The recovery: What happened after the gin craze ended?


In our last post we covered the Gin Craze. But what happened when the gin craze came to an end? Did Britain simply stop drinking gin?

The answer is no. Production and consumption slowed down due to the latest gin act and poor grain harvests, but this was just the beginning of a new era for gin.

A changing society

British society was changing. Previously, gin drinking was a ‘sin of the poor’, and gin sellers were the peddlars of vice. But this attitude wouldn’t stand in an evolving Britain. For a start, gin drinking, and alcoholism in general, were starting to be seen as as more an illness than a sin. Secondly, the industrial revolution changed our attitude towards the potentially lucrative gin trade. This might have helped shift the stigma from poor old Madam Geneva’s shoulders. And now she was readying herself to tip-toe into the homes of the British middle and upper classes.

Gin becomes medicine

She started by sneaking into their medicine cabinets. One notable physician, John Brown, started to prescribe gin and other mind-altering substances, like opium, for new conditions like ‘hysteria’ and ‘overstimulation’. Charles Dickens wrote about these ‘cures’ in the Pickwick Papers, where it’s used as a hangover remedy by Sam Weller.

Gin: The drink of poets

The ‘artistes’ of the day also took to it. Dickens himself used to love serving gin slings to his guests, and the romantic poets of the early nineteenth century used gin to stimulate their creative imagination. The likes of Shelley and Byron would have loved the fact that gin had a grubby past. They were rebellious aristocrats who wrote of anarchy and atheism (in fact Shelley got expelled from Oxford for distributing leaflets on the necessity of atheism and Byron kept a bear in his student accommodation).

Byron was getting himself a reputation as the ultimate libertine - mad, bad and dangerous to know, and that reputation was tied in with his gin drinking. Later Branwell Bronte, the brother of Emily, Anne and Charlotte, would fall for Madam Geneva. The last letter he wrote was one begging his friends to bring him gin. Not only was she a muse for poets, but up in the northern industrial cities, gin stood side by side with the soap-box preachers calling for workers’ rights.

The advent of gin palaces

With a shift towards gentrification, filthy old gin shops were no longer fitting outlets for this newly-elevated drink. So in the 1820s we started to see the a new type of drinking establishment springing up in Britain’s major cities: gin palaces.

Gin palaces were characterised by two things: their opulence and their quick-fire service. Outside, gaslights tempted cold passers by inside. Gaslights were a fairly new invention, so you could compare them to the big digital adverts outside shops. Inside, they were all velvet, mahogany and chrome. Dickens noted that their fantastically ornamented parapets, illuminated clocks and plate glass windows were ‘perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and that we have just left’.

Unlike pubs, they weren’t designed to entertain guests for hours, over dinner, newspapers and conversation. They had little seating, they didn’t serve food, and so guests would walk in, neck their gin and leave, a bit like shoppers at an Aldi checkout.

Due to a new law that reduced the price of English spirits as a means to reduce smuggling, the price of gin was going down again. So the clientele of gin palaces were often poor. This gave them an air of seedy glamour. Gas-lit palaces serving toothless alcoholics on a three-minute rotation.

Gin palaces were putting pubs out of business, publicans argued that they were killing any sense of community. Some publicans were less resistant and started getting quick, elaborate makeovers to become gin palaces. Kind of like Lawrence Lewellyn Bowen turning up with his flat-pack MDF furniture and turning a room into a medieval banqueting chamber in 48 hours.

Calls for abolition in Britain

In 1836 the newly founded British and Foreign Temperance Society added fuel to the fire when they tried to abolish drinking altogether. They didn’t succeed, but they did precipitate a crackdown on drinking hours. Previously the gin palaces hd been open all hours, but new licensing laws meant they couldn’t open before 1pm on a Sunday. This was seen by some liberal commentators as an attack on the poor, as the same rules weren’t being applied to Gentlemen’s clubs.

The birth of London Dry

It’s worth mentioning that it was not only gin’s reputation that was changing, it was also its taste. Up until the 1830s, gin was very sweet and full of sugar, to mask its crude nature of. But a device called the Coffey still was patented in 1832, which allowed distillers to create a much purer spirit, which didn’t have to be sweetened. So now, instead of sugar, distillers could use a more subtle selection of herbs and spices to create a delicate bouquet of flavours. This was helped along by the fact that herbs and spices were beginning to flood in via the newly opened docks at the Isle of Dogs. The name of this new type of gin was known as London dry.   

Sarah Donnelly