Madam Geneva’s triumphant return to London! From Gin Lane to Park Lane.
London’s love affair with gin, as with the Thames tides, ebbs and flows. At times, London seems awash with this clear spirit, and measures are taken to hold back the tide; at others, it’s rarely seen and what’s available is merely a poor excuse! At the moment, London gin distilling and drinking is on the up; a veritable flood tide! In fact, for the first time in 200 years, there is now a distillery inside the “Square Mile”: the local term for the City of London. Gin, or “Madam Geneva” to some, is back!
A “gin and tonic” (shortened to “G&T” by locals) is as quintessentially English as a cup of tea. For most of the twentieth century and until recently, gin was a fairly generic product and its production was dominated by the large distilling companies. Its essential partner, tonic water, was produced by large soft drink companies, using vast quantities of preservatives and saccharine or high fructose corn syrup.
As a result, the gin and tonic had literally lost its fizz. Other gin cocktails were far more alluring and entertaining, and the G&T had been consigned to the “drink in the pub before dinner” brigade. The kind that sit in the corner of the bar nursing their drink before the inevitable trudge home for the over-cooked dinner! But within the last decade, the “gin and tonic” has become a sophisticated and varied drink again. Something that graces the very best bars, at the very best establishments that London has to offer.
A “gin and tonic” was, not surprisingly, an English “invention” – if you can call it that. As so often happens in such circumstances, the need arose out of a medical condition! The combination of gin with quinine, water, sugar, and other self-selected ingredients was invented (for want of a better word) by the army of the British East India Company in India during the mid-eighteenth century. Among the impressive variety of deadly diseases that could kill you in the colonies at that time, malaria was champion.
Although back home in England gin was definitely a problem for the poor (“the rioting mobs”), in the colonies gin was to help with medical problems. Quinine emerged as a prevention and treatment for malaria. However, quinine had a bitter taste making it unpleasant to drink. British officers in India made the amazing discovery that if you took your quinine dose with a mixture of water, sugar, lime and gin, the medicine was more palatable. Most of us who drink gin and tonic would heartedly agree! Although gin was being restricted for the rioting civilian populace, soldiers in India were given a mandatory gin ration. Which was a great thing — this slightly bitter, slightly sweet concoction taken for “medicinal purposes only” also resulted in one generally feeling better about the world!
Move on a few years into the eighteenth century and the distilling and consumption of gin in London was such a problem that the British Government actually took steps to outlaw it! Gin had pervaded the British way of life. From its introduction from the Dutch (as William of Orange ascended the English throne in 1689) around the end of the seventeenth century, gin had become the spirit of choice.
In fact it became so endemic, and consumption reached such dizzying levels that it was referred to as the “Gin Craze”. English protectionist laws had encouraged the gin distilling industry. Gin could be distilled from English crops and the country had dropped the reliance on the spirits such as French brandy.
Daniel Defoe, pamphleteer, spy, and author of noted books (Robinson Crusoe) commented that ” … the Distillers have found out a way to hit the palate of the Poor, by their new fashion’d compound Waters called Geneva, so that the common People seem not to value the French-brandy as usual”.
The actual term “Geneva” was the result of the inebriated populace not being able to pronounce “Jenevers”: referring to the Dutch Gin. As Jenevers morphed into Geneva; those who became intimately acquainted with the drink referred to it as Madame Geneva. Gin became the shortened term used for this juniper-based spirit.
The Gin Acts of 1736 and 1751 tried to put the cost and the price of gin outside the reach of most people. However, the Acts were ineffective. Distillers (who were supposed to pay a license fee of 50 pounds) continued as before but renamed their output, using creative new names such as “Strip me Naked”, Mother’s Ruin”, “Cuckold’s Delight” and “Dutch Courage”. As most of the names implied, gin was thought not only to be a drink that could lead to a great deal of fun, it was also a drink of ruin and debauchery.
The perils of gin consumption at the time of the Acts are shown here in Hogarth’s “Gin Lane”. England’s most famous illustrator produced two opposing prints showing the advantages of beer versus the perils of gin.
