The Gin Craze
Although the term Mother’s Ruin didn’t come about until late in the 19th Century (and its origin is a bit hazy even then) its negative connotation refers to a period in gin’s history in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. A period called the Gin Craze.
William of Orange (William III) comes to the English throne and in the next year sets about instigating a series of statutes, one of which is effectively to deregulate the distillation of spirits. Anyone can now become a spirit distiller by pasting a public notice to a lamp post and waiting the statutory 10 days.
William imposes heavy duties and taxes on the importation of wine and brandy. France, not W of O’s favourite holiday destination, is a major exporter of wine and brandy. William didn’t particularly like gin. But he liked the French even less. This snubbing of France and deregulation of homemade spirits sees an increase in the consumption of spirits, essentially gin.
Gin is cheap compared to beer. Water is unclean and unsafe to drink. It is kind of a no-brainer. We take fresh clean drinking water for granted these days. But disease from unhealthy drinking water was common, particularly among the poor of urban areas. This combination of unlicensed distilling, unsafe drinking water and expensive imported wine sparks a flicker of public consumption of gin that will become a real flame that blazes into the Gin Craze in a very short time.
1689 ~ 1726
Gin consumption rises apace, particularly in London. Thousands of gin shops spring up all over the capital. The quality of this unregulated gin is often dire. Turpentine is substituted for juniper to simulate the resinous berry at a much cheaper price. Sulphuric acid is used in distillation which when combined with ethanol produces diethyl ether. When distilled this compound gives gin a sweetness and certain anaesthetic properties.
The detriment to public health doesn’t go unremarked upon. The philosopher Bernard Mandeville in his essay The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Publick Benefits is scathing of the “infamous liquor”. He does go on a bit so I won’t quote it all here.
London holds a Frost Fair where hot gin is sold from stalls. Sounds like a sensible idea to me.
In The Complete English Tradesman Vol.2 Daniel Defoe, the writer and acute social commentator says “let us cast our Eyes about us, and in the streets of London, and parts adjacent, we may see a prodigious number of Shopkeepers whose business is wholely and solely the selling of Spirits and Strong-waters.” Furthermore “tis evident to common observation that these Additions to the Trade in Liquors are not trifles in the inland Commerce of the Nation.” Gin is already big business.
There are approximately 7,000 spirit shops in London alone.
On 29th September the Gin Act, a UK Parliamentary Act comes into force at midnight. Retailers are required to purchase a licence at £50 per annum (approx. £7,000 in today’s money). Excise duty is set at 20 shillings per gallon.
Riots ensued. Yep, literally.
The Gin Act is repealed. During the 7 years it was in existence only 2 distillers took out a licence and gin production rose by nearly 50% to a whopping estimated 11 million gallons per year, despite the reward for informers on illegal gin shops of the princely sum of £5.
A new Gin Act is drafted, this time in consultation with distillers. This policy introduces reasonable prices and excise duties. Distillers are bound to sell only to licenced retailers supervised by magistrates.
Hogarth’s Beer Street and Gin Lane is printed in support of this act, illustrating the evils of gin consumption: drunkenness, prostitution, child neglect, bankruptcy and death. In contrast, Beer Street is depicted as a model of industry and society. The first example of a smear campaign?
The Gin Craze is subsiding. Gin is about to turn almost respectable. Well, no that doesn’t happen for a couple of hundred years.
If you are a bit of a history nerd and would like to know more about the origins of gin then try From Italian Monks to the Black Death to find out how gin came about and how juniper was used to ward off plague.