Few alcoholic drinks have quite the same storied past as gin, which has been entwined with English culture for centuries. This deceptively simple drink, that is capable of many refinements, has been the subject of celebration, scorn and concern ever since it first became popular in the 18th century, and now, in 2021, it is popular once again with a new audience.
The art of creating gin, through a combination of juniper and alcohol, may date back to Roman times and there is evidence that a mixture of juniper berries and wine was considered a good tonic for those suffering from chest ailments in Solerno, Italy, during the 1050s.
The drink we known as gin was first produced in a recognisable form by the Dutch, in the 16th century, when they began to produce a drink that was made up of a base of malt wine with juniper berries that helped to disguise the wine’s harsh flavour. It was originally known as a medicinal tonic, but by the 18th century, it was being enjoyed as an alcoholic drink. The drink created by the Dutch was known as genever, but by the time it had caught on in England, the name had been shortened to ‘gin’ which was easier for English tongues to form, particularly after a glass or two.
Although the drink caught on to a degree in England, it was not until William of Orange became king, in 1689 that gin started to spread as the drink of choice of the working classes. At the start of his reign, the new king brought in a series of measures designed to target France, including blockades and heavy taxes on both wine and Cognac, to weaken their economy. At the same time, he brought in the Corn Laws, which offered tax breaks for spirit producers.
The inevitable result was a gin craze, and at one point, it was said that a pint of gin was cheaper than a pint of beer, and the poor of England began increasingly to turn to the drink as their preferred option. A tradition of ‘gin and gingerbread’ stalls became established in London, when the Thames froze over during winter, and many merchants were able to cash in on the craze.
Gin became so popular that by the late 1730s, the government of England were extremely concerned. Not only were large swathes of the population consuming huge quantities of the drink, with no regulation on the manufacture of gin, distillers were getting away with using all kinds of unpleasant ingredients to boost their profits, including turpentine and sawdust. The initial solution was to require distillers to pay for a licence, but at a price of £50, there was no take-up.
The extent of the problem was illustrated by a famous etching by William Hogarth in 1751, known as Gin Lane, which illustrated some horrific examples of lives ruined by gin. Terrible stories of parental neglect and personal tragedies associated with gin began to appear in newspapers throughout the 1740s and eventually, the government acted. The 1751 Gin Act raised taxes and fees on spirits, while simultaneously, both beer and tea were promoted as an alternative.
The result was a steady decline in the consumption of gin, and by 1830, beer was once again the cheaper drink. But gin wasn’t going to fade away. In 1830, a man named Aeneas Coffey came up with a new still that revolutionised the production of spirits, making it easier and cheaper to produce a higher quality product.
Another boost to gin’s fortunes came from the Royal Navy. As English sailors of this time were often required to sail into areas of the world where malaria was prevalent, they were issued with quinine rations to fight the disease. Unfortunately, quinine had an appalling taste, so drinks company Schweppes produced an Indian Tonic Water to mix with the medicine to improve its taste. But at the same time, London Dry gin was popular among sailors as it was easier to transport than beer, and so the classic gin cocktail was born through a combination of the two, with limes added to the mix, as the citrus fruit was another staple of the Royal Navy, due to its scurvy-fighting properties.
During the twentieth century, gin consumption remained steady, but the classic drink was given a huge boost in the early 2000s when tax changes introduced by the Labour government made brewing and distilling a more attractive proposition. The result was a boom in gin production. In 2008, the first official gin licence issued since 1820 was given to Sipsmith, and in the years that have followed, a host of distillers have added their skills to the industry.
So to celebrate this most English of drinks, we’ve put together a short list of some of the most popular and sought after gins available in 2021:
Tappers Hydropathic Pudding
For gin drinkers who like a touch more flavour and an additional sweetness in their gin, Tappers Hydropathic Pudding is a perfect choice. It is technically known as a ‘fruit cup’, or a gin-based drink that is then flavoured with herbs, spices and fruits. It is essentially the gin version of Pimm’s. Produced in small batches in West Kirby, Merseyside, it’s a perfect drink when mixed with lemonade and is best served cool in the summer but warm in the winter.
Beefeater London Dry
The original classic London gin, Beefeater is arguably the grandfather of English gin. Distilled in central London, the process still uses traditional copper pot stills and from the distillery’s home in Kennington, it is possible to see into the Oval cricket ground. With plenty of juniper flavour, which is balanced with botanicals, Beefeater is best when mixed with tonic and ice, and rarely goes wrong as a gift, while its widespread availability is also a plus.
Chefs are ideally placed when it comes to working with flavour, and this gin benefits from the culinary expertise of its creator. Distilled in the North East, it was founded by the well-known chef and forager, Valentine Warner, and that culinary influence is obvious in a gin that is packed with classic flavour and that is best savoured simply over ice.
Abelforth’s Bathtub Gin
One of the new breed of gins to arrive in England in the past few years, this drink is delicate yet balanced, making it perfect for the beginner. Crafted by Tunbridge Wells based Atom Brands, is made with the Cold Compound process in which six botanicals, including cinnamon, cardamom and cloves, are infused with a base spirit in a copper pot still before being filtered out. The base for the gin is a botanical spirit distilled in pot stills by Langley Distillery in the West Midlands. This traditional process, which takes up to two days to complete, gives the gin its unique bronze tint.
Star Of Bombay London Dry Gin
With its famous blue bottle, Star of Bombay is produced in the stunning surroundings of the Bombay Sapphire distillery at Laverstoke Mill, Hampshire. This gin packs plenty of punch and is high on juniper, coriander and bergamot flavours to add extra intensity to your gin and tonic.
Adnams Copper House Gin
Better known for their beers, Adnams have also developed a fine gin tradition, thanks mainly to the success of Adnams Copper House Gin, which was voted the world’s best at the International Wine and Spirits Competition. The gin is distilled in-house at the Adnams Southwold Distillery using East Anglian malted barley spirit and six carefully chosen botanicals including hibiscus flowers in a handmade copper still before then being purified.
Caspyn Cornish Dry Gin
This was the first gin to be launched by Pocketful of Stones Distillery, which is based in Long Rock near Penzance in Cornwall. The gin is inspired by the Cornish spring and landscape and features botanicals that include hibiscus, gorse and citrus, along with Japanese tea. The gin is distilled in-house in small batches using two copper pot stills and a traditional process. The result is a beautifully fresh and invigorating blend of juniper, floral and citrus flavours.
Silent Pool Gin
Silent Pool Gin is distilled in-house on a former farm site on the Albury Estate in Surrey. As well as using water drawn from the spring-fed Silent Pool pond that is located next to the distillery, from which the gin takes both its name and the colour of its bottle, this drink feature an impressive 24 botanicals. These include chamomile, rose, elderflower, pear, bergamot and honey. The production of this stunning drink involves two simultaneous macerations with the resulting spirits added to the Holstein copper still that is heated by a wood-fired boiler. This gin is a beautiful mix of lavender, honey and chamomile and is presented in a stunning blue bottle.