What’s the history of the alcoholic spirit gin? Is it really a medicinal drink, and is this a good reason to have a gin martini every afternoon?
I’m writing this particular blog entry because just a few weeks ago I had the distinct pleasure of hanging out with Simon Ford, a gin distiller from UK-based Plymouth Gin, and one of the topics of our chat was the history of spirits and, specifically, gin.
Simon kindly sent along a brief history of gin in handy outline form:
- Ancient Greeks and Romans distilled juniper berries for medicinal purposes
- 11th century Italian monks added juniper to spirits distilled from wine
- In the 1300s Europeans drank juniper elixirs to fight bubonic plague
JUNIPER MEETS GRAIN SPIRITS
- 15th century distillers in the “Low Countries” turned cereal grains into alcohol
- Dr. Sylvius combined grain spirits with juniper and prescribed “jenever” as a cure for kidney complaints, gout and lumbago
- By the 16th century jenever became Holland’s “national drink”
THE BRITISH DISCOVER GIN
- In the early 17th century, the British discovered jenever during military engagements abroad and found that it gave them “Dutch Courage” before battle
- Returning troops brought “gin” home to England, where distilled spirits were not yet popular
- In 1688 a Dutchman, William of Orange, became King of England, restricted imports of French wine and brandy and helped make gin fashionable and patriotic.
“GIN MANIA” TO RESPECTABILITY
- In the early 18th century English distilling became a free-for-all and “gin mania” began
- Starting in 1751 sensible legislation drove out the least reputable distillers and retailers, ending the days of cheap “penny gin” by the 1790s
- Respectable distillers began producing what are now the world’s great gin brands, including Plymouth–introduced in 1793 by Coates & Company
NEW STILL, NEW STYLES
- In 1831, Aeneas Coffey developed the column still (aka patent still), allowing distillers to create a much purer spirit
- Gin producers added more delicate, drier botanicals to their recipes, eliminated sugar and created two styles of English “dry gin”–London style and a more aromatic dry gin produced in Bristol, Liverpool and Plymouth
- Quality brands like Plymouth developed their characteristic recipes, and British dry gins began a period of continuous growth.
GIN TAKES OFF
- As the British Empire expanded, British gin was exported all over the world
- During the cocktail era of the “Roaring 20s” gin was king and stayed that way until vodka came along in the 1960s
- In the new cocktail era of the 21st century, martinis are hot and gin is being rediscovered by consumers looking for new flavour experiences
There’s another question here that’s worth answering too, while we’re at it. If nothing else, it’ll clarify if gin is made out of something medicinal or not. The question? What makes gin “gin”? Again, here’s the set of bullet items from Simon:
BOTANICALS AND BASE SPIRIT
- A neutral spirit flavoured with selected botanicals, including seeds, fruits and roots
- Neutral base spirit can be distilled from various sources in a separate process from distilling the actual gin
- Botanicals contain essential oils which combine with alcohol when the gin is distilled, giving each gin its desired character
- By law, the largest flavouring ingredient must be juniper berries, with no limitations on how many botanicals can be used.
- Steeping: Botanicals soaked in a pot still with the base spirit for 24 hours before distilling (e.g., Beefeater)
- Infusion (or racking): After the base spirit is heated in a pot still, botanicals are placed in baskets and the spirit picks up flavours as the vapours pass through the baskets (e.g., Bombay Sapphire)
- Boiling: Botanicals are combined with the base spirit in a pot still just before distilling begins (e.g., Gordon’s, Tanqueray, Plymouth)
- Plymouth is one of three distinct styles of gin, distinguished by their base spirit, botanical recipe and geography
- Dutch Gin (Young Genever, Old Genever, Korenwijn)
- London Dry Gin (Gordon’s, Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire, others)
- Plymouth Gin (only Plymouth)
- Base spirit distilled from grain or molasses and blended with maltwine
- Recipes heavy on juniper, with a wide range of other botanicals
- Can be aged
- Rich and sweet, like original gin styles
LONDON DRY GIN
- Base spirit usually grain produced in a column still
- Heavy on juniper berries and citrus plus some bitter botanicals
- Big variations in alcoholic strength (legal minimum 37.5% ABV)
- Can be produced anywhere in the world
PLYMOUTH (DRY) GIN
- Base spirit is English wheat
- More earthy character than London gins, with less juniper and no bitter botanicals in the recipe
- Great smoothness and balance
- Bottled at 82.4 proof, best proof for holding flavours and maintaining balance
As you can see above, gin is a medicinal drink, and it was also mixed in with quinine water when the British were occupying India as an anti-malarial concoction (not sure what quinine water is? it’s “tonic”, hence this drink is known as a gin and tonic). Of course, its medicinal value is fairly minimal when compared to modern, far more potent and efficient pills and potions, but nonetheless, yea, there are some pretty nice gin drinks out there and maybe, just maybe, you can get away with saying that it’s medicinal.
I hope this article proves interesting!