Look at the picture above.
Now actually look at it and note at least three details.
I imagine you have picked up the lady with the open sores of syphilis dropping her baby, the man who could be dead or alive, the hanging body, the dentists? This picture was created in 1751 and is called ‘Gin Lane’. The message is quite clear – gin is having a detrimental effect on the lower classes of London. The purpose of the picture was to have gin banned, or at least regulated.Yet within a century this drink was the darling of the British Empire. Together with it’s partner tonic water they became known as the ‘G&T’. And they would save hundreds of thousands of lives. Indeed, Winston Churchill firmly stated, “The gin and tonic has saved more lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the empire.”
When the Dutch William of Orange was invited by parliament to become king of England in 1689, he and his wife Anne brought a penchant for genever with them. A trading embargo with France cut off the supply of bourbon so Britons were encouraged to distil their own liquor and what better drink to create than the one enjoyed by the royal family? By this stage though British soldiers had enjoyed genever when fighting alongside the Dutch during the Eighty Years War. Known for it’s effects of calming the mind before battle it gained the nickname of ‘Dutch Courage’.
Over the coming decades Londoners took to genever, now shortened to gin, like ducks to water. Adults and children alike drank over one hundred pints per year on average. When, in 1736, the government imposed high taxes to address the problem there were drunken riots. Distillers turned to making illegal gin and replaced the costly juniper with the deadly turpentine. Death became so commonplace that it was a contributing factor in the population of the city stabilising. So another law was passed 15 years later which seemed to quell the issue.
Not before long what was the scourge of the lower classes became the quaint tipple of the middle classes. Gin Palaces complete with shiny glass windows and twinkling gas lighting captured the imagine of those with newly found disposable income. Charles Dickens described them as, “perfectly dazzling.” Although gin was enjoying fleeting popularity alone, alongside tonic water it was to take the world by storm.
As ever necessity breeds invention and a growing problem for Brits abroad was malaria. Though largely eradicated in Europe it was a growing problem in India and the tropics. The answer came in the form of a bark from the Peruvian cinchona tree which was imported to Europe by the Spanish. This lifeline became vital in maintaining a healthy population of soldiers, civil servants, businessmen and sailors in the British colonies. By the 1840s 700 tons per annum were used by the British in India alone. The vital ingredient quinine was extracted and used in powder form as a daily malaria medicine for those in the tropics.
The powder was incredibly bitter so became mixed with soda and sugar to created ‘tonic water’. In 1858, one year after the British government took control of the vast colony from the East India Company, tonic water was commercialised. It was perfected in 1870 by the Schweppes company to satisfy the great demand. Unsurprisingly a glass of tonic water in the mornings was no replacement for tea. Perhaps inevitably, gin was added to the mix and what was once a reluctant morning routine became an afternoon delight. When the race for Africa began in earnest in the ensuing decade, Europeans brought immunity to a deadly disease in their drinks cabinets.
The final garnish of the gin and tonic was the wedge of lime. Since 1756 a small amount of lime had been added to sailors’ daily rum rations to prevent scurvy. Indeed the American term ‘limey’ for Englishmen came from this practice in the 1800s. Not before long pieces of lime found their way into the medicinal drink of gin and tonic. The G&T was finally born.
Now that you have finished this piece why not treat yourself to some history in a glass and enjoy some of my other articles?