In The Spirit: The History of Gin & Tonic

It has taken 10 years, but gin has grown on me. I had a hard time getting past the pine tree scent, and I am allergic to limes so the classic gin and tonic with a twist of lime was out of my reach. Nevertheless, family members are fans so eventually I was won over. I knew a little about gin and it’s place in London’s poor society going in to this research, but I had no idea about its origins.

Juniper vintage illustrationThe earliest confirmed gin distillation was in Holland in the 17th century. Dutch chemists sold it as a medicine to treat a number of ailments, such as stomach ache. They later added juniper flavor in order to make it more palatable. This flavor is the deciding factor in what makes gin, gin. Most spirits have strict rules when it comes to the recipe and distillation process. But to qualify as gin, all it needs is to be predominantly juniper-flavored.

Some recipes infuse the alcohol with the botanical flavors during the distillation process, while others add the flavor in later. Either way you end up with “gin.” There can be lots of other flavors such as citrus or cucumber in there as well. And despite gin’s long history, juniper is very rarely cultivated. The tons of juniper berries used every year to make gin are picked wild.


How’d it Reach England?

This spirit found its way from its country of origin to the United Kingdom through the military. During the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), British troops were stationed in Holland. They were offered a swig of “Dutch courage” to keep them warm. After the conflict ended, they brought bottles of gin back to the Motherland, and pharmacists began stocking it as a remedy.

At this time, the distillation of spirits was tightly regulated, so the quality of gin was very good. However, when William of Orange took the throne in 1689 he lifted the ban on home distillation. Gin was cheaper than beer or wine, soon outstripping the old favorites and becoming the drink of choice for London’s poor. By 1736, the government tried to intervene through the Gin Act. It raised the levies on gin, as well as making the minimum quantity available for purchase 2 gallons. The general public rioted in response, and the law was disdainfully and widely broken.

In 1742, the Gin Act was repealed and replaced with new regulations which were easier to swallow for producers, sellers, and patrons. Licenses were still required, but the levies were more reasonable and the quantity was at the sellers discretion. These changes led to interest by larger, more respectable companies. They elevated gin’s social status out of the East End gutters and into fashionable parlors. “Gin Palaces” arose, giving well-to-do fans of the drink a luxurious place to enjoy it. This was in contrast to beer shops, which were darker, quieter and aimed at poorer patrons.

Take Your Medicine

In a funny twist, gin ended up going back to its roots as a medicine in the mid-1800’s. At this time, Britain had the largest empire the world has ever seen, and British officers were occupying posts in many exotic locales all over the world. This meant that they were confronted by strange diseases, or familiar maladies in more potent strains, such as Malaria. According to an article on Slate, the treatment for Malaria at this time “included throwing the patient head-first into a bush in the hope he would get out quickly enough to leave his fever behind.”

The Spanish colonizers in the new world found a much more effective remedy. Native people employed the bark of the cinchona tree to treat a number of maladies, including the high fevers associated with Malaria. Scientists later discovered the quinine in the bark could be used not only to treat Malaria, but to prevent it. By the 1840’s, the British sent tons of quinine powder to India to protect the health of the troops.

Unfortunately, it didn’t taste very good. Soldiers would mix it with sugar and soda to improve the flavor, and so the first tonic water was born. The British soldiers and civilians had to take a dose everyday in order to ward off infection. This led to the commercialization of the drink by Bond in 1858 and Schweppes in 1870, which are still in fizzy drink business today. Gin had been making its comeback to respectability all through the 1800’s, so really it was only a matter of time before some aristocratic British officer decided to add a splash of gin to his “medicine” to further improve the taste.

The Cocktail and Adaptations

Get the recipe in the book Steampunk Tea Party
Get the recipe in the book Steampunk Tea Party

Though it is really a very simple cocktail, the gin and tonic has continued to evolve. Because the definition of a gin is so wishy-washy, there are lots of specialty and small-batch versions available which draw on a number of other botanicals besides Juniper. The juice or peel of citrus fruits are often added as well. An hey, that makes it even MORE healthy because vitamin C is good for you.

So be good boys and girls, and take your medicine 🙂

Want to get more booze news? Check out my article on cider, or follow Steampunk Journal for the latest.

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