As a beer-writer of more than 30 years’ standing, I found my curiosity piqued when craft distilling in Britain seemed to be following a trajectory very similar to that of craft brewing. Both fell broadly into two waves: a first wave, with Martin Sykes of Selby Brewery the founding father of microbrewing and Julian Temperley of Somerset Royal Cider Brandy the founding father of microdistilling; then a second, with craft gin distillers obsessively exploring the possibilities of botanicals and craft brewers just as evangelical about hops. Both even had had their protofounders — Peter Maxwell Stewart of Traquair House in the former case and Bertram Bulmer of King Offa Cider Brandy in the latter.
On inspection, though, the similarities turn out to be more apparent than real. One great difference is that Britain’s pioneering microbrewers were in almost all cases middle-aged mainstream brewers who had lost their jobs during the great waves of rationalization that saw more than half of the brewing plants in the country close down. All these gentry knew was brewing; all they had was their redundancy money; it was inevitable that some of them were going to put the two together if only to make a living. Today’s craft distillers are different. Few of them have much of a background in the industry and few if any of them have been pushed into their new vocation by need. Like chefs, they are driven by the quality and the possibilities of what they cook up.
Nor is there that all-pervading sense among craft distillers, as there always has been among microbrewers, that the mainstream industry has debased the product in the name of Mammon and that its misdeeds have to be corrected by someone of purer motives and higher ideals. If anything the reverse is true: The innovations that the big mainstream companies have been introducing to their own portfolios and marketing in recent years, especially in vodka and whiskey, have fed the consumers’ appetite for both quality and novelty, and it’s from the ranks of these energized consumers that many of the new-wave distillers have emerged. Perhaps as a result there seems to be none of the rancor and mutual disdain between mainstream distiller and newcomer that once — and to the detriment of the whole industry — plagued the relationship between old-established family brewers and parvenu micros.
To take the dissimilarities one step further, a great bone of contention between large and small brewers was the established brewers’ monopolistic stranglehold over the pub trade through the tie and, in the “free” trade, tied loans. Microbrewers were desperate for local trade, which they were barred from; in response, they had to develop a nationwide distribution system of independent wholesalers to get access to what genuine free trade there was, which took years; and then, after the 1990 Beer Orders more or less dismantled the biggest tied estates, batter at the doors of the successor pub companies for admission — a process which, again, took years. Thanks partly to the internet, and partly to upmarket wine-merchants who are positively promiscuous in their desire to stock the best, the problem has more or less disappeared and craft distillers face far less formidable obstacles in getting at their consumers than the pioneering microbrewers of 30 years ago.
These reflections, together with the practical research involved in writing The Craft Distillers’ Handbook, aroused the urge to know more. I had already researched the history of Scotch for other projects, so I was familiar with the background up to the point where the stories of whiskey and gin began to diverge in the mid-16th century. After that point the story of whiskey was if not straightforward at least well rehearsed; the story of gin, however, was shrouded in myth and propaganda, especially when treating of the supposed gin craze in 18th-century London. It was especially annoying to find that the same baseless and one-sided calumnies were rehearsed over and over again as if they were gospel: not one of the many writers on the subject challenged the source material they so wantonly trotted out, so that not only were the same untruths repeated ad nauseam, they were often repeated in the same form of words!
I did, during the course of my reading, come across stray references to The Mother Gin Controversy, a paper by Professor Peter Clark of The English Alehouse fame published in the Transactions of the Royal Historical Society in 1988. Professor Clark is one of those historians who likes to roll up his sleeves, delve beneath the mulch of accepted history, and uncover the corms and rhizomes of contemporary records that always end up embarrassing the less rigorous. Mother Gin, as I found when I was very kindly sent a copy, dealt in depth with only one aspect of the gin craze — the 1736 Gin Act — but in a way that very strongly suggested that the entire thing was a propaganda job stunted up by a very narrowly based clique of post-Puritan churchmen who resented their exclusion from the first tier of power and influence. And so, on examination, it proves to be: There never was a gin craze, just very empty vessels with very squeaky wheels. Moral panics were ever thus!
Other myths, half-truths and inaccuracies, swarming like ivy, have obscured the true outlines of the history of gin. Gin palaces, cocktails, tonic water, bathtub gin, even Rick’s Café Americain — none of them, it turns out, are quite what you’ve been told they are.
For reasons I shall explain in the text, I have decided to abandon my pursuit of gin’s history at the point where its history ends and the current “ginaissance” begins, a point which I have chosen to fix in the year of the revival of gin-making in London: 2009, when Sipsmith and Sacred were both founded. Anyone who hoped for an exposition of what has happened since then — of what is still happening now — will be disappointed; but no coherent narrative has as yet emerged, and none will for quite some time, I suspect.
Before plunging into gin’s story, though, I would like to apologize to the Netherlands. I took a conscious decision at the point where the paths of British and Dutch gins diverged to follow only the former. There seems to be a Dutch entrepreneur behind every major development in distilling in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries — Dutch sailors may even be responsible for Menorcan gin! — and Dutch gin or genever is delicious and venerable; but its history is its own and demands separate treatment, preferably by a Dutch author. However, and to bring us London Dry enthusiasts down to earth, the world’s biggest gin brand by many a country mile is the (self-proclaimed) genever-style Ginebra San Miguel from the Philippines, which sold 21 million 9-liter cases worldwide in 2016 compared to 15 million of Gordon’s, Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray and Beefeater combined.
I am used to reading headlines on both business and food and drink pages proclaiming that gin is taking over the world. It isn’t. It’s still a minority taste and always will be; and despite the headlines the category itself is led not by London Dry brands but by a genever. And here there really is a point of similarity with craft brewing: no, the whole world isn’t drinking tea-infused sour North American IPA, however well publicized it may be. It’s drinking Bud.
But then, who wants to read (or write) about Bud?