The Rise and Fall of Gin

As 2018 draws to a close, many will be planning on seeing in the New Year with an alcoholic tipple.  Without question, one spirit in particular has undergone a remarkable resurgence in recent years, and that spirit is gin.  According to the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, UK sales were up 38% in the year to June 2018 – that’s a staggering £1.6 billion worth of gin in total.  In recent years gin has undergone something of a transformation, from a perhaps boring drink for the middle aged and middle class, to an exciting artisan product with hundreds of small distilleries springing up, many of them in North Yorkshire.  Gins come in all colours and flavours, and there are even gin advent calendars on sale at major supermarkets.

Gin is thought of as a quintessentially British drink, despite being imported originally from the Netherlands, but its reputation has not always been a good one.  In the 1700’s, ‘Mother Gin’ (or ‘Madam Geneva’ as it was also known) was so cheap that the working classes drank it by the pint – two a week for Londoners.  It helped them forget the drudgery of their lives, but of course it brought with it a huge social cost and a rise in crime.  In 1751 the famous artist and social critic, William Hogarth, depicted London’s situation in a pair of prints: Beer Street and Gin Lane.  In contrast to the virtues of Beer Street, Gin Lane was a nightmarish illustration of the evils of gin, and its effects on society.

In an effort to reduce alcohol consumption, Parliament introduced and repealed several acts, but it is perhaps the Sale of Spirits Act 1750 (known as the Gin Act of 1751) which had the biggest effect:  by prohibiting spirit sales to unlicensed merchants and doubling the price of a retail licence to £2, it helped reduce gin consumption from over 8 million gallons in 1750 to just 2 million gallons eight years later.

Gin’s resurgence in Britain came eighty years later, when a combination of better distilling methods, gas lighting and sheet glass manufacture paved the way for ‘gin palaces’: bright, sparkling public houses adorned with mirrors and mahogany, selling clearer gin – ‘London Dry Gin’.  The Beer Act of 1830 had allowed anyone purchasing a cheap licence to open a beer shop, and their proliferation meant gin sellers needed to offer a better product to the public, in better surroundings.  This purer gin, which no longer had sugar, turpentine or sulphuric acid added,  even fitted in with the Victorians’ ideals of healthy living.  Many of these gin palaces survive today – follow this link to see some of the most beautiful examples:

Gin was no longer a drink sold from market stalls and swigged in dark alleyways: it had a new, more glamorous image.  Not for the last time, gin had been reinvented.

For more descriptions of gin palaces and their clientele, read here: