Gin Week … Monday

[Gin-ecdote: The article following is from the Public Domain Review. It’s a really engaging piece of scholarship that is, alas, a bit too long for the attention span of your average simian. Therefore I am publishing in five more digestible chunks. Each will be preceded by a brief gin-ecdote, an hors d’oeuvre to your daily adult beverage.

I owned a copy of this fun and elegant book at a yard sale for a buck, enjoyed it, and eventually gifted it to my son when he went off to college. I’m sure it was left behind in a dorm room somewhere. It is now a collectible that sells for $946 on Amazon. Damn! SB SM]

Silverbacks … do you have a gin-soaked factoid, anecdote, or hazy memory to share with fellow denizens of The Jungle? We will collect and publish them on Silverback Digest. Also, do you have a favorite gin?

This book, by an accomplished American scholar, turns an erudite examination of the “Silver Bullet” into a penetrating and entertaining social history of 20th century urban America. It’s great fun and a unique celebration of American culture at its most charming.

Exploring books, newspapers, magazines, cartoons, bartenders’ manuals, distillery brochures, and other documents of popular culture, Edmunds traces our traction to the martini back to the drinks obscure origins in the 19th century. he finds three central ambiguities in the martinis image, which express some of the contradictions in American life. It is civilized, a social drink, yet uncivilized, the drink of the individualistic loner, the martinis nick mean, the silver bullet, suggests a parallel with the Lone Ranger. It is a classic, susceptible of perfection, you get individual, capable of numerous variations.

Liquid Bewitchment

Gin Drinking in England, 1700–1850

By James Brown

The introduction of gin to England was a delirious and deleterious affair, as tipplers reported a range of effects: loss of reason, frenzy, madness, joy, and death. With the help of prints by George Cruikshank, William Hogarth, and others, James Brown enters the architecture of intoxication — dram shops, gin halls, barbershops — exploring the spaces that catered to pleasure or evil, depending who you asked.

September 13, 2023

An urban scene of drunkenness

William Hogarth, Gin Lane, 1751 — Source.

In 1751, the engraver and satirist William Hogarth created Gin Lane, his celebrated visual retrospective about the devastating effects of this newfangled spirit on the lives of London’s poor. The print, a companion piece to Beer Street, offers a harrowing panorama of poverty, addiction, insanity, violence, infanticide, and suicide; the only people and institutions who thrive amongst the mayhem and despair are an undertaker, “Gripe” the pawnbroker, and the two purveyors of the “deadly draught”: a cellar gin shop and “Kilman” the distiller. In the words of Hogarth’s most recent biographer, Gin Lane’s “racked scene of dissolution . . . imprints itself indelibly on the mind”.1 Derivatives are beloved of political cartoonists, and so frequent and dependable is its appearance at academic conferences on alcohol history that a “gin lane klaxon” is scurrilously sounded on social media. However grotesquely transfixing the image, its dominance within both the history of alcohol and art has occluded a wider and subtler range of representations of gin and the environments in which it was consumed, which flourished across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.2

The Cursed Bewitching Liquor

Gin was one of a wide range of new intoxicants — including chocolate, coffee, opium, sugar, tea, and tobacco — that, in what has been called a “psychoactive revolution”, radically expanded the mind-altering possibilities for European people between 1600 and 1800.3 Spirits (mainly aqua vitae, a rough distillation of wine) had been manufactured in English monasteries, private homes, and apothecary’s shops since the late medieval period, although they were prohibitively expensive and generally consumed medicinally and in small quantities. Brandy, rum, whisky, and especially gin exploded the spirituous marketplace from the later decades of the seventeenth century, with various factors — including grain surpluses, restrictions on French imports, a relaxation of the monopoly on distilling, and increased duties on ale and beer — making gin’s rise particularly meteoric. Originally imported from the Netherlands as genever, by the 1690s gin was produced on an industrial scale by domestic malt distillers, who sold their wholesale product to a network of smaller compound producers. These producers then “rectified” it with a variety of botanical additives, including juniper berries, coriander seeds, orange peel, angelica root, liquorice powder, and turpentine. By 1725, according to the Cumbria distiller George Smith, gin had “gain’d such universal applause, especially with the common people . . . there is more of it in quantity sold daily in a great many distillers shops, than of beer and ale vended in most publick houses”.4

The resulting beverage was orders of magnitude stronger than the traditional alcohols that had hitherto dominated recreation and diets (ales, beers, ciders, and wines), and represented a step change in England’s cultures of intoxication; Jessica Warner has gone so far as to term it “the first modern drug”.5 Put simply, gin hit early modern drinkers differently, offering “not a gradual descent into inebriation” (in James Nicholls’s phrase) but instantaneous and extreme drunkenness.6 From this potency stemmed a range of unusual and frightening side-effects, widely rehearsed by eighteenth-century commentators, including immorality, criminality, madness, compulsive intoxication, and death. As one anonymous 1736 author observed, “by taking a small quantity people were almost in an instant rendered so much intoxicated as to lose the use of their reason, and all command over themselves”, and were “induced to commit the most wicked or extravagant enormities”.7 Likewise, in her 1750 treatise aimed at female gin drinkers, Eliza Haywood warned that whereas conventional beverages made their consumers “sullen, sleepy, or extravagantly gay”, gin made them “bold, obstinate, and filled with an extravagant desire of doing mischief . . . we may say that dram-drinking is the most expeditious way to deprive mankind of their reason . . . by substituting a temporary, and in time a constant frenzy in its stead”.8 The following year, another anonymous writer agreed that “[i]ts baneful influence reaches their [consumers’] very souls; every virtuous principle is eradicated and destroyed”. Moreover, “once they have habituated themselves to drinking drams, they are never satisfied but while the glass is at their noses”.9 A recurring contemporary metaphor for gin’s peculiar physical and psychological effects was bewitchment, the subjugation of normal human will and faculties to an insidious supernatural force.

Drunken pub scene with a skeleton barkeep

Coloured 1816 aquatint after Thomas Rowlandson titled The Dance of Death: The Dram Shop — Source.

Silverbacks … do you have a gin-soaked factoid, anecdote, or hazy memory to share with fellow denizens of The Jungle? We will collect and publish them for a future edition of Silverback Digest. Also, do you have a favorite gin?

2 thoughts on “Gin Week … Monday

  1. Hisorically, the Gin martini with Tanquerey was the Roche family cocktail in the requisite Birdbath glasses with a twist. At times we dabbled with Bombay Saphire with happy results. A treasured memory would be the three Roche girls and their beautiful Mama Lois enjoying the magnificently served Martinis at the Plaza bar listening to Dave McKenna at the piano. This would be following a madcap shopping fest at Filene’s basement on Black Friday. The Martinis each came with their own crystal ice bucket with the ‘dividend’ awaiting. A perfect, bright experience.

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