Young, rich, beautiful? It's time to turn to gin

After years of decline, 'Mother's Ruin' is out to change its boring image. Andy Beckett reports
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The Independent Online
IN THE bowels of the Beefeater Gin distillery in London, past the pipes and the vats and the head-fugging rooms of sickly-sweet juniper, a small cinema shows promotional films to visitors. The new film sells hard: a thin white girl flicks her mini-skirt, her black partner smiles, the soundtrack pounds in, and - between glowing shots of Beefeater bottles tossed back and forth behind some miraculous bar - the beautiful pair slip from marina to pavement cafe, talking, smiling and sipping.

"Mother's Ruin" is seeking younger, richer customers. Beefeater has just put up its price by a sixth to lure them. Gordon's is advertising on late- night television after years of abstinence. And this week a new gin, Gloag's from Highland Distilleries, adds its own woozy temptation.

But William Hogarth's eighteenth century spectre is not returning. Far from it; all this activity is an effort to keep gin alive. Since 1991 sales have dropped by a seventh, faster than any other white spirit. The

Royal Navy has virtually given up mixing its traditional pink gins (with angostura bitters). Gin drinkers, meanwhile, increasingly resemble their blazered, pink-cheeked stereotype: ageing, suburban middle-class and thirsty. Seventeen per cent of them do three-quarters of the consuming.

And those sundowners are not what they were. In 1992 Gordon's reduced the alcohol in its gin from 40 per cent to 37.5 per cent to save on excise duty; most other brands followed suit. Pimm's has been watered down further, from 40 to 24 per cent.

Pubs have done their bit too: "A drip of gin in the bottom of a warm wine glass, a flood of tonic from a pump, and a slice of lemon cut up last week do not make a magical drinking moment," admits Nick Johnston, Beefeater's head of marketing.

His distillery, tucked in behind the gin-and-tonic stronghold of the Oval cricket ground, is the last left in the capital. Nowadays "London Dry Gin" is distilled in the North, Scotland and even Spain, where more is drunk - mostly with coke - than in England.

But Beefeater are keeping their chins up. Desmond Payne, the distillery manager, meets visitors with dazzling golf club style: green tie, gleaming black Oxfords, blue and white striped shirt, and a voice as smooth and tranquilizing as a mid-morning glass of their finest.

A party of drinks industry executives, down for the day, are crisply lectured and led past sacks of spicing ingredients (coriander, dried orange peel). Payne even persuades them, blazers flapping, to stick their heads in a still. They reel.

The gin-making process was discovered by accident in the sixteenth century, when Francisco Sylvius, a physician from the university of Leyden in Holland, mixed pure spirit alcohol with crushed juniper berries and distilled the mixture for medicinal purposes. His countrymen quickly discovered other uses for "genever" (Dutch for juniper); early in the seventeenth century, English mercenaries serving in the Thirty Years War found stills throughout Holland.

Before battle, they took "Dutch courage" and noted down the recipes. When the survivors returned to England, Charles I saw an opportunity for a patriotic intoxicant: production of the spirit, now shortened to "gin", was encouraged in London.

When the Dutch William of Orange became king and banned the import of French brandy, the gin craze became an epidemic. At its mid-eighteenth century peak, when Hogarth drew Gin Lane's gutter-strewn, debauched mothers, one London house in five was said to be a gin shop. Fourteen gallons were distilled for every man. Sir Robert Walpole called it "one of life's only earthly pleasures".

The imposition of duty brought riots in 1736. But raising the price began gin's slow climb to respectability. In India colonial officers added tonic water, containing anti-malarial quinine, and revolutionized evenings on the verandah.

In the 1920s, bartenders and bright young things discovered that gin could be used to make cocktails. Mixing and drinking rituals evolved to rival those of the most particular cannabis smoker

Yet, as Gin and Sin (Grenadine) and Gin and It (Italian Vermouth) reached the suburbs, so their sophistication took on a slightly redbrick air. "You can buy hundreds of books on wine and whisky, but it's hard to find one in a bookshop about gin," says John Doxat, author of The Gin Book and another whole volume on the dry martini. He is 82, enjoys gin in "vast quantities", and lives in Camberley, Surrey.

"Basically gin is drunk at home, before dinner, with tonic," says Andy Carter, a drinks industry analyst at Euromonitor. "Your average yuppie is drinking blue label Smirnoff [vodka, sales up by half in the last five years], which has more cachet than Gordon's."

At the Beefeater distillery, one of the visiting executives is not entirely convinced by the promotional film's attempt to change this. "Why was no- one in that over 25?", he says. "What about us old folk?"

Then the screen slides aside to reveal a bar, and Desmond Payne, leaning back in a rattan chair, G and T in hand. In an instant, he is behind the bar, chinking ice, lining up glasses, pouring deep measures from a freezer- frosted bottle.

Faces redden and talk: "Cheers" "First of the day" "Not going to drive?" "Absolutely". Another of the executives steps forward to try a martini, one drink already in his hand. And when he gets to the bar, he does a little dance.