When contemplating what alcoholic beverages are truly British, nothing springs to mind quicker than a refreshing gin and tonic. Whilst this drink has strong historical roots in the British Empire, gin has not always been Britain’s favoured tipple. Though consumed widely today throughout the UK and having associations with all things British, gin’s roots do not lie in the many distilleries continuing to produce gin in Britain today.
Gin is thought to originate from the Habsburg Netherlands, where Franciscus Sylvius created an ailment for stomach aches in the 1550s using the diuretic properties of the main flavouring of gin, juniper berries. Having said that, there is evidence of Italian monks flavouring alcohol with juniper berries since the 11th century, but no evidence of it bearing resemblance to modern day gin. Sylvius named the drink ‘genever’ and it became an important part of Flemish and Dutch culture. Troops brought it back to England returning from the Thirty Years War where they consumed it to deal with the cold, coining the term ‘Dutch courage’.
A combination of factors including a heavy government tax on imported spirits and an unfit grain crop for beer brewing led to gin becoming incredibly cheap in the 18th century, setting off what was known as the Gin Craze. Gin’s popularity had surged when William of Orange of the Dutch Republic married Mary II and ruled the British throne. This led to widespread consumption of gin on a large scale, and saw the birth of the phrase ‘mother’s ruin’.
Gin sales were eventually more regulated by the government through the Gin Act of 1751 and a lot of gin began being distilled at home, commonly flavoured with turpentine. Overall, gin consumption reduced during the 19th century and its production style changed, becoming a bitterer and clearer spirit than previously. Today, though gin remains one of Britain’s most beloved drinks, cheaper vodkas have caused a slight decline in popularity.