Lewis Jones

Enjoy gin but don’t read books? Or read them only while drinking gin? This is the book for you

A review of Gin Glorious Gin, by Olivia Williams. A diverting, if not remotely scholarly, history that charts the social ascent of this spirit, from dram shop to the Queen Mother’s handbag

Enjoy gin but don’t read books? Or read them only while drinking gin? This is the book for you
Text settings

Gin Glorious Gin

Olivia Williams

Headline, pp. 317, £

Gin Glorious Gin: How Mother’s Ruin Became the Spirit of London is a jaunty and diverting history of ‘a wonderful drink that embodies the best of London’, which is a judgment that would raise eyebrows even at closing time in Soho. It is not a remotely scholarly book. There are no notes or index, and on the second page Olivia Williams informs us that the first citation for gin in the OED is from 1714, as ‘an infamous liquor’. It’s actually from 1723, as ‘the infamous liquor’ — mere details, but still. I stopped checking things after that.

It’s essentially a book for people who enjoy gin but don’t necessarily read books, or read them only while drinking gin; the sort of book Gilbert and George might have liked to have handy in their celebrated video installation, as they looked out of their window in Spitalfields, listening to ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ in their suits, drinking gin and repeating, ‘Gordon’s makes us very, very drunk.’ Sometimes it reads as if written when the author herself was one over the eight, as when she refers to ‘the medieval ages’.

It is diverting, though. I had not known, for example, that the term ‘proofed’ derived from the naval practice of mixing spirits with gunpowder to see if it still catches light, which requires a minimum ABV of 57 per cent. Nor that Clarissa Dickson Wright was the only person in recent history to have suffered from quinine poisoning, after 12 years of consuming four pints of tonic water a day, mixed with two bottles of gin.

The tide of ‘blue ruin’ that engulfed the rookeries of St Giles in the 18th century was unleashed by William III’s liberalisation of gin-distilling in 1690, and documented in Hogarth’s Gin Lane and John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. ‘One may know by your Kiss that your Ginn is excellent,’ declares the gallant Peachum to Mrs Trapes. ‘I was always very curious in my Liquors,’ she replies. When someone complained to Dr Johnson that beggars squandered their alms on tobacco and gin his humane response was to inquire, ‘Why should they be denied such sweeteners of their existence?’

In charting the spirit’s social ascent from penny gaffs and Victorian gin palaces to aristocratic drawing rooms and the Queen Mother’s handbag, Williams has frequent recourse to literature. Byron claimed that all his work was inspired by gin, and when T.S. Eliot was asked at a lunch about his inspiration, his reply was ‘Gin and drugs, dear lady, gin and drugs.’ Dickens’s novels are of course steeped in the stuff — as apparently was he, ordering it by the cask — and it features extensively in the novels of Waugh, Greene and Kingsley Amis. When reviewing jazz for the Daily Telegraph, Philip Larkin used to drink gin and tonic by the pint.

By far the most frequently cited historical source is The Spectator, which has usually maintained a stoutly libertarian position. In 1839, when Sunday drinking was banned before 1 p.m., it found it unjust that ‘gin-sellers in Holborn and Whitechapel must be restrained from acts permitted at the Athenaeum or the Carlton and Bellamy’s’. And when the East India Company was pushing opium to the Chinese, and a parliamentary commission decided that neither opium nor hemp was as harmful as ‘overmuch gin’, The Spectator concurred: ‘Alcohol generates crime, opium does not.’

By the mid-19th century, when gin achieved respectability and became indispensable to the empire, such firms as Tanqueray, Booth’s and Gordon’s set up at Clerkenwell, to take advantage of the springs. Those brands, among others, are now owned by United Distillers, and of the 200 or so gins currently available most were established quite recently. Hendrick’s started the fashion for ‘boutique’ gin in 1999, and the excellent Sipsmith began in a Shepherd’s Bush garage in 2009; its new distillery at Chiswick produces in a year what Beefeater, the world’s biggest seller, can make in a morning at Kennington.

Williams provides a number of cocktail recipes, though some are bit basic, such as ‘A room-temperature shot of Gordon’s gin with a dash of water’ (since 1992, when it reduced its ABV from 40 per cent to 37.5, Gordon’s gets us less drunk than it used to). I think I’ll try a Dog’s Nose, an old favourite of Thames boatmen: ‘1 pint of warm pale ale or porter, a shot of gin, a sprinkle of nutmeg.’

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £12.99. Tel: 08430 600033