At the height of the 18th-century Gin Craze, London didn’t just have an alcohol problem. It had a woman problem. If you believe the reformers of the time, women were sloshed beyond reason, neglecting their husbands and children, keeping messy homes, pawning their household goods, even selling their bodies and spreading syphilis.
No fewer than eight Gin Acts would be put on the books before the tide would begin to ebb on the addictive spirit known as Ladies’ Delight and Mother’s Ruin.
Nearly three centuries later, London is in the midst of a new gin craze, and I’m a 40-something wife and mother who is soon to be so hammered on gin at 10 a.m. that I fear I’ll stagger right off the iron footbridge and into the Regent’s Canal.
For background on a book about London history, I’ve cobbled together a self-guided gin tour to explore the rise, fall, and comeback of this quintessentially British spirit and its inextricable link with fallen women.
I did not intend to research London’s latest drinking trend alone. I was supposed to fly out with my former flatmate Kara, who is also drowning in motherhood, and saw this as our rare chance to come up for air and relive our halcyon days as young London-based flight attendants. We’d convinced our husbands to take over carpools, Little League, homework, dinnertime, and bedtime routines, and then we’d set our plan into motion. When I suggested gin tasting, she said, “You’re speaking my love language.” Alas, her husband’s work schedule changed and she had to stay with her kids, leaving me to day-drink on my own.
Potentially even more irresponsible is what I’m also now supposed to do alone: have drinks tomorrow with our mutual old friend Miles, who also happens to be my very flirtatious, recently divorced ex-boyfriend.
At 9:30 am on a drizzly February morning, I’m the only one to turn up for Gin School at Half Hitch Distillery in Camden Town.
I sit alone at the wooden bar as Chris Taylor, the general manager, whips out a tumbler. “Can I get you a breakfast G&T?”
I’m a bit reluctant to pre-game a class that will include tasting multiple gins. These days, if I enjoy the rare glass of wine with dinner, I end up watching TV with my eyes closed and my mouth hanging open. Worse, I don’t get to soak in that glorious moment when my kids morph from whirling dervishes into peacefully slumbering cherubs.
“Um,” I say, possibly the first patron to pre-pay for a gin class and then turn down a drink. “Can you make it small? Or weak?”
He laughs. “I’ll make it properly, but you don’t need to finish it.” He expertly slices off an arc of orange peel, fills my glass with ice, and starts pouring from a bottle of their Earl Grey Tea Gin, distilled with bergamot and black tea.
So, what is gin exactly? By current UK regulation, to be classified as gin, your potent potable must be made with a grain natural spirit of at least 96 percent ABV, and the predominant flavor must be juniper berry, which, Chris explains, is actually a seed, not a berry.
This juniper-forward drink started as genever in the Netherlands, and when Queen Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange ascended the British throne in 1689, it became very much on-trend. Everyone who was anyone wanted to have what the royals were having.
When William promptly declared war with France and banned French brandy, he simultaneously removed all restrictions on domestic spirit production. The free-for-all meant everyone and their mother could get in on the liquor business.
As profit-minded dealers of any substance are wont to do, many cut their product with cheaper ingredients like turpentine and sulphuric acid, which supposedly taste like juniper — I’ll take their word for it — masking the flavor with sugar, licorice, and other herbs. Suddenly the fine genever that was once the realm of the upper classes, became accessible to the urban poor. Well, a bathtub version of it called gin, anyway.
A single official number has proven elusive, but I’ve read statistics estimating that at the height of the Gin Craze, enough gin was being produced for every man, woman, and child in London to have 10, or 12, or even 30 gallons per year.
“There were 2,000 stills in the square mile of the city of London alone,” says Chris. “Everyone from the postman to the butcher was having a crack. It varied massively in terms of quality, but I don’t think I need to tell you, if you’re replacing the water in your diet with alcohol, there’s going to be some repercussions.”
Eighteenth-century reformers railed against the spirit favored by the lower classes, characterizing it as a corrupter of women, even portraying the gin itself as a depraved woman nicknamed “Madame Geneva” or “Mother Gin.”
Upper-class men produced an avalanche of moralizing art and literature that depicted women drinking gin, serving gin, pouring gin into their babies’ mouths, lying on the floor half-naked while passed out on gin. Most famous was William Hogarth’s etching “Gin Lane,” which you can still view at the Tate Britain.
Unable to resist the bottle, drunken women were becoming a menace to society. Or so the story goes.
Only, the more times I read the same pop-history account of women’s role in the Gin Craze, the more it started to seem too tidy, expertly packaged for easy consumption and dissemination, almost as if it were created for cable news.
I scratched beneath the published opinions of those upper-class male reformers — perspectives that have endured because they had the money and power to immortalize their views in print — to quickly discover that there is indeed more to this story.
No doubt there was an epidemic of addiction, but men guzzling booze by the gallon wasn’t a news story. Neither was alcoholism. What was new was women’s participation.
For the first time, women were able to publicly enjoy an independent social life, and thanks to a complete lack of regulation, they could even sell gin, setting up shops, and sometimes even distilleries.
