Don’t call it a comeback. To be fair though, just like LL Cool J’s knockout return to form in the ’90s, gin’s renaissance as a fashionable tipple is exactly that.
Because 300 years ago gin exploded onto London life, leading to such an epidemic of conspicuous drunkenness that Parliament felt forced to act, on public health grounds. The streets of Westminster, the East End and Southwark were lined with sozzled Londoners, out of their minds on the new cheap, lovely, strong booze. And if there was one thing the rich expected from the poor it was bearing their abject misery out of sight. Cheers!
In more recent decades, gin had been associated with respectable elderly couples celebrating gin o’clock in the shires, while complaining about foreign accents and their idle under-gardener.
Now though we are in the midst of another golden age of gin with well over 200 distillers in the UK, thanks to a change in archaic laws that have helped launch a craft gin industry. It’s not unlike the brewing revolution that so often lights up our afternoons. Gin is thriving and in vogue again, taking on wild variations and being refined into one of the most fragrant ways to get off one’s nugget.
This weekend (5th-7th October) sees the second Catford Gin Festival in the highly appropriate splendour of Broadway Theatre, with over 20 old and new distillers. Such a celebration of alchemy and botanicals would have been unthinkable in the 18th century, when the spirit was the subject of the first war on drugs.
The Gin Craze
In the 1700s London was the largest city in Europe, with a small wealthy elite and a vast number of desperately poor people living in horrific, unhealthy slums.
England was in constant need of funds to enable it to fuck with France. Luckily William of Orange had already introduced gin, or geneva, to the nation from his native Netherlands and landowners were able to use surplus grain for gin production, thus raising taxes to alleviate poverty fritter on wars.
Gin in the 18th century was often twice as strong as today’s version. It was available on every street throughout London as the working poor sought to escape the torment of their existence and to nestle in the fuzzy embrace of booze. They had no chance of altering their circumstances, but for a penny or two they could at least forget where they lived.
Gin was everywhere. It was sold from wheelbarrows on the streets. On some roads every fifth shop sold gin. You could get it in the weaver’s, cobbler’s, barber’s, carpenter’s, even in prison. Why, I ask you, can’t we get 80% gin while we have our keys cut in modern Britain?
William Hogarth’s acclaimed prints Gin Lane and Beer Street attempted to depict the difference between the two boozes. Beer might make you merry, but you could carry on working (speak for yourself, Bill), whereas gin saw people neglect themselves and their young, many believed.
Public nudity became an issue as people sold their clothes for another drop. There are some tragic tales that have survived from London’s Gin Craze, but we’d like to think there were plenty of types that hit the bottle with a lean and a view and simply got merrily out of their tree in like-minded company, without hocking their pantaloons.
The Government obviously didn’t give a flying flob about the poor in the East End and Southwark, but having to step over them in Westminster was most inconvenient. A moral panic spread among the upper classes. Mother’s Ruin was blamed for all crime. The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge lobbied for the flow of gin to be halted, to the poor at least, so that the lower classes would behave themselves and produce more soldiers and labourers. The author Henry Fielding wanted wages lowered so workers would have to work twice as long for their money and have less time for going on the lash – the opposite of everything we stand for here at Deserter.
Even the notoriously corrupt Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole opposed the 1736 Gin Act that put small gin-sellers out of business. He didn’t care about the poor – they couldn’t vote – but he did care about tax receipts, which lined his pockets.
The poor though cared about geneva and rioted on the streets of London in response to the changes in licensing law, attacking – and in some cases killing – informants of illegal gin-selling.
‘Don’t fuck with our gin, it’s all we’ve got,’ they seemed to be saying. ‘Also, we’ll kick your head in.’
Parliament tried various means of prohibition, all of which failed, as people became more creative in their methods of distribution in response.
Necessity gave birth to the first vending machine. Should you spot a cat sign on a building and exclaim: ‘Puss’ and hear a reply of ‘Mew’, you could expect a draw to be revealed for your pennies. They would be replaced by a dram of Old Tom (an 18th century gin recipe, recently revived) and you’d be on your merry way. If there’s anything the 21st century is lacking it’s a gin machine.
Gin did a roaring trade at public hangings too. Somehow we have come to accept that gin is no longer available at hangings. It’s PC World gone mad.
Eventually, wages did go down and the price of grain went up. The fashion passed, as fashions do. But the main cause of the public health crisis, which was not gin but poverty, according to historian Jessica Warner, remained unaffected.
While gin caused much tutting in high society, it couldn’t be denied that it was delicious. It remained part of Britain’s booze squad even if it made fewer appearances in the lower leagues. By the 19th century, the gin shops had disappeared and legislation ensured that gin could only be offered alongside ale and wine, making for larger, more respectable establishments.
In the late 1820s the first ‘gin palaces’ were built: Lavish, ornate and based on the fashionable shops of the day. They were considered somewhat vulgar at the time; a little bit bling. But those that have survived are pretty dazzling, as punters at the Viaduct Tavern and the Princess Louise in Holborn can attest, along with those at the Punch Tavern, Fleet Street, Argyll Arms at Oxford Circus and the Philharmonic in Liverpool.
While the Black Horse & Harrow (pictured above – currently closed but supposed to be reopening) in Catford has survived, the best South London has to offer is probably the King’s Head in Tooting. I know the Victorians brought British society on in leaps and bounds in fields too tedious to mention, but I will always be grateful for their gorgeous boozers. The King’s Head is beyond handsome.
The bar of modern day pubs is based on the shop counter of the gin palace, designed for swift service and ideal for attaching beer pumps. So in a roundabout way, we have gin to thank for the glory of our pubs.
South London gin revival
South London has a long established place in booze production, including gin. Gordon’s opened a distillery in Bermondsey in 1769. Beefeater gin was distilled in Lambeth in 1908 before moving to its current premises in Kennington in 1958 where you can still tour the facility, learn some history and have a few tasters. Or, if you’re the Dulwich Raider, you can buy a bottle in the shop and drink it on the streets.
Hayman’s in Balham were the first to revive Old Tom gin, a slightly sweeter drink than London Dry, and have seen many other distillers follow suit. You can tour their distillery and taste gin made the same way it was 150 years ago, though I wouldn’t recommend trying to pay with your trousers.
Jensen’s is another gorgeous high-end gin distilled in a Bermondsey railway arch. And while Little Bird’s small batch gin is made by Peckham Rye station (open to the public on Saturdays), they have also opened a gin joint on Ropewalk at Maltby Street Market, Thursday to Sunday. It’s a lovely little atmospheric arch, with a full range of lush gin-based boozes. As much as I enjoy martinis and negronis et al, the simple creature in me craved the classic G&T and was rewarded with both exquisite refreshment and that sensational dizzy tingle that often precedes mischief.
Now gin has returned to the affections of the nation, the Craze seems hard to believe, but there’s a lesson in there somewhere: We need drugs, just like LL Cool J needs love. Whether they’re distilled, brewed or manufactured, we need them because the joy of being alive simply isn’t enough, unless you’re a puppy. It’s fantastic, being alive, don’t get be wrong. But it’s even better with gin.
Further reading: Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason by Jessica Warner, The Gin Lane Gazette: A Profusely Illustrated Compendium of Devilish Scandal and Oddities from the Darkest Recesses of Georgian England by Adrian Teal