Gin Craze to Gin Palace: A Chapter in the Story of Gin by Professor Judith Hawley FSA

Gin is currently an extraordinarily fashionable drink with new brands being launched all the time. These brands often allude to the history of the beverage, reaching back to the Glorious Revolution. According to popular histories, gin was introduced to Britain by William of Orange; it quickly took off. It was consumed in such high quantities by the poor reached that it led to a crisis known as the Gin Craze, a bubble that was burst by legislation in 1751 after a concerted propaganda campaign, the most famous element of which was William Hogarth’s paired engravings, ‘Gin Lane’ and ‘Beer Street’. The nineteenth-century saw the rise of Gin Palaces and the invention of the gin & tonic, a cocktail usually linked in the popular imagination to the consumption of quinine as a malaria treatment in Imperial India. After the decline of the Empire, gin too lost its allure until the emergence on the market of artisanal gins in the second decade of the twenty-first century. It was rescued by pioneers such as the team behind Sipsmiths who successfully challenged legislation which had kept gin out the reach of small producers.

This transparent alcohol has a richly-coloured history. A story is being told. I am currently researching a monograph on the cultural history of gin which will examine archival evidence, such as the papers of the Worshipful Company of Distillers held at the London Metropolitan Archives, to scrutinise and, where necessary, rewrite this narrative. Some elements have already been challenged. In Just the Tonic (Kew, 2019), Kim Walker and Mark Nesbit exploded the myth of the medicinal gin and tonic. I will focus on one chapter in the story of gin and consider why this drink, associated in the eighteenth century with the lowest levels of society, came in the nineteenth to be served in luxurious establishments known as ‘Gin Palaces’. The story of gin helps us consider how modern taste-making exploits the past while obscuring connections between the social impact of alcohol consumption and powerful financial and political interests.