The distilled spirits trade was “one of the few occupations from which women were not effectively or explicitly excluded,” says Jessica Warner in her book Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason. “The gin trade allowed women to establish economic autonomy and develop their social mobility in ways that had previously been closed off to the female population.”
For many, that small step toward equal opportunity was decidedly uncool. These women would need to pay for their transgressions.
Warner and her colleague Peter Clark, author of The English Alehouse, tallied historical sources from retailer lists, court calendars, records of indictments, convictions, and acquittals, to document that over the years that the Gin Act of 1736 was in effect, women accounted for just less than 20 percent of all retailers, yet they accounted for nearly 70 percent of the defendants.
It doesn’t take a mathematician to know that something is wrong with that picture.
What’s more, Warner notes, is that independent women, whether single or widowed, accounted for 97 percent of those female defendants.
Perhaps it was power, not just alcohol that reformers didn’t want women getting drunk on.
Back in Gin School, I’m unable to resist finishing the delicious Earl Grey G&T and already buzzing when I begin sipping each of Half Hitch’s gins, trying to note the complexities of each flavor from bitter orange and bergamot, to pine and black pepper, to raspberry, strawberry and blackberry.
Then it’s time to blend my own bespoke gin. In the interest of time, we begin with a base that’s been fermented and pre-distilled with the traditional elements — juniper, coriander, and angelica. Chris then presents me with more than a dozen jars of botanicals from licorice root to rose petals to coffee.
He won’t tell me what to do but promises to give me a nod if I’m doing something “inadvisable.”
I try to conjure some warmth on this cold day and choose a little cardamom, Sri Lankan long pepper, and orange peel. I cross my fingers as he pours my concoction into the rotary evaporator, a contraption straight out of Walter White’s chem lab that consists of a round bottom glass flask set in a bath of heated water and connected to a vacuum pump. Through the glass, we watch the liquid boil, evaporate, make its way through the cooling coils to condense back into a new liquid with all the blended flavors. Voila, I have my own gin.
We sniff to detect its scents, swish to coat the palate, and sip. It’s, hmm, I wouldn’t go so far as to say bad, but decidedly not great. I continue sipping to be polite as Chris waxes poetic about production techniques.
We’re both startled when my phone rings. “Sorry,” I say and jump to grab it. With a husband in the Air Force, I’m conditioned to being the on-call parent ready to respond to any need. Then I remember, he is taking a turn as primary caregiver, that the kids are fast asleep more than 5,000 miles away, and this is my chance to relinquish the mantle of responsibility for a few days.
It’s Miles, the ex-boyfriend. I silence the ringer and slip the phone back in my purse.
With my outdated bob hairstyle and sensible cable knit sweater, I wonder if I would even be recognizable to this man who knew me as a 20-something jetsetter, always coming or going from Los Angeles or Paris, bringing him souvenirs from New York or New Delhi.
After a bit of chat and a bit more gin, Chris pours the rest of my blend into a 100-milliliter glass bottle (perfect for air travel). Luckily, I also get a bottle of their Earl Grey Tea Gin as a parting gift because in all honesty, I will likely let my own varietal age until I have occasion to thin a can of paint.
A few hours and a bowl of ramen later, I’ve sobered up, but my two bottles clang against each other in my purse as I walk through St. Giles, a warren of narrow lanes near Covent Garden. Once an infamous slum, or “rookery,” that served as the backdrop for Hogarth’s “Gin Lane,” it now brims with shops selling artisanal baked goods, wine and cheese tastings, and even designer dog treats.
Gin itself got a makeover during the Industrial Revolution when the Coffey still standardized large-scale production and allowed for a purer distillation that no longer had to be masked by herbs and sweeteners.
This new gin — sans turpentine and sugar — was called London Dry, and it ushered in a new era gilded with shimmering gin palaces decorated in gaslights, etched glass windows, ornate chandeliers, and mahogany bars. By the 1850s there were 5,000 such palaces in London alone, which naturally spurred a new generation of reformers who preached and wrote and etched graphic scenes of women being led to ruin.
Many of these critics, according to Dr. Julia Skelly in her article “Addictive Architecture: The Crystal Palace, Gin Palaces, and Women’s Desire,” argued that these dazzling gin palaces were dangerously irresistible to women. “Their facades would lure working-class people, especially women, into their depths.”
I step into the Princess Louise, one of London’s few remaining 19th-century gin palaces, which Discover Britain magazine describes as “possibly the most beautiful pub in London.”
A narrow corridor lined with etched mirrors and mosaic-tile walls leads to an elaborate series of booths, nooks, and a cozy sitting area with a fireplace. There is one central mahogany bar, but it’s divided by wood panels, creating a series of private vestibules.
If I wanted to meet someone for a drink in London outside the view of prying eyes, this would be the place. Don’t worry, I have not had enough to drink today to suggest Miles meet me here.
