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History of Gin

Many of us associate gin with the wild, illicit years of Prohibition – flappers, jazz clubs, and speakeasies. And who hasn’t heard the term “bathtub gin” from those days?

Gin is also synonymous with the Mad Men-era three-martini lunch of the 1950s and 60s.

All in all, a glamorous and nefarious reputation, wouldn’t you say?

So where does gin come from? What is gin made of?

Gin predates our romantic associations. As with so many legends, there is a bit of controversy surrounding the origins and invention of gin. Seems like gin is so good everybody wants to take credit for it. The French, English, and Dutch – all attempt to claim invention for this cocktail staple found in every bar in the U.S. and the UK.

origins of gin

First, let’s start in 11th century Salerno, Italy
The Benedictine monks began making gin (ginepro in Italian) from grapes for “medicinal purposes.” You need something to do in between midday prayer and vespers at the monastery, so why not whip up a bit of not-so-holy spirit? According to a recipe included in the 1055 Compendium Salernitanum of the Schola Medica Salernita, the monks distilled alcohol and infused it with juniper berries and other herbs to create a tonic wine.

Gathering Dutch Courage
Many people attribute the invention of gin to the Dutch, who got in on the act in the mid 13th century, again, claiming medicinal properties for the stomach, kidneys, and, ironically, the liver.

So well regarded were the juniper berries’ medicinal properties, many people thought the consumption of gin would protect them from the Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death, during the mid-14th century. People even wore masks stuffed with juniper berries in hopes of warding off the deadly disease.

Early distillation methods were based on grapes, and by the 16th century, Dutch distillers figured out a way to scale up, by using grain (originally fermented beer). Jenever, the Dutch word for gin (from whence the term Dutch courage originates, once you’ve consumed enough) became hugely popular in The Netherlands, which could account for why many people think gin originated there.

William III, also known as William of Orange, a Dutchman. William wanted to hurt France economically by cutting down on trade. He then made sure gin was locally produced, making it affordable to the poor.

Of all the gin joints in the world
By the 17th century, this magical, medicinal elixir had found its way into England where it was pronounced slurringly gin (most likely as a result of consuming more than a few ounces of the stuff).

Funny story that
William III, also known as William of Orange, a Dutchman by birth, showed up in Devonshire with 15,000 men intent on gaining power. Now granted, parliament had invited him because they preferred to have a protestant on the throne. The current monarch, James, who incidentally was William’s father-in-law, was abandoned by his own army. William and Mary, his wife, peacefully assumed the throne and were granted joint sovereignty, of the British throne by parliament, in 1689.

An elixir for the masses
Did William bring gin with him from The Dutch Republic? Maybe, but what’s important here is that gin was locally produced, and heavy taxes had been placed on French brandy at that time because of a political conflict with France. William wanted to hurt France economically by cutting down on trade.

Local, relatively easy production drove down the price of gin, making it affordable to poor folk and pop-up “gin-shops” quickly became prolific and some people sold gin out of the back of wagons – the early ice cream trucks of their day, slowly lumbering through town.

The gin trade brought about a sort of feminism in urban London. Women were tossing back drinks right alongside men. Prior to this, drinking establishments were strictly stag (men only). Recognizing an economic opportunity, women began to penetrate the retail market of gin sales and a few even became distillers. The new public face of women’s involvement in alcohol also brought about public scorn and criticism that women were neglecting their children. A new term for gin was coined Mother’s Ruin.

The Gin Craze of affordable hooch made public drunkenness a massive problem, along with unscrupulous distillers using harmful ingredients. The general populace was overserved. So much so in fact, the Gin Act of 1751 came bearing down on the little man, the corner gin shop. The Gin Act provided that distillers must sell to licensed merchants. In order to obtain a license, a merchant was required to be a “significant” property owner, and the license fees were very expensive.

The Gin Act was not repealed until 2008.

Gin Lane. The Gin Craze of affordable hooch made public drunkenness a massive problem, bringing forth the Gin Act of 1751.

