Monday, September 22, 2008

The Gin Craze and Gin Riots

I have this friend, hitherto known as Southwick, whom happens to be one of the few people I know on this earth with an equal love for good gin. I know some Tanqueray drinkers, a few Plymouth drinkers (not bad, it was Winston Chuchill's gin of choice....), and of course the obligatory Bombay drinkers (as though they're devoid of any sense of taste). Even my brother, my own flesh and blood, is a Hendricks gin drinker (look, the Scots can make damn fine whisky, but not gin). But you see, Southwick, he understands all too well that the best gin this planet has to offer, is Beefeater London Dry Gin. You know, the one with the 11th century Tower of London guard on the label-known as a beefeater because their pay included large chunks of beef to keep them strong.

So what's the point of all this? Well there really isn't one, other than to thank him publicly for the Beefeater of his I drank last weekend. Well, that and I was doing some reading earlier on one of the periods of history that's always fascinated me, namely the Gin Craze of the 18th century-the pre-cursor to the '90s crack epidemic, and on account of Wikipedia having terribly little information on it, I thought I'd write a little about it.

Gin, originally known as genever, was invented in Holland by a doctor named Franciscus de la Boe, also known as Dr. Sylvius. It was primarily a Dutch thing, with little exposure to the rest of the world. That all changed in 1689 though, when William III-a Dutchman-took over the English throne. The King made it the official pouring spirit at the palace, and later decided to introduce the drink to the masses, in what turned out to be a pretty huge mistake.

You see, previous to this watered down beer was the beverage of choice across most of Europe. The alcohol in the beer made it safe to drink (as opposed to water) and yet the alcohol content was low enough to make it hydrating. So in what sounds like actually a pretty entertaining existence, people lived life pretty much perpetually buzzed. As alternatives to beer you had wine and brandy (which were almost exclusively French, so unavailable during the dozens of wars), Port and Madeira (the American colonial drink of choice) from Portugal, and Sherries from Spain-all of which were stronger but also more expensive and not available regularly to the common man.

So when William III brough gin to the masses, he thought he was doing them a favor, while at the same time thumbing his nose at France as he increased taxes on French brandy to fuel an increase in English gin production. As it turns out, with it being so easy to make (it's just neutral spirits steeped in juniper berries and other botanicals) and virtually untaxxed, within 20 years it became readily available in large quantities at very low prices to everyone in London. Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that you had a series of economic policies resulting in decreased food prices and increease incomes, so people had a fair amount of disposable income. By 1725 you had over 6,000 shops where gin and other spirits were sold-and that's in just London, at the time a city of 700,000 people roughly the size of Columbus, OH. And that doesn't take into account the people selling gin like 18th century ballpark hot-dog vendors on the streets, nor the market stalls and even wheelbarrows (seriously) that people wheeled around town full of gin for sale.

So as you can imagine, this sort of becomes a problem. As Lord Harvey wrote at the time, "drunkenness of the common people was universal; the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from morning till night." The cities population began to plummet as people literally drank themselves to death, at sunrise each morning bodies lined the streets of the working class neighborhoods of London, both living and dead while the gutters were filled with shit and vomit. Women, whom actually drank more gin than men (it was also called Mother Genever and Mother's Ruin), were consistently miscarrying as they drank themselves senseless and destroyed their fetuses. In case you think I'm overblowing isolated pockets, this wasn't an isolated things-this was occuring across nearly the whole of London.

Whole industries went bankrupt as their employees wouldn't show up to work, instead choosing to drink gin all day. There are even a dozen reports of spontaneous combustion in London that were reported in London and attributed to gin, which was being distilled most everywhere it possibly could be within the city, and with no regards whatsoever to quality. So as you can see, England had a wee bit of a problem on their hands. While I think we're all pretty much universally united in agreement that drinking is good, having the majority of your workforce be consistently plastered, unwilling to work, unable to pro-create, and dying in the streets isn't exactly a feather in the cap of a King.

In response, the Crown drew up Gin Acts in 1729, '33, '36, '37, '38, '43, '47, and 1751. The problem is, the proletariat didn't like the Crown trying to take away their gin, and in 1743 riots erupted across London resulting in several deaths and a great deal of damage as people took advantage of the last of the cheap gin. At the time of the riots, an estimated 11 million gallons of gin were being made in London, or approximately 14 gallons for each adult male. By the time the Gin Act of 1751 was passed, excise taxes on gin had grown 1200% since the year 1700. In the end though the laws, paired with a few bad harvests resulting in a large decrease in disposable income, worked and by 1757 the Gin Craze had faded.


Paul McEnany said...

I actually just watched this talk by this guy Clay Shirky on the association of gin with cognitive surplus.

Basically, the theory is that people moved from rural to urban life so quickly that they couldn't handle it, so they took up drinking gin, which stuck them in a stooper for a generation. But when they finally got over it, that's when the industrial revolution began.

Then more recently, a generation began to have all this technology-induced free time that we didn't really know what to do with. So that, combined with other factors, sent us into another stooper, this time called television.

But, now, we're starting to wake up from this collective bender. And because of this, our possibilities are enormous.

Anyway, pretty interesting...

Southwick said...

My family has an old saying,
"A Gin and Tonic a day, keeps Malaria at bay."

I still believe this is sound advice, and am happy to report that after 26 years I am still Malaria Free.

Thanks Gin and Tonics!

Hieronymus Stone said...

Your brother is a good man!