Trying my Hand at Gin

During the month of February, the Regimental Brewmeister is trying his hand at producing gin.  Yes, this is distilled and NO, you cannot try some but I am finding that gin is incredibly easy to make and easy to make well.

Gin’s core ingredient, juniper, has been combined with alcohol as far back as 70 CE.  It was originally a medicinal remedy of the Roman physician Pedanius Dioscorides who produced a wine with juniper berries steeped in to combat chest ailments.  Fast-forward to the 16th century, when the Dutch began producing “genever,” which is a malt wine base and a healthy amount of juniper berries.  Genever is still produced in the Netherlands and is a common aperitive. 

The first known written use of the word ‘gin’ appears in 1714 in ‘The Fable of the Bees, or Private Vices, Publick Benefits’ by Bernard Mandeville.”  The name, “gin”, is derived from Juniper-Berries in Dutch, jeneverbes, shrunk into a monosyllable in English as gen which eventually takes its modern spelling as gin.

When William of Orange became King of England, Ireland, and Scotland in 1689, he brought with him many Dutch customs including a taste for gin. William also instituted The Corn Laws which provided tax breaks on spirits production, resulting boom in the a practice of distilling.  This led to a period in England that is often dubbed the ‘Gin Craze,’ when a pint of gin was cheaper than a pint of beer leading England’s poorest people to switch from beer to gin for their health (relative to water) beverage. 

Gin was especially popular during the Frost Faires that popped up whenever the Thames would freeze.  Crowds would gather to explore the stalls and tents selling hot gin and gingerbread that popped up along the frozen River Thames. 

Eventually, the government started to realize that society had a problem with consumption of unregulated spirits.  At the time, gin distillation was a free-for-all with things like turpentine, sulphuric acid, and sawdust going into the bottles.  This caused massive problems with health ranging from rampant insanity to death.  To get the country’s gin-obsessed drunkards to tone it down a bit, a distiller’s license was introduced. The price tag was £50, an exorbitant cost at the time, and the industry plummeted. Only two official licenses were issued in the next seven years. The business of informing, however, boomed in tandem. Anyone with information on illegal gin operations was compensated £5.

During the 18th century, gin was a vilified spirit.  It was blamed for the death of thousands by overconsumption, murder, negligence, and insanity, which incited measures to outlaw its production and consumption, but to little avail.  The Gin Act 1751, a parliamentary measure intended to crack down on spirits consumption, raised taxes and fees for retailers and made licenses more difficult to come by. Parliament began promoting the consumption of beer and tea.  By 1830, beer was once again than gin for the first time in over a century. 

Also in 1830, Aeneas Coffey introduced a new still that modified the existing continuous column still and essentially revolutionized liquor production around the world. Gin producers quickly embraced it, celebrating its capability to produce a much cleaner, purer spirit than ever before. Out with the sawdust-infused gin, and in with the crystalline elixir.  Add to this the need for Royal Navy sailors to find an effective and palatable remedy for malaria, and we have the second boom of the famous British “G&T.  Sailors would mix their quinine rations, which to about 40% of the population tasted notoriously awful, with Mr. Priestly’s new sparkling water to create “Indian Tonic Water.” The navy also stocked their holds with gin which, unlike beer, didn’t spoil in the sweltering bellies of ships. So, like true Englishmen, eventually the two liquids were combined to form what is now the classic gin cocktails. Limes were added due to their anti-scurvy properties, thus birthing the term “limey,” a moniker for sailors.

This experimental gin is made from cane sugar, fermented to completion (~8% ABV) then distilled with juniper berries and cloves.  I am distilling this liquor twice (hence the labeling “XX”).  We’ll see if its any good.

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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