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THE HISTORY OF GIN

The history of gin spans hundreds of years. Beefeater Gin is a significant part of the story (find out about our origins), with our distillery first being founded in 1820. While we have moved locations, our gin has stood the test of time and is now the only historic dry gin still produced in the heart of London.

If you’ve ever been sipping your drink and wondered where gin was invented or who first produced it, this article reveals all. We’ll start in the Mediterranean before taking a trip to The Netherlands and that’s all before we explore how gin’s steep increase in popularity caused chaos in the UK capital. Are you ready? Let’s get going.

WHERE DOES GIN ORIGINATE FROM?

The beginnings of one of the world’s most popular spirits date back to the Middle Ages. Humankind had long known about the healing properties of juniper. The Romans burned juniper branches for purification, for instance, and plague doctors apparently stuffed their masks with juniper berries to protect them from the Black Plague.

By the 11th century, Benedictine monks in southern Italy were using an alembic still to produce alcoholic tonics from wine infused with juniper berries. They didn’t consider their creation a beverage – it was a medicinal liquid – but it was the first example of alcohol infused with piney juniper.

However, gin as we know it today has its roots firmly planted in the Netherlands. Back in the 17th century, Dutch alchemists had worked out how to distil spirits cheaply from grain. Holland reaped good harvests and trade routes from Southeast Asia saw spices being brought back to Europe in huge quantities. Distillers crafted a juniper-flavoured spirit that they infused with botanicals, and they called it “jenever”.  

World Gin Day is an annual ode to the juniper-flavoured spirit and brings people from around the world together to revel in its aromatic pleasures and rich history. 

If you want to join in on the fun, this guide tells you when World Gin Day is, gives some great ideas for how to celebrate, and of course, shares some delicious gin cocktail recipes that will help add to the festivities.

WHO INVENTED GIN?

Franciscus Sylvius, a Dutch physician, is often recognised as inventing jenever in the 17th century, which was a variation of the tonic the monks had made centuries earlier. Sylvius produced a schnapps with juniper berries, and it was consumed as a medical elixir.

While the Dutch are credited with creating this precursor to gin, it was the English who really ran with it and modernised how gin is made. The Dutch took jenever across the globe but Elizabeth I inadvertently brought it back to the UK. In 1585, she sent soldiers to support the Dutch in their battle for independence and when they returned home, they brought bottles of aromatic jenever back with them.

WHAT WAS GIN ORIGINALLY USED FOR?

If you haven’t already twigged, gin was originally intended as a medicinal tonic to treat a plethora of ailments, from stomach issues and gout to coughs and colds. It was sold in apothecaries and was a staple in any doctor’s kit. But as history would have it, it soon became a popular recreational drink.

WHERE DOES THE WORD ‘GIN’ COME FROM?

Ah, the etymology of gin! It’s thought to be derived from the Dutch word “jenever” which means juniper. Juniper berries are a key ingredient in gin and provide its distinctive flavour.

WHAT WAS THE GIN CRAZE?

Picture this: it’s London in the early 18th century. Gin has become a popular alternative to French brandy, which incurred import taxes, and local beers and wines, which too had high taxes. With little regulation, anyone and everyone could try their hand at producing gin and this led to hundreds of distilleries and over 7000 gin shops in London alone. People even created their own spirits in their bathtubs.

As a result, gin was flowing like water, and the city was swept up in what’s known as the ‘gin craze’. It was a time when gin consumption skyrocketed, with millions of litres being drunk every year.

The high level of alcohol consumption is said to have led to all sorts of social issues like crime, poverty, and general debauchery. It was time for the government to step in and try to curb the problem.

WHY WAS GIN BANNED IN ENGLAND?

The gin craze got so out of hand that the English government had to do something. They didn’t ban gin outright but took steps to make it economically unfeasible with the Gin Acts of 1729 and 1736. However, this just pushed production underground and as a result, illegal and unsafe spirits were being sold and consumed.

In 1751, they passed another Gin Act, which stopped gin distillers from selling to unlicensed merchants and restricted retail licences. This was an attempt to reduce the country’s consumption of spirits and it worked. By the early 19th century, the price of gin increased, the quality improved and it was viewed as a much more respectable drink.

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WHEN WAS THE G&T COCKTAIL INVENTED?

If you asked people what other word they associated with gin, tonic would be one of, if not the most common answer. It’s a drink that is known the world over and is synonymous with simplicity and sophistication. And the classic gin and tonic cocktail has a refreshing history.

It was created by British officers stationed in colonial India in the 19th century. They had to take quinine every day to ward off malaria but to make it more palatable, they often added water, sugar, and lime. One day, one of them had the bright idea to mix their gin rations with their quinine and a much-loved cocktail was born.

A British tradesman named Erasmus Bond later created a carbonated tonic water and sold gin and tonic officially for the first time in 1858.

WHEN WAS THE GIN REVIVAL?

Fast forward to the latter part of the 20th century, and gin made a stylish comeback. Gin began gaining momentum as drinkers started to appreciate the craft behind their cocktails. Suddenly, gin wasn’t just the same old juniper juice; it was a canvas for creativity, with distillers experimenting with different botanicals, flavours, and techniques.

From London dry gin to floral and fruity varieties like Beefeater Pink Strawberry gin, the world of gin expanded faster than you could say ‘cheers!’ Distilleries began popping up around the globe, with many still choosing the bustling streets of London as their homes but others opening everywhere from Spain to the USA. Gin became the darling of mixologists and enthusiasts alike, sparking a renaissance in cocktail culture and remains a steadfast spirit that is enjoyed by many.

 

WHY IS GIN SO POPULAR?

Gin’s popularity is due in part to its versatility. With its botanical flavours, gin serves as a blank canvas for mixologists to create a plethora of delightful cocktails. Plus, its crisp and fresh taste pleases many palates. Whether it’s a timeless Negroni or a fancy gin martini, there’s something about gin that just has endless appeal.

If you want to find out more about the intricacies of gin, take a look at our article on different types of gin or check out our gin botanicals guide. Or, if all of this learning has made you thirsty, head to our gin cocktails page to find a drink as refreshing as it is delicious. 

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