Poverty, Misery and Inequality: The Story of London’s Gin Craze | Wine Enthusiast
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Poverty, Misery and Inequality: The Story of London’s Gin Craze

For lovers of the classic gin and tonic or just a good ol’ martini, there’s no better destination than London, a city flush with gin parlors whose histories are as rich and spiritous as their modern offerings.

The bustling English capital was the epicenter of the infamous 18th-century British gin craze. At the height of their decades-long obsession, Brits were knocking back more than two gallons of the juniper-infused spirit per person per annum.

What led to the so-called gin craze was a perfect storm of geopolitical, economic and social conditions.

Geopolitical Conditions Set the Stage

In 1689, England ceased all trade with France as the two fought during the Nine Years’ War (1689–1697), and French wine and brandy disappeared from the English market.

The following year, the English parliament lifted restrictions on domestic distilling to help English farmers move an unprecedented surplus of cheap grains.

At the same time, it canceled a charter that had given the London Company of Distillers exclusive right to distill in London. This allowed hundreds of backstreet distilleries to take hold in the British capital.

While this was all happening, a distilled spirit of Dutch invention infused with juniper berries had also made its way to London. It was imported in great quantities as the English demand for distilled spirits grew in earnest in the latter half of the 17th century.

Called genever, it was shortened to “gin” in English sometime in the 1720s.

A Gin-Soaked Clash of Classes

The gin craze struck at a moment of significant social transformation in the capital at beginning of the 18th century, as thousands of migrants were arriving in the city each year.

While newcomers came seeking opportunities, what many found instead was inadequate housing and sanitation, back-breaking work and destitution. For many who could otherwise only find erratic work as day laborers, domestic servants, or apprentices, peddling gin provided an attractive supplemental income.

Rivers of the acrid liquor were consumed among the poor in London’s early 18th-century slums, much to the disdain of the bourgeois classes, who blamed gin consumption for myriad social ills.

According to the Middlesex magistrates in 1721, the spirit was “the principal cause of all the vice and debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people.”

Jessica Warner, author of Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason, writes that Britain’s rich fretted that newcomers and the informal economies that sprouted around them would disrupt the institutions that ensured the transfer of wealth and power to the top. Those who fought to stem gin consumption “wanted nothing more than to return their society to a golden age that was rapidly receding into the past.”

The spirit quickly became a popular talking point in the British press and the subject of art and literature. It was “often personified as ‘Madame Geneva’ or ‘Mother Gin,’” explains Nicholas Allred, a visiting assistant professor of English at Fairfield University. It was imagined as “a feminine figure who holds drinkers in thrall and leads them into drunkenness and mischief.”

The most famous depiction of the supposed evils of gin-flooded London is William Hogarth’s 1751 print “Gin Lane.” It’s now at the Met.

“You can see in ‘Gin Lane,’ in a very sensationalized way, how the gin craze brought elite attention to the poverty and misery of many ordinary Londoners, especially women—but at the price of making alcohol a scapegoat for underlying problems, rather than a symptom of them,” says Allred.

Hogarth’s “Gin Lane” and its companion print, called “Beer Street“—a peaceful scene illustrating the relative merits of beer consumption—were successful propaganda for the 1751 Gin Act.

This was the last in a series of eight Gin Acts issued beginning in 1729 that levied license fees and excise duties and limited who could distill, curbing gin production and helping bring the craze to its eventual end.

London’s Gin Renaissance

Now, more than two centuries later, the British capital is again awash with establishments proffering a wide array of gins—from lavish gin palaces to hip craft distilleries.

Outings for the gin-obsessed like the Ginstitute on Portobello Road, the Gin School housed at Half Hitch Micro-Distillery in Camden and dozens of tasting experiences and historical gin-related walking tours have also cropped up in recent years.

Half Hitch is nestled among streets and squares that still bear names like Juniper Crescent, Gin Alley, Gilbey House and Gilbey Yard—the latter named for the Gilbey Bros. empire, once the largest drinks firm in the world and operators of a 19th-century commercial gin distillery.

According to Chris Taylor, general manager at Half Hitch, the company’s founder, Mark Holdsworth, chose to open the distillery in Camden to “reignite [the neighborhood’s] history.”

The world also has Britain to thank for London dry gin—now a global favorite, although Allred says it shares little with the barley-based beverage that swept its namesake city during the 18th-century.

Labeled not for its provenance but specific production standards defined by the European Parliament, most major brands now produce a London dry gin, including Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray and Beefeater (which is, in fact, made in London and has been since 1820).

“What’s fantastic about a good London dry gin is the combination of quality alcohol with the leading role played by juniper to which you can add a supporting cast of citrus notes, herbs and spices,” says Neil Beckett, owner of London-based Kingston Distillers Ltd., producers of Beckett’s Gin.

Britons have greeted gin’s resurgence with open arms. Data shows the number of British gin drinkers has increased yearly since 2014, and the UK Wine and Spirits Trade Association reported selling a record 78 million bottles of gin in 2020. Despite a decline during the pandemic, British gin sales measured 2.1 billion British pounds last year, equivalent to about 80 million bottles of house gin—more than a bottle per head of the population.

Certainly, Madame Geneva’s return to Britain marks a new chapter in a centuries-old love affair as intoxicating as the drink itself. Whether she has again come as a harbinger of social upheaval is perhaps a question best contemplated over a glass of the good stuff.