Gin’s dark history
Whilst each spirit category has an interesting history, the history of gin is probably the darkest and most morbid. Gin, with its core ingredients being juniper and alcohol, can trace its roots back to the Dutch drink genever. The story goes that English soldiers stationed in continental Europe during the 80 Years War liked the juniper flavoured Dutch alcoholic elixir so much that they brought it back to England and they anglicised its name to “gin”. In the late 1600’s William III imposed tariffs and reduced taxes on local spirit production, resulting in a strange situation where pints of gin were cheaper than pints of ale and beer. And so started one of the craziest booze fueled stages in history, aptly called the “gin craze”.
The Gin Craze
From about 1720 to 1757 the gin craze swept through England. Excessively drinking gin was one way many of the English could cope with squalid living conditions, the bitter cold, poverty and starvation. While over-consumption of gin allowed many to escape their miserable reality, the reality was that drinking too much gin made life even worse than it was. Many of the poor, unable to afford the quality gin flavoured with juniper, were sold “gin” flavoured with a concoction of poisons such as turpentine, sulphuric acid and lime oil.
The above print by William Hogarth, set in London’s St Giles, demonstrates the concern leveled against gin at the time. The print named “Gin Lane” shows a scene of debauchery, drunkenness, starvation, death and neglect. In the drawing a mother, ravaged with syphilis sores, is seen dropping her baby down a staircase as a starved man looks blankly into space while another man fights a dog for a bone.
No wonder, even to this day, gin is known as “mother’s ruin”. Perhaps the grimmest and most shocking story is that of a mother who, in 1734, was convicted of strangling her own daughter so she could sell her daughter’s clothes and use the proceeds to buy gin.
The Gin Act of 1751 and failed grain harvests in 1757 marked the beginning of the end of the gin craze, particularly because as a result of the failed harvests distillation of grain was banned.
Edinburgh Gin Distillery Tour
On a gloomy June day in 2018 we visited the Edinburgh Gin Distillery. Gin’s dark history was brought to life in the underground dark surrounds of the distillery, as our charismatic and expressive guide led us through gin’s shady past.
We also learned that gin was originally used to mask the flavour of the bitter tasting compound quinine, which was used to fight malaria. Quinine was mixed with carbonated water to become tonic water so, historically, gin was used to cloak the taste of tonic water not the other way around. Though, these days, tonic water only has a trace of quinine and a heap of sugar, thereby making it much more palatable, so that explains why tonic water is now used to mask or dilute gin. The tour also covered other interesting facts about gin, which you’ll have to make a trip to the distillery to hear.
After covering the fascinating, and downright shocking, history of gin the guide then introduced us to the product and production methods of the Edinburgh Gin Distillery.
Edinburgh Gin Distillery produces a range of Scottish gins – its original London dry style Edinburgh Gin, a punchy Navy strength Cannonball Gin, a series of flavoured liqueurs (Pomegranate and Rose, Elderflower, Raspberry, Rhubarb and Ginger) and other creative botanical infused alcoholic delights.
The distillery’s signature style seems heavy in juniper and citrus, but native Scottish botanicals and plants are also used in the distillery’s gin recipes. In a tip of the hat to not only Scotland but also Edinburgh, some of the botanicals used in the gins are hand picked from the nearby gardens in Edinburgh.
On the tour we had the opportunity to smell and taste the plants, botanicals and spices that flavour Edinburgh Gin Distillery’s many gins.
Juniper, of course, was first. London Dry style gin, like the one Edinurgh Gin Distillery produces, is neutral spirit (aka, vodka) flavoured with juniper. Other botanical can be added to jazz things up, but juniper is the key ingredient of this style of gin.
We also got to smell cobnuts, lavender, cassia bark, bitter orange, and a number of other botanicals. The cassia, which is grown mostly in China and Indonesia, was indistinguishable to its rarer relative “true cinnamon” which is grown in Sri Lanka and India.
To end the tour we were led to a dark room which resembled some kind of groovy dimply lit dungeon, and emblazoned on the wall was the writing “Juniper Berry”. Sitting before us was, unsurprisingly, gin and tonic water.
The gin was Edinburgh Gin 1670, a London Dry Gin created in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. The gin was inspired by the “1670 Physic Garden”, in which two Edinburgh doctors – Robert Sibbald and Andrew Balfour – grew botanicals which were thought to have medical properties. Flavouring this gin are botanicals which the distillery say would have been found in the garden, such as fennel and sweet cicely.
The gin itself was spicy and peppery with a layered vegetal character, and obviously juniper starred in its flavour profile. Next, it was time to try the gin with tonic water. Only a splash of tonic was added to the gin, so our glasses held about equal parts gin and tonic. Surprisingly, adding just a splash of tonic to the gin hugely altered its flavour profile – the ethanol was duller, the spices were softer and more rounded, and the sugars from the tonic seemed to hold the flavours together.
Overall, a visit to the Edinburgh Gin Distillery was an immersive experience that included an in-depth history lesson about gin, a viewing of the distillery’s two stills, sampling and smelling a range of botanicals that are used to flavour gin, and, finally, a tasting of the distillery’s gins. Even if gin doesn’t tickle your fancy, a trip to Edinburgh without a visit to the Edinburgh Gin Distillery simply wouldn’t seem complete.
Thanks to Ian Macleod Distillers for arranging this tour.