Cocktails, colonials and comebacks: Gin in the 19th and early 20th centuries

Old Schweppes bottle

Here we look at gin drinking in the 19th and 20th century, where it meets tonic and cocktails against a dark backdrop of British colonialism.

The birth of the gin bottle

It’s the mid 1800s. Spirit and Juniper have proved themselves an unstoppable twosome, having endured grain shortages, prohibitive laws and changing fashions. And now, in this chapter they’re about to become a mighty trio, as tonic water steps into this heady cocktail that is the history of gin. And speaking of cocktails, we’ll also see other ingredients enter the mix, this new, more subtle London Dry gin begins to lend itself to all manner of experimentation.

But before we talk about what’s inside the bottle, let’s look at the bottle. As the middle of the century approaches, gin moves into the shops. Respectable shops at that. Department stores started stocking gin, and with this came marketing. ‘Dead drunk for 2d’ wasn’t going to appeal to the upper-class Victorian shopper. They wanted to feel they were buying something of quality. At the sane time, duties were cut on spirit exports, so a new wave of gin companies, many of which are household brands today, started to emerge as global players, paying careful attention to their labelling and marketing.

Gin’s colonial history: Malaria, scurvy, and the gin and tonic cure

Meanwhile Britain was wielding its muscle in the colonies. We had defeated Napoleon, and moved in on the colonial territories of the Dutch, whose golden age was over. It’s the grubby, poverty-and- pox-ridden years of the gin craze that draw the most negative attention, but perversely it’s this aspect of the story - the part associated with sipping ice cocktails in the colonies - that has a darker aspect, hidden below the polite facade of Britain’s imperial century.

The long voyages and tropical climates that Brits were being exposed to brought health challenges, one of which was Malaria. Malaria was a huge problem, causing relapsing fevers, delirium and often death in its victims. Long before the now, Spanish missionaries in South America had learned of the anti-malarial qualities of Chincona bark, and by the nineteenth  century it was being widely used as a treatment. The Chinchona tree was pretty cool. It grew in the foothills of the Andes, standing high above the neighbouring trees, with huge ridged leaves of green, red and amber. Its bark glows fluorescent under ultraviolet light, due to the presence of the chemical that made it so in demand: quinine.

Quinine-rich Chinchona bark extract was nauseatingly bitter and insoluble in water. But it was soluble - and more palatable - when mixed with alcohol. In earlier centuries, western powers battled to gain a monopoly on it, and pirates were equally inclined to make off with your Chinchona stash as they were with your gold. Another challenge facing voygers was nutrition. Long ship journeys made it very difficult to keep a supply of fresh food. As a result, scurvy - a disease caused by lack of Vitamin C, was killing more British sailors than the enemy. Ships started carrying lemon and lime juice, and found that it could be preserved in alcohol.

The burgeoning tonic trade

Tonic water and citrus cordials started to blossom as a consumer product throughout the nineteenth century. In 1867, it became a legal requirement for the Navy to provide a daily lime ration to its sailors, and in the same year, one Laughlin Rose patented a recipe for a concentrated lime cordial. Meanwhile expats over in India started to take quinine in the form of Indian Tonic Water. And in 1875, one Robert Barr created a quinine-flavoured drink called Strachan’s Brew, which later changed its name to Irn-Bru.

And so we started to see the relationship between citrus, quinine and alcohol coming together, and making their way from the ships and the colonies and into the homes and drinking establishments of Britain.

Gin goes underground in Prohibition America

Over in America, whiskey and beer tended to be the tipples of choice. But by the 1860s, several states had already enacted prohibition, and by the 1880s the Temperance movement was growing. Activists would go into saloons and smash bottles, pray and sing to discourage the drinkers from their vices. It’s interesting that during the gin craze, there had been much focus on the dangers of women drinking - flaunting their sexuality and neglecting their children. But as calls for prohibition gained momentum in the US, one of the key arguments was that booze was causing husbands to abuse their wives. The campaigners got their way in 1920, when the eighteenth amendment took effect.

Now, you may think that this would hinder the plight of gin over in the states, but it had the opposite effect. In the southern states, bootleg alcohol was known as moonshine, while in the northern cities it was known as bathtub gin. It became the drink of the speakeasies and, just like we had seen in London over a century and a half earlier, gin became this underground, forbidden but exciting drink. Throughout the roaring 20s, writers and artists drank gin, with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway spending much time in the bars and cafes of Paris, writing, drinking and partying.

And as America emerged from prohibition in 1933, gin emerged with it as the companion of the modern metropolitan drinker. It wasn’t long before it was making its way into hollywood, often in the form of cocktails. James Bond sipped gin and vodka martinis, Clark Gable quaffed dry martinis in After Office Hours, and Humphrey Bogart enjoyed a French 75 in Casablanca.

Gin falls out of fashion

In the latter half of the 20th century, both gin and tonic lost something of their mystique. Perhaps the most famous gin drinker in British popular culture was Dot Cotton on Eastenders. It was a bit passe, tonic was almost always made with artificial quinine, and mainstream outlets stocked only a few stalwart brands. Not that these were bad, they were just few, and generally mass-produced. It wasn’t until the turn of the 21st century that the idea of artisanal gin came back into style. In 1999 Hendrick’s launched, with its subtle blend of juniper, rose and cucumber. Sipsmith’s followed suit, followed by a flurry of independent manufacturers, each with their own production methods, brand and blend of botanicals. The in 2004 came Fever Tree tonic, a brand that uses natural quinine and a subtle blend of ingredients.

Sarah Donnelly