“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
That classic line from Casablanca speaks to the popularity of gin in America during the first half of the twentieth century. But, what is the story behind the famed spirit? Where did it come from?
The first known account of a gin-like drink comes from a thirteenth-century Flemish manuscript, which mentions a spirit flavored with “genever.” Centuries later, around 1606, Dutch distillers began producing genever — the forerunner of gin — on a much larger scale. When British troops arrived during the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648), they grew fond of the spirit and even used it to gain courage before a battle; they referred to it as “Dutch Courage,” or so legend has it. After the war, British troops returned home, and they carried the genever culture back home with them, and that is where gin’s popularity took off.
In Britain, “genever became ginever, and then for the Brits, the easier-to-say ‘gin.’,” explained Myriam Hendrickx, Master Distiller of Netherland’s historic Rutte Distillery. But, gin differed from genever in more than just a name. Both spirits involve the distillation of juniper berries and the use of botanicals, but gin often includes citrus botanicals — genever does not. Also, whereas gin is based entirely on a neutral spirit, genever consists of a blend of neutral and malt spirit. “Malt spirit is pot-stilled grain alcohol that was the basis of genever ánd gin centuries ago, before one could make neutral spirit,” said Hendricks. Today’s Dutch distillers continue to adhere to their traditional methods of distilling genever while the rest of the world, for the most part, produces the dry gin for which most of us are familiar.
The gin boom got a boost when William of Orange took the English throne in 1688 (who, coincidentally, was Dutch-born). Because England was at war with France, the English government forbade the importation of French wine and spirits. William, however, allowed people to start a distillery for a small fee. Because Brits had easy access to (cheap) grain, they routinely produced gin. When Queen Anne reigned (1702 to 1707), she further removed restrictions on distilling gin in London, resulting in multitudes of home distilleries. Thus began the “gin craze” in England. It is said that one could find homemade gin made in nearly a quarter of the households in London by the 1720s. The over-consumption of gin, as it was viewed (notably by the wealthy), pushed Parliament to enact restrictive laws and levy taxes on gin, but it took decades for the gin craze to wane. During the Victorian Era, gin transitioned from a drink consumed by “the masses,” to one enjoyed in elegant “gin palaces.” British Navy officers during the nineteenth century received a daily allotment of gin, while sailors were given rum.
Many people believed gin to have medicinal qualities. It certainly alleviated pain for common ailments (temporarily, at least). The Brits mixed gin with lime juice to fight against scurvy, for instance, leading to the modern Gimlet cocktail. But, one of the most famous gin cocktails — the Gin & Tonic — emerged later during malaria outbreaks. In truth, it wasn’t gin that offered value to mosquito-bitten people, it was the tonic. A Scottish doctor named George Cleghorn discovered that quinine, the main component of tonic water, could treat malaria. Thus, British soldiers drank tonic water to fight malaria when stationed in India. During the nineteenth century, soldiers began mixing gin (and later lemon and lime) to the tonic because they found the tonic water’s bitterness unpleasant — the Gin & Tonic was born.
The British helped spread their love for gin to the world through their vast empire and worldwide trading expeditions. Still, the gin craze did not capture the hearts of American colonists. It wasn’t until the 1890s that Americans took a fancy to gin. America’s love affair with the beverage coincided with an explosion of industrial and technological advances during the 1890s, allowing greater gin distribution and production in the U.S. and Britain. The introduction of column-still distillation technology resulted in a purer gin, leading to what is referred to today as “London dry gin.” America’s gin history is mainly tied to cocktails, especially the Martini and its combination of gin, vermouth and lemon peel. The Gimlet and Gin & Tonic also helped solidify gin as a high-quality spirit. Gin stood as America’s favorite spirit for decades until vodka surpassed it in 1967.
Today, gin ranks behind vodka, whiskey, and rum in terms of U.S. alcohol sales. But, there is hope for the juniper berry drink. The micro- and craft-distillery boom has coincided with a renewed love affair with classic spirits and cocktails, including gin-based drinks. For example, Chicago Distilling has won awards for its Finn’s Gin and Gin & Tonic (including its RTD cans). When we chatted with cofounder Noelle DiPrizio, in 2020, she mentioned, “[Gin] wasn’t something we had put at the forefront of our portfolio, but it quickly became the leader of the pack once we developed it.” Their Finn’s Gin is one of the hundreds of new gins emerging in recent years.
Dare we say we are on the verge of another gin craze? Okay, maybe not, but at least we know that after hundreds of years of production, there’s still plenty of gin joints around.