I do, however, begin to imagine what the men and women of the 19th century were getting up to in this gin joint. I will later learn that the privacy panels, also known as snob screens, served a far less arousing function — they separated the middle classes from the riff-raff while allowing bartenders to serve everyone from a central location.
This compromise between public and private feels disorienting. I’m alone in the first section, yet I can see a man’s hand extending from a vestibule farther down the bar. It holds a paperback, which he periodically sets down to lift a glass of wine, but I never see past his forearm.
Maybe from another corner, someone is watching my hand alternate between a pocket notebook and a gin and tonic.
That classic drink started as a medicinal elixir for British soldiers who were being brought to their knees by mosquitos while attempting to conquer and colonize ever-larger swathes of the world. A dash of quinine powder to prevent malaria, lime to prevent scurvy, a measure of gin to boost morale and reduce stress. Mix with bubble water to make it all go down more easily, and you have the gin and tonic.
As ex-pats returned home, this chic new cocktail became all the rage, and it stayed hot through the mid-20th century.
So how did gin go out of fashion? A cooler, newer spirit captured the scene — vodka, which became de rigueur when James Bond started ordering it in his martinis. By the 1960s, the Mad Men generation had dropped gin like their grandkids would later drop Budweiser. It was relegated to the purview of middle-aged ladies and would become known as your mother-in-law’s drink. (In fact, it is literally my mother-in-law’s drink.)
Of course, since high-waisted “mom jeans” have come back around, I’m convinced anything can.
In gin’s case, what was out officially became cool again in 2008 when British entrepreneur Sam Galsworthy made it his mission to do for it what Americans had done for craft beer. Only, there was one niggling little thing stopping him — the Gin Act of 1751, which was still on the books prohibiting small-scale distillation. This meant that London had only one gin distillery —Beefeater.
After 18 months of lobbying, Galsworthy and his partners managed to get the law overturned and opened Sipsmith, London’s first new gin distillery in nearly 200 years. Their hand-crafted gin was soon being served in swanky hotels like Dukes, the Metropolitan, and the Dorchester, its instant popularity paving the way for other small-batch distillers.
Today you can sip, swig, or guzzle gin in any corner of this city, which is home to more than 25 distilleries, dozens of specialty gin bars, just as many gin-themed walking tours, and seven gin festivals at last count.
Near Tower Bridge, you can sample flights at the underground 214 Bermondsey; try on an array of eye-catching hats (seriously) while imbibing at Mr. Fogg’s Hat Tavern & Gin Club in Soho; take a masterclass on cocktail mixing at the Ginstitute in Notting Hill or even stay upstairs in their “ginspired” hotel where minibars come stocked with G&T’s.
London’s largest and most celebrated selection of gins can be found at the five-star Rosewood hotel’s Holborn Dining Room, which Gentleman’s Journal calls “the ultimate gent’s refuge” where you can “impress both the mother-in-law and the edgy friend from out of town.”
Although that description sounds a bit bro-ey for me, I stop by, my Half Hitch flasks still noisily clanging away in my purse as I amble up to the elegant brasserie with its marble columns and antique mirrors.
“Just one?” the hostess asks over a backdrop of downtempo lounge music with a jazzy trumpet.
She leads me to a copper-topped bar with red leather stools, lit by a warm glow emanating from a mile of amber slag-glass lampshades.
Here, you can pair one of the 500 gins in their Gin Bible with the perfect tonic from their list of 30. Their signature cocktails highlight British small-batch distillers, including Tarquin’s with whom they’ve teamed up to create a limited-edition gin that is crafted in a still “sealed with bread dough, giving it authentic character and body.”
We have most decidedly moved past the days of turpentine and pawn shops.
I ask the bartender what he suggests, and he brings out a stemmed glass filled with ice and pours in Tarquin’s British Blackberries gin, garnished with a slice of lemon, and sprig of rosemary. He adds some Franklin & Sons Sicilian Lemon Tonic before setting the bottle next to my glass. The presentation is so polished that I have to take a picture.
When I pull out my phone, I notice that I’ve missed a call from home. I guiltily realize it’s too late to call back because they’re off to school and work.
There is also a text from Miles. “Shall we meet at the Camel for old times’ sake?” He’s referencing the Camel and Artichoke, a pub we used to frequent near Waterloo Station and my old flat. Back when we would go drinking all night. When we would spend summer days driving through the country with the top down on his convertible and summer nights sleeping on the roof, waking to the sun rising over the Thames and the rooftops of London from Parliament to St. Paul’s.
Another text. “Say, 7:00?”
I hesitate, caught somewhere between nostalgia and propriety.
The bartender comes back with a glass of water and a ramekin of honey-roasted nuts. Perhaps he’s seen one too many ruined mothers and is trying to keep me sober.
Maybe he can even tell that, like a caricature in a reformer’s etching, I’ve been drinking straight through since morning.
The thought of being judged tempts me to rebel with another cocktail, but I resist. That’s the thing about being a grown woman in an era when I’m no longer property of my husband or my father: what matters is that I can trust myself. And even if I can’t, I’m free to make my own decisions.
“I text Miles back, “Seven sounds perfect.”•