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From the Bathtub to the Boardroom: Gin and its History

Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies can finally be vindicated. Her famous words, "I only indulge for medicinal purposes" is rooted in more than drunken history. Gin was, in fact, first distilled for medicinal purposes.

Ron & Sharon Tyler Herbst's book The Ultimate A-to-Z Bar Guide, define gin as, "A distilled liquor made from grain and flavored with juniper berries."

The "Father of Gin", to most libation historians, was Dutchman Franciscus de la Boe. Also known as Dr. Sylvius, a professor at Holland's University of Leiden, the good Doctor attempted to create medicine for the prevention of kidney disorders, by developing an alcohol-based medicinal infused with the medical properties of the juniper berry.

This was revolutionary due to his use of cheap and abundant grain as opposed to the employment of expensive fruit derived alcohol - the norm of that day. The oil of juniper was known to have therapeutic properties as an appetite stimulant, sedative, headache reducer and stomach soother, to mention just a few.

The Dutch called it jenever (juniper), the French called it genievre - the later being the name Dr. Sylvius gave to his new concoction. Soon, the medicinal drink, became popular in Holland and other parts of Europe. There is some debate as to how gin was introduced to England; however, most believe that British soldiers were the ones responsible for its introduction, witnessing its curative properties and dubbing it "Dutch courage". It quickly became the popular drink "gin" and has since become a staple English favorite.

Gin's popularity was even given a lift by the religious politics of the day. In 1689, when William of Orange became King of England, he encouraged laws to hurt the Catholic French and aid the Protestant Dutch. He taxed French wines and liquors and encouraged the import of Dutch gin. The British population responded with open arms.

By 1710, British consumption of alcohol was up to 19 million gallons, and it is estimated that 20 per cent of households housed gin. Drunkenness was pervasive and gin became so popular that it was illegal by Act of Parliament in 1736. However, the law was hastily reversed six years later after it was discovered that contraband gin was considerably more toxic than the official spirit. The Industrial Revolution created a workforce, that wanted to spend its wages in better surroundings than squalid gin shops. Large and fanciful gin palaces became all the rage, laying the foundation for today's pubs and restaurants. Gin fell out of favor with the upper class until the later parts of the Victorian Era, where its mixed appreciation - 2 parts sordid, working class connotation and 1 part popularity - garnered it a euphemism among Victorians - "white wine." But with the introduction of the highbrow gin & tonic, gin, once again, started gaining in popularity.

During the great cocktail (r)age of the 20's and 30's, gin was part of very self-respecting drinker's repertoire. Throughout prohibition in the United States and Canada, bathtub gin became a common libation. Bathtub gin was made by placing a large quantity of low- quality spirit in a bathtub and adding juniper oil and other flavorings and letting it to soak for a few days. Some contend that many outlandish cocktails of the Jazz Era owe their inspiration to disguising the disgusting taste of bathtub gin.

Types of gin:

The most common is London Dry Gin. It is an intensely perfumed spirit with quality varying between producers. Some of the well-known brands are: Barton London Extra Dry, Gordon's, Booth's, Beefeater and Bombay Sapphire which comes in the distinct pale blue tinted bottle.

Other types:

Fleischman's Gin, was introduced in 1870 as the first American-made gin. It features a lighter gin taste, perfect in a salty dog, martini or gin and tonic.

Plymouth Gin is a distinctly drier gin than the London brands. Its history dates back to the Royal Navy. Tradition holds that the Royal Navy used Plymouth Gin and Angostura bitters to concoct the first pink gin which they consumed to protect against tropical diseases. There is only one distiller of Plymouth gin, Coates and Co., located at the Blackfriars Distillery in the center of Plymouth.

Dutch Genever is quite a different drink than English gin, owing to the pungent flavor of the grain mash from which it is derived. The mixture of barley, rye and corn is thoroughly malted, giving the older spirits a light ale tinge in color. There are two grades, Oulde(Old) and Jonge(Young), the latter looking more like the English variety. They frequently come in an opaque stone bottle. Today, Genever is widely consumed in the Netherlands but is not used for cocktails because of its pronounced flavor; rather, it is consumed in the same manner as Scandinavian Schnapps or Aquavit: neat or with quantities of Dutch beer.

Now, if you will excuse me, all this keying has my rheumatism acting up. I believe I'll have me a bit of the medicine...Granny would surely approve.