Ruin to Revival: London’s Complicated Relationship with Gin

London and gin have serious history. The refreshing spirit might be the toast of the town now, but it was once the cause of all bedlam in the city. 

Back in the 1730s, the rate of gin consumption was so extreme it caused a full-blown epidemic. Thousands of people were routinely swilling down unregulated, lethal gin, getting absolutely paralytic on bootleg booze laced with turpentine and sulphuric acid – to remove the foul taste – as well as arsenic from poor grain. If the gin didn’t kill you, the hangovers must have made you wish it had. With the death rate so high, and the birth rate so low, Georgian Londoners were quite literally dying out as a result of their relentless addiction to gin.

And why not? After all, the poor masses of London faced a fairly bleak alternative: long, back-breaking hours of menial work, with multiple families crammed into filthy houses, open sewers, rat-infested streets and contaminated drinking water. In the working class quarters, the city was a hive of squalor. This period of almost 50 years of drunken debauchery would go on to be known as the “Gin Craze”, and it was sparked by a series of tactical political manoeuvres.

By 1740, the annual consumption of gin was estimated at six gallons per person…

Late in the previous century, William of Orange ascended to the British throne through his marriage to Queen Mary II of England in the hope of cementing an Anglo-Dutch alliance against King Louis of France. In a bid to damage the French economy, he raised taxes on foreign imports (such as French grain and brandy) and disbanded the London Guild of Distillers, a group who controlled the production of spirits in the UK at the time.

The new king, who as a Dutchman was partial to genever – the mother of modern gin – hoped that by making it easier for Britons to brew themselves, the lagging grain economy would also receive a much needed boost. Low corn prices and lax distilling laws meant that almost anyone could now brew gin – or something that passed for it, at least. Immediately the cheap and easy to access spirit became a quick escape from the immense hardship of daily life for those on the lower rungs of the social ladder. The floodgates opened, and the capital was swamped with dangerous concoctions.

By 1740, the annual consumption of gin was estimated at six gallons per person – that’s nearly 40 bottles of 70cl Bombay Sapphire – while gin was reportedly being sold in over 6,000 establishments across London. As well as the dangerously high mortality rates, crime rates were spiralling out of control and productivity was at rock bottom.

William Hogarth, a painter and social critic of the time, famously depicts this debauched period in the print “Gin Lane”. At the centre of the chaos, a gin-drunk mother drops her baby to its death. Meanwhile, Henry Fielding, another prominent thinker and novelist, mused that there would soon be “few of the common people left to drink it” if the rate of consumption continued.

If the gin didn’t kill you, the hangovers must have made you wish it had. 

In a bid to stop London drinking itself into juniper-infused oblivion, the government introduced the Gin Act in 1736, a piece of legislation that increased taxes on gin sellers. Unsurprisingly, it was massively unpopular with London’s gin-addicted population. Riots and general chaos ensued, forcing the act to be repealed.

It wasn’t until 1751, when a new version of the Gin Act was introduced, that the craze was quashed. This time, the law stopped gin distillers from selling to unlicensed merchants and increased fees charged to merchants, which effectively beat the underground gin trade into remission. However, gin production in the capital didn’t completely halt. The new laws helped increase the quality of gin and took it from the hands of the poor to those of the middle classes. Throughout the 1800s, gin palaces – sophisticated bars that sold gin – became more prominent.

Over the next hundred years or so, as gin became more expensive to sell, demand lessened and wide-spread small-batch brewing all but died out in London – pioneers like G&J Greenall, who started distilling in 1761, and Beefeater, who came onto the scene the following century in the 1870s, began to produce quality gin during this period and would go onto become household names. Then, in 2009, a renewed thirst for gin began to take hold of the city.

However, gin production in the capital didn’t completely halt.

Oliver Ward, Editor and Co-founder of Gin Foundry, explains that the new craft movement began after an old law prohibiting the distillation of gin in small stills was overturned. Inspired by America’s bourgeoning craft scene, distillers Sipsmith, led by Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall, successfully lobbied the British government to change the law so that gin could once again be made in small batches for commercial purposes. Once that change came into practice, Sipsmith began a small-batch production, effectively ushering in a new era of gin-making in the capital.

“In some ways they are the first, but not necessarily the reason for the law change. There were lots of people lobbying for that change at the time. But they (Sipsmith) were heavily, heavily involved in getting that licence and getting the use of a smaller still allowed in the UK. They are very much the ones who get highlighted because that was a massive milestone for British distilling, and not just for gin, but for all craft distilling in the UK in general,” says Ward.

Prior to this, a gin renaissance was already in the offing. Before the small-batch brewers came to town, bigger brands like TanquerayBeefeater and Hendricks were already beginning to premiumise their gins in the early noughties as a response to the spirit’s growing popularity, Ward adds. None, however, could predict the gin boom that was to come, and once it became feasible to distil gin on a small scale in the UK, the scene exploded.

Today, there are over 270 gin distillers in the UK, a fifth of which are in the capital, according to recent figures from the Wine and Spirit Trade Association. That’s an incredible increase of 135% since 2010. Over a gin and tonic, Joel Lawrence, general manager of the City of London Distillery, tells me about the rapid success of the distillery since it opened for business in 2012. Before the huge display of bottles that back the traditional bar where we sit, he tells me that this year the distillery won double gold at the San Francisco World Spirit Competition. Perhaps fittingly, it was for a London dry gin.

As we speak, a tour passes by us, a guide explains how gin in made in the grand, imposing copper stills. Amid the wooden-panelling and leather furniture, there’s a snug atmosphere. A new gin craze is sweeping through London, only this time round it’s little more civilised.

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