Gin as a spirit is relatively easy to make. Try looking up the process on the web! First, you need a fermentable base or “mash” which is agricultural in origin – wheat, rye, barley, etc. Then you need to extract high proof neutral spirits from it, using a “refluxing still” such as a column still. The highly concentrated spirit is then redistilled with juniper berries and other botanicals in a pot still. Typically, the botanicals are suspended in a “gin basket”, which allows the hot alcoholic vapours to extract flavouring components from the botanical charge. This method yields a gin lighter in flavour than the older pot still method, and results in either a distilled gin or London dry gin depending largely upon how the spirit is finished. London Dry Gin is an official term that refers to a particular method, flavour and strength of gin.
Although the ability to produce different gins using varied sets of botanicals always existed, it is only recently that the gin producers have capitalised on both the ease of production and the potential variation that may exist in producing a distinctive gin. Gin started to change when two specific brands entered the market: Bombay Sapphire Gin and Sipsmiths.
Gin went from a generic and uninspiring spirit to something with uniqueness and flavour. Bombay Sapphire introduced the “ingredient list” on the bottle. Gin drinking started to recognize that changing the ingredients changed the flavour. Sipsmith was founded in an old warehouse building down in the Hammersmith end of Fulham in south-west London. The proliferation of gin has now resulted in London Gin tours. Just try putting the term into Google and you will get an idea. Alternatively you can make one up as you go along! It’s probably more fun that way!
Not since the eighteenth century has such a wide selection of gin been available on the market. The different names for gin in the eighteenth century were a way around the Gin Acts that required a license to make gin. No license was needed, per se, to make a bottle of “Strip me Naked”! Now, from “Sipsmith”, “Dodds” (London Distillery Company), “Jensens” at Bermondsey, “City of London”, “Portobello Road”, and “Sacred” (seriously: Ian Hart’s kitchen in Highgate), the names and locations for gin distilling have returned.
The distillery “in the City” is located next to St. Bride’s Church, on Bride Lane, near the once-burgeoning London clock and watch industry. Two hundred years ago, gin distilleries and watch manufactures inhabited the same streets and lanes in Fleet Street, City of London. While the watch and clock industry have yet to make a return, the demand for, and the interest in, gin has reached the point where London companies now offer a number of “gin tours” around the capital. Gin is back! The number of small distilleries appears to be expanding as fast as you can set up a still!
However, the availability of gin, with different tastes from the selection of botanicals is only half the story. The other three-quarters of the gin and tonic story, as Fever Tree’s advertising points out, is from the revival of the tonic water trade. Taking their name from the origins of the quinine that necessitated the invention of the “gin and tonic”, Fever Tree have shown that artisanal tonic water adds greatly to the taste of the drink.
When quinine was taken as a medicine against the onset of malaria, the Cinchona tree (the source for quinine) was known as the “fever tree”. In fact, in the 1850’s, the East India Company spent £100,000 annually on the bark of the Cinchona tree! Fever Tree now produce a line of tonic waters, based on natural quinine, which allows for a variety of different garnishes. Gone are the days of gin and tonic with “an ice and a slice”. You can now garnish your gin with lime, herbs such as rosemary or thyme, even spices such as cinnamon and cardamon, and complement it with the appropriate tonic to match the botanicals in the gin.
Since Fever Tree’s entrance into the market with a natural and traditional means of making tonic water, a number of other smaller firms have followed suit. As with the gin production itself, the manufacture of tonic water has become bespoke and small scale in production. Tonic water brands such as: Fentimans, Bottlegreen, Bermondsey, Square Root London, Peter Spanton, and even the oldest of generic producers: Schweppes, have had to meet the change in consumer’s tastes and produce more traditional tonic waters. A far cry from their once dull offering of a “G&T; ice and a slice”!
Madam Geneva’s return is complete! No bar of any standing in or around Park Lane will have anything less than eight or ten artisanal and bespoke gins. Couple such choice with the availability of specialized tonic waters, and other botanicals that might be added, and in a sense the gin and tonic has come full circle from the Dutch East India Company days, where the individual officers choice of “poison” was their own mix. Next time you are on a sun-soaked terrace, or sheltering from the rain in “spit and sawdust” pub, ordering your gin and tonic, whether in Mayfair, or some far-flung corner of the globe, give a thought to the history and knowledge that has gone into that thirst-quenching tipple. Just think: it might help keep you healthy too!