Ask the man in the street when the last successful invasion of Britain was, and the chances are that he would reply 1066, at the battle of Hastings, but he would be wrong. In 1688, William III invaded Britain and deposed James II, sailing up the channel with a fleet around twice the size of the Spanish Armada (largely organised by Hans William Bentinck), before being blown off course and landing in Torbay with his army. James offered little more than token resistance before fleeing, though he did fight and lose the decisive Battle of the Boyne in Ireland a couple of years later. The consequences of William and Mary’s accession to the throne (Britain’s only joint monarchs) were many, not least the popularisation of gin in this country. There are many types of gin, which is a spirit based drink flavoured with juniper, and it was probably invented in the Netherlands around the 13th century. English soldiers fighting in the Eighty Years War developed a taste for it as a way of settling the nerves before battle, to origin of the term ‘Dutch Courage’.
The gin consumed by the poor after the glorious revolution was of an inferior type, where juniper flavouring was often replaced by turpentine. Unlicensed gin production was permitted and alongside heavy duties on all imported spirits, and this helped to create the ‘Gin Craze’ where over half the drinking establishments in London were Gin Shops selling an inferior product made from poor quality grain unfit for brewing beer. Attempts were made to control the craze. The Gin Act of 1736 imposed higher taxes and lead to riots, Hogarth’s pair of prints Gin Lane and Beer Street have been described by the BBC as ‘arguably the most potent anti-drug poster ever conceived’ and a measure of control was established with the Gin Act of 1751. Gradually the popularity of gin declined, helped by legislation such as the Beer House Act of 1830, which made it much easier to brew and sell beer, considered a much healthier alternative. However gin hung on. It was particularly popular in the colonies where malaria was endemic. One of the few remedies for the disease is quinine, which has a very bitter taste, so it was often consumed as a component of tonic water, added to gin to make a G&T. Instead of being the drink of choice of the desperately poor city dwellers, gin became the tipple of choice for the middle and upper class ex-patriots, and with the rise of vodka and American whiskey such as Jack Daniels seemed destined to slowly fade away with the remnants of the Empire.
However, things have changed. In 2009, Sipsmith established the first copper still in London for 189 years to produce Gin and Vodka, and this is just the tip of an ever growing craft gin movement. Between 2008 and 2011, 5 micro distilleries opened in the UK. Last year alone saw the numbers increase by around another 15. In a similar way to micro brewers experimenting with bold intense flavours, the distillers have created a bewildering range of gins, adding a whole range of botanicals alongside the juniper. It seems that many people now are taking far more interest in the food and drink they consume and are prepared to spend more money to enjoy a top quality product. It is unlikely that we will return to the days of Hogarth and Mother’s Ruin, but some commentators believe that gin will soon eclipse vodka and become the spirit of the age. Truly, history in a glass.