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Olivier Ward recommends the best books on Gin

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Yesterday was World Gin Day and I failed to celebrate, so I’ll have a Martini tonight. Five Books interviews Oliver Ward on gin books:

It’s World Gin Day on June 10th, a celebration of a centuries old drink that is seeing fast growth and lots of innovation. Olivier Ward, editor and co-founder of gin appreciation website, Gin Foundry, recommends the best books on Gin — the medicinal drink that came to define the British Empire.

I think of gin, or a gin and tonic, as the most traditionally English drink imaginable. But, like so many great things, it actually came from the Low Countries. Is that right?

Most people will just tell you ‘yes’ and then not caveat it. Yes, it came from the Low Countries—Belgium, probably—but they weren’t making gin there, they were making ‘jenever.’ Gin has always been a British thing in that it was the Brits’ attempt to make their own version of jenever.

It was very different, in that the Brits did not have the distilling heritage or prowess or knowledge. Right at the start, and certainly in the 1600s, it was far inferior to jenever. But they were trying to replicate it and so they created their own version that became known—just reduced to that one monosyllable—as ‘gin.’

The Low Countries never made gin, but they certainly were the forefathers.

Is it made from juniper berries?

It’s made from barley and wheat and rye as the base spirit. Then it’s distilled with juniper berries as the flavour added to it. The base spirit always used to be cereal—though no longer, because you can make it from grape and all sorts of weird and wonderful things, even whey.

But certainly back then it was wheat, barley, or rye that was the base alcohol. Because that base alcohol was shockingly bad, they needed a pungent spice or herb and maybe something that had medicinal properties. Juniper fitted the bill.


You’ve got to remember that back then—and even before then, we’re talking about the 12th and 13th centuries—juniper had this ridiculous, medicinal, all-curing, all-conquering folklore about it. It didn’t matter what you had as an ailment, juniper was the answer. Whether you were wanting to cure gout or stomach problems, that was it. If you wanted to prevent becoming pregnant, you would ingest juniper. Other people would rub juniper over themselves to increase their virility.

Juniper was this magic botanical. The medicinal properties of it were so potent that when people were creating alcohol and creating what started off as medicinal tinctures, juniper was always going to be a huge part of it. The inherent thought was that it could do no wrong—it could only fix and cure.

So what is the difference between jenever and gin?

Today, jenever is geographically protected. The way that they distil it is using a high percentage of barley. A lot of that base spirit comes through into the end product. If you distilled any alcohol all the way through to 96/97% ABV, you’d have vodka. If you did it to 60% or 70%, you’d have what is called, in the industry, ‘new make spirit.’ That’s the kind of stuff you’d put in barrels for whisky or Armagnac or Cognac or brandy. Jenever is that.

Gin is a neutral spirit that is then redistilled with botanicals. It’s a neutral spirit that’s been rectified.

The difference could be explained like this: imagine painting on a beige canvas as opposed to painting on a white one. Jenever has a grainy, more cereally undertone, whereas gin should or ought to have a very clean start. Which, of course, they couldn’t do back then.


Let’s go through the books you’ve chosen. The first one on the list is Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason (2002) by Jessica Warner. It’s an illustrated history about the gin craze in the 18th century. It’s quite ironic because, these days, gin and tonic has slightly posh connotations—but it started off as a drink of the poor.

Gin as a neat spirit, very much so. Gin and tonic as a cocktail is slightly different in that it has its roots in the colonial era, when they were mixing gin with quinine for the troops. But yes, the irony is that gin and oysters was the poor man’s dish. Like pie and ale shops, they would have gin shops that would also serve up oysters because it was considered poor people’s food.

What Jessica’s book does really well is show that the gin craze wasn’t just about this sudden attraction to cheap spirit. It was about policing what the poor drank so that the gentry weren’t affected by it and keeping that debauchery away from the upper class. It wasn’t that they actually cared, they just didn’t want to see it on their doorstep.

Is it about the Hogarth print, Gin Lane?

Yes. The Hogarth print is from 1751. Jessica presents the lead up to it. The gin craze is essentially over by the time that this famous depiction comes along. What people don’t really talk about with ‘Gin Lane’—this illustration of a debauched, broken society—is the fact that it was commissioned by the beer industry.

It was part of a twin set: ‘Gin Lane’ and ‘Beer Street’. In ‘Beer Street’ there’s prosperous industry and everyone’s getting along, the streets are clean and everyone is looking a bit portly and well-fed. Whereas ‘Gin Lane’ has a baby being skewered in the corner.

It was propaganda. That’s not to say it wasn’t true at the time but it was about fear-mongering around this spirit so that it would shock the gentry of society into acting in favour of, basically, the beer breweries and farmers that supplied the breweries.

But gin was incredibly popular, wasn’t it? There were thousands of gin houses around London.

Certainly in East London, one in four doors would have had some form of gin still. There were patches. In Whitechapel, and Holborn to a certain extent, and around Seven Dials, there would have been quite a lot. And I suppose around St Paul’s, going east.

You can still see it in the street names. In Camden, there’s Juniper Crescent. So there are remnants in today’s London—even though there’s no hawker on the side of the street flinging gin at you as you walk past.

And the popularity stemmed from the fact it was a nice, strong drink and affordable?

Yes. It became incredibly cheap through various different acts of legislation. It didn’t happen overnight—it happened over 100 years. At the time, they thought of it as a way of raising money through taxes. They felt that by legislating it in specific ways, they could raise money for the war coffers against the French.

So it developed and grew. The thirst developed not just through a natural thirst for it, but a flood in the market of widely available, relatively cheap, booze. I’ve never really seen any evidence to say that it was cheaper than beer, which was widely commented on at the time. Having said that, it was probably almost as cheap.

As she explains very well in the book, even in the first couple of years, people just didn’t know how to deal with it. People were literally drinking pints of gin because they thought that was okay and that’s how you drink alcohol, isn’t it? And then falling over dead.

It was much more akin to a crack cocaine epidemic than a drinking epidemic. People were being excused for crimes. I think one lady was excused for killing her husband and throwing him down the stairs because she had been made so senselessly drunk that it therefore incapacitated her ability to judge what was right and wrong. Ridiculous crimes were being attributed to being so drunk.

It was an amazing time of discovery, not just of alcohol but the effects of alcohol in a pre-police society. There were no police and the only way that society was kept together was by everyone trying to force people into thinking that they had a very set class and were not allowed to move out of that. That was what got the gentry so upset—because if people don’t know their place, then we might get challenged.

Jessica’s book is extremely well-researched. She articulates all these points and really delves into the facts of the matter. And, also, the human element. You hear these amazing statistics—of the birth-rate being lower than the death rate but also the human stories of these outrageous acts that were going on at the time. Some of them are senseless and some of them are just unbelievably shocking.

The one depicted in ‘Gin Lane’ was an allusion to ‘mother’s ruin’ and Judith Dufour. She worked as a seamstress in one of the washhouses. She went out on a lunch break with her child, killed it, took his clothes, and sold them in order to buy gin. She then came back blind drunk to work later that evening. These human stories wouldn’t have emerged without Jessica’s research.

It’s a good read? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 June 2017 at 4:59 pm

Posted in Books, Drinks

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