Bruce Anderson

How gin escaped from Gin Lane

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In the mid-18th century, London was awash with gin. Socially-conscious members of the bourgeoisie believed that this was the root of all evil, contributing to crime and depravity. Fielding and Hogarth combined to denounce gin as responsible for ‘the reigning vices peculiar to the lower classes of the people’. Both of them hoped to persuade the lower orders to drink less gin and more beer. They extolled beer’s rustic health-giving properties, rather in the way that Burns exalted the nourishing virtues of haggis. In a different age, Hogarth’s cartoons of Gin Lane seem more comic than sermonising, but they are still powerful.

In various countries, the early phases of distillation were menaced by disapproval and harassment. The crude corn whiskey of the American frontier provided material for condemnations from many a pulpit. This must have been especially effective on Sunday mornings, when hangovers would have lowered the topers’ resistance. The same was true in the Highlands of Scotland, where drinkers and deplorers were — and still are — often polarised, even within families. It is not uncommon to find alcoholics on one generation giving birth to teetotallers in the next, followed by a reversion to alcoholism, and so on.

Out on the hill a’chasing the deer, one will come across the remains of shielings abandoned during the clearances. These often had their own still. One head stalker, renowned for his ability to embellish the beauties of his ground with myth and legend, which never discouraged American guests from tipping generously, would claim that a small pile of rubble had been the still where Bonnie Prince Charlie had enjoyed his first dram.

Gradually, the rough taste of illicit Highland distilling gave way to the glorious drams we enjoy today. Gin too has escaped from Gin Lane and mother’s ruin. It has one advantage over other spirits. It takes only a few days to complete the distillation. That brief journey from raw material to cash flow is in sharp contrast to whisky, where it takes at least three years to bring bottles to market.

Vodka also requires minimal maturation. In the 1990s, an American took advantage of that and came up with Grey Goose, a thoroughly palatable vodka which has earned hundreds of millions for its begetters, thus inspiring emulation, not to mention envy. In the UK, this has led to a proliferation of gin-making. There are now at least a thousand gin distilleries in this country, all with their own variations on a grain base, plus juniper, plus other botanicals.

I came across a good new one the other day, on the Isle of Wight. There is a man called Vincent Nolan, a remarkably understated character for a chap with Irish origins and a proven flair for marketing. Vincent believes in what he regards as old-fashioned values. He not only built up a firm called 2CV; he gave 40 per cent of it away to his employees. He is also a frustrated supporter of the Labour party. If the new Labour leadership were wise, they would use Vincent as a product-tester. If a party emerged which he could support wholeheartedly, the Tories ought to start worrying. Fortunately, that is not going to happen any time soon.

Turning round a gin business is easier. Joining a couple of friends, Vincent invested in the Isle of Wight distillery, which now serves Mermaid gin in an enticing bottle. There is also Mermaid pink gin and a vodka, plus a ‘Navy strength’ HMS Victory gin, at 57 per cent ABV. Their Victory rum packs a similar punch. A whisky is also on the way. Although it may be heretical to make the stuff outside Scotland, it is not impossible. John Lewis, Marks and Spencer and Majestic all stock Isle of Wight brands. As well as facilitating good drinking, this has created jobs and prosperity. If there were an Isle of Wight powerhouse, Vincent would be part of it.