Gin Glorious Gin, by Olivia Williams - book review: How mother's ruin became the toast of London


Christopher Hirst
Monday 01 September 2014 17:53

Even a decade ago, this lively historical cruise round the ocean of gin would have been a publishing non-starter. Towards the end of the last century, London's traditional spirit – neutral alcohol re-distilled with various flavourings and spices known as "botanicals" – was approximately as fashionable as the celluloid collar and the Marcel wave. According to Williams, London Dry Gin was "associated with Betjeman's twee vision of England – of golf clubs, tennis matches and dinner parties". You still encounter red-nosed Sixties types, who, though far from averse to other mind-altering substances, find the very mention of gin to be repugnant.

With the arrival of a host of new independent gins, it is these flavour-allergic vodka addicts who are passé. In an aperitif to her alcoholic history, Williams explores "the Ginnaissance" (oh dear) that produced such finely crafted elixirs as Hendrick's and Miller's followed by Sipsmith, Dodd's and Sacred. She cheers the Spanish invention of a "modern G&T". "In the bars of Barcelona, you will find gin served with fresh garnishes, lots of ice and only a little tonic in big open balloon glasses."

After this sparking introduction, the book reverts to the well-trodden path of Gin Lane, though the potion whose dire effects were depicted by Hogarth bears little resemblance to modern gin. In 1750, Londoners were knocking back an annual 11 million gallons of Old Tom, a sweetened distillate often tainted by methanol that imparted, according to a contemporary observer, "a ghostly, ghastly, corpse-like kind of blue" to drunkards' faces.

We learn that the MCC's lurid "bacon and eggs" livery came from the label Nicholson's gin (the distillery owner lent the money to buy the ground) while Booth's sponsored Sir John Ross's 1835 expedition to find the North West Passage. This new respectability did not, however, stop one celebrated customer sending a rocket to Seagers Gin: "It appears to Mr Dickens to have neither the right strength nor flavour, and he thinks it must have been tampered with at the Railway."

Another literary advocate for gin was TS Eliot, who apparently responded to an inquiry about his sources of inspiration, "Gin and drugs, my dear, gin and drugs."

Williams closes her entertaining paean with the suggestion that anyone hoisting a glass of gin has "a connection to all the gin drinkers that have gone before you. So… think of Winston Churchill brooding over his Martini at the Dorchester and Jeffrey Bernard propping up the bar in the dives of Soho." Sadly, another caveat is needed here. No one would want to end up like the lurching, sickly Bernard. In any case, his preferred tipple was vodka and tonic.

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