the common people was universal, the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from morning till night."  


The problem was tackled by introducing The Gin Act at midnight on 29 September 1736, making gin prohibitively expensive. A licence to retail gin cost £50 and duty was raised fivefold to £1 per gallon with the smallest quantity you could buy retail being two gallons. Riots broke out (of course they did) and the law was widely and openly broken - within six years of the Gin Act being introduced, only two distillers took out licences, yet, over the same period of time, production rose by almost fifty per cent. 11 million gallons of gin was being distilled in London, which was over 20 times the 1690 figure and has been estimated to be the equivalent of 14 gallons for each adult male !!


The Gin Act, finally recognised as unenforceable, was repealed in 1742 and a new policy, which distillers helped to draft was introduced to to combat the growing mailaise in England: reasonably high prices, reasonable excise duties and licensed retailers under the supervision of magistrates. In essence this is the situation which exists today. Gin was taxed and made available for sale only in public houses and was transformed from a beverage of escapism for the working class to one of moderation for the middle class.


Gin had been known as 'Mother's Milk' from the 1820s but later in the century it became known as 'Mother's Ruin', a description perhaps originating from the earlier 'Blue Ruin' of the prohibition era in the previous century. 


By this time the battle for trade was hotting up between the beer shops and the gin shops. Following the 1820 'Beerhouse Act', beer was sold free of licensing control and 45,000 beer shops - aimed to be the cosy homes from home - had appeared by 1838. Spirit retailers still required licences and, to compete with the beer shops, they devised the 'gin palaces' which first appeared about 1830. These were designed to be an escape from home. As home for the poor - who continued to be gin's main supporters - was often a sordid slum, the gin palace was large, imposing and handsome and even luxuriously furnished. By the 1850s there were about 5,000 such places in London.


With the invention of the continuous still in the 19th century, the quality of gin moved into a new league. Prior to this, gin bore no resemblance to the gins of today; it was thick and sweet with heavy juniper notes. With the advent of the continuous still and the improvement in both the understanding of distillation and the quality of the spirits, there was no longer a need for sugar and glycerine to mask the gin. 


Gradually, gin became drier, more delicate with a complex mix of flavours courtesy of a wide range of exotic botanicals; much more like the drink we know today. It became known as London Dry Gin simply because most distillers were based in the capital city.


Artisan gin makers came to the fore, producing smaller batches and experimenting with different botanicals and infusions.


Then Hexhan Premier Cru is made !


Got to Love Gin




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