Evidence seems to indicate that gin was consumed straight up or neat until the 1800s. Talk about a tough liver. Sometime around 1825, British soldiers of the East India Company were being wiped out by malaria in greater numbers than were being killed in battle. Consuming quinine powder (made from the bark of the Cinchona tree) was discovered to prevent and treat Malaria, but the stuff is very bitter and doesn’t smell too good, either. To make it a bit more palatable, soldiers started mixing it with sugar and soda (which essentially is tonic) and then threw in some gin for good measure. Thus, the Gin and Tonic was born and is credited for saving millions of lives. Chin chin.

Prohibition dried out America from 1920 to 1933.

And then we were forced into a dry spell

Prohibition dried out America from 1920 to 1933. The Eighteenth amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. Just like with teenagers, when anything is forbidden, it makes the desire for it that much stronger. Liquor was smuggled into the country from Canada, Mexico, and Cuba among other places. Americans are nothing if not industrious. By the late 20s, bootleggers were making corn liquor in their hidden stills, usually out in the country.

Bathtub gin
Demand was high, production was fairly simple, and folks began making gin from grain alcohol and juniper berries, which they allowed to steep in a bathtub for a few days before distribution. Some bootleggers weren’t all that scrupulous with their alcohol source and on occasion used unprocessed denatured alcohol, which resulted in the unfortunate deaths of an estimated 50,000 people.

Bathtub Gin. People began making gin from grain alcohol and juniper berries, which they allowed to steep in a bathtub for a few days before distribution.
Vesper Cocktail using Conniption Gin.

Shaken not stirred
We could never properly discuss the history, influence, and adoration of gin without tipping our hat to the ubiquitous martini. To quote the American poet and notable party girl, Dorothy Parker, “I like to have a martini, two at the very most. After three I’m under the table. After four, I’m under my host.” There are 54 million search results for martini recipes on the internet (we still think we have one of the best obviously), and two prevailing stories of how this drink got its name.

The earliest theory is that a gold miner in Martinez, California wandered into a bar to celebrate his good luck and ordered champagne. Not a lot of champagne in a mid 1800s gold rush town, so the bartender improvised with a gin and vermouth concoction, which became known as a Martinez.

The first known written recipe for the martini can be found in the 1888 Bartender Manual, by Harry Johnson. The Bradford a la Martini includes: Old Tom gin, vermouth, orange bitters, and “the peel of one lemon.” Still others, (mostly New Yorkers) claim the true martini was the brainchild of Martini di Arma di Taggia, a bartender at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Manhattan, who created the drink for John B. Rockefeller in 1911.

Juniper Berry. The most common juniper berry used for gin production, and the one we use here for Conniption Gin at Durham Distillery, is the Juniperus communis.

All about the berry (no pine trees are harmed)
Now before you convert your soaking tub in the master bath, and start making your own gin, take into consideration there are more than 70 types of juniper berries in the world, 13 are native to the U.S. So you may not want to go plucking them off your neighbor’s shrubbery. Anyway, the “berry” really looks more like a wee pinecone and is quite bitter fresh off the bush.

At least four species are edible, and as the saying goes, “Everything is edible at least once.” However, the Juniperus Sabina or Savin Juniper is toxic and can definitely kill you if consumed in an unspecified large quantity. The most common juniper berry used for gin production, and the one we use here for Conniption Gin at Durham Distillery, is the Juniperus communis.

Is gin just the Juniper Berry? Absolutely not.
Did you know? Gin ingredients are controlled by law. Some countries are pretty strict too. For instance, here in the U.S., the required composition of gin is different than gin in the U.K. Since we are a craft gin distillery located on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. let’s outline the requirements here:

The U.S. Department of Treasury Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulates the labeling of all spirits that can be described and sold as gin”

“Spirits with a main characteristic flavor derived from juniper berries produced by distillation or mixing of spirits with juniper berries and other aromatics or extracts derived from these materials and bottled at not less than 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof).”

Juniper Berry

Conniption gin may start with the juniper berry but we decided to follow our passion by crafting lovely layers of botanical and fresh flavors. Citrus, Honeysuckle Flowers, Cucumbers, Cardamom are just a few to note. Even better? Conniption gins won’t make you think you’re out in the forest licking a pine tree. We promise.

Try one of our Conniption cocktails and taste these truly refined gins.

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