Echoes Dispatches From Economic History
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London Gin Craze Had Roots in Nascent Consumer Society
Gin has always been big business in England. In the 18th century, as London’s infamous “Gin Craze” unfolded, the spirit was at the center of a debate that helped define the country’s politics and economics -- and created a commercial demand that persists to this day.
The privileged of the 1700s sipped genever, the “original gin” imported from Holland. Desperate to keep up with their betters, the lower classes demanded a gin of their own. As a result, from 1720 to 1751, a storm of unrest swirled around the production, distribution and sale of rotgut booze.
The story of the Gin Craze properly begins with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which brought William III of Orange to the British throne. He brought with him a hatred of all things French -- he immediately banned the import of Gallic spirits, such as brandy -- and a warring political agenda that required funding. Meanwhile, William’s wealthy landowner friends in Parliament had surplus grain, not to mention an eye for the profit it could make them.
This led to a series of political machinations that would set the stage for gin’s stranglehold on the underprivileged. First, the Distilling Act of 1690 dissolved the production monopoly that had been held by the Worshipful Company of Distillers, thus allowing anyone to set up a still simply by posting a public notice and produce spirits without a license.
Then, in 1694, beer -- the “national beverage” -- was subjected to a heavy tax, making gin cheaper to drink. In 1720, one of Parliament’s annual Mutiny Acts stated that those who distilled spirits in their homes didn’t have to house soldiers, since soldiers and alcohol often did not create the best of situations. Soon, “distillers” of the home-grown sort abounded. Over time, the government would come to rely heavily on excises on distilled spirits for revenue.
And gin didn’t disappoint, luring the masses from their daily toil with its promise of blissful oblivion. The era’s extreme consumption -- in London, with a population of about 600,000, one in four residents were drunk at any given time -- reflected the development of a nascent consumer society. A lack of available workers increased wages as supply affected demand. For the first time in history, the English masses had something akin to disposable income, and they enthusiastically spent it on whatever might ease their suffering, particularly gin. Although the English, rich and poor alike, had always drunk to excess, never before had the underprivileged been able to consume a spirit so readily available and so deadly.
Thanks in part to the Mutiny Act, there were roughly 7,000 gin shops in London in 1720. By 1733, the city was producing 11 million gallons of legal gin per year -- roughly 14 gallons for every man, woman and child. The harsh flavor and adulterated character of this 160-proof gin was only partially disguised by the addition of creative additives like turpentine and sulfuric acid (and later juniper). It was a recipe for death and social destruction.
Thus, it’s no surprise that a series of Gin Acts were soon passed. Quite simply, the rich were offended that the poor were trying to rise above their station and disturbed by an apparent rise in crime, not to mention the hundreds of souls passed out or dead in the streets. Daniel Defoe, the pamphleteer and author of “Robinson Crusoe,” noted that the rich had some role in the disaster. In defending the poor in “A Brief Case of the Distillers” (1726), he observed, “it seems to me they have done not only that which their Ancestors did before them, but even what their Superiors have seem’d to lead them into just now, by a general Example.” In other words, if the rich didn’t drink so much and put on airs, the poor wouldn’t be desperate to copy them.
The 1736 Gin Act was spearheaded by Sir Joseph Jekyll, who made no attempt to hide his disgust for drunkenness. The act drastically raised license fees for retailers, fined home distillers and rewarded informers. The result was predictable. As with Prohibition in the U.S., crime increased even more as gin went underground, showing up with new tongue-in-cheek names such as Parliamentary Brandy. As is often the case with social reform, the true cause of the problem -- poverty itself -- was overlooked as gin became the scapegoat for all of London’s ills.
Economics brought about a brief decline in gin’s popularity, and thus an end to the craze. In the second half of the century, the working poor had to count their shillings: Wages had dropped drastically as the population increased, and the price of bread shot up after a series of devastating harvests. Meanwhile, other products such as rum and porter were gaining popularity and Parliament outlawed the use of domestic grain in distilling. These factors were enough to loosen gin’s grip.
But not for long: A new standard of consumption had been set. Soon, advances in mechanization and distribution would allow gin to evolve into the spirit we know today as London Dry. According to the Gin and Vodka Association of Great Britain, the U.K. is now the largest gin exporter in the world. Perhaps gin was destined to become the tipple of both commoners and kings.
(Lesley Jacobs Solmonson is the author of “Gin: A Global History” and the co-founder of 12bottlebar.com, a website devoted to classic cocktails. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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