Gin: The Manual
by david broom
mitchell beazley, 224 pages, $19.99
Britain’s two national drinks—beer and gin—have both undergone a revival in the last decade. Twenty years ago, if you drove through Kent, you would see them plowing up the hop fields. No one, it was thought, would ever want to drink old-fashioned English beer again. German and American lagers would satisfy the drinkers of the future. Gin, similarly, was a drink for the aging bourgeoisie, consumed in golf clubs, or the bars of provincial hotels, usually with tonic water, lemon, and ice—as in Philip Larkin’s poem “Sympathy in White Major”:
When I drop four cubes of ice
Chimingly in a glass, and add
Three goes of gin, a lemon slice,
And let a ten-ounce tonic void
In foaming gulps until it smothers
Everything else up to the edge . . .
When Larkin wrote this poem in 1967, gin was all the things he was, or wanted to be: provincial, small-town, anti-smart, anti-cosmopolitan. Tony Blair is probably too much of a power maniac to have wanted much alcohol in his life, but the Blair era swept over Britain in a tsunami of Chardonnay. White wine was the first drink of the evening for the forerunners of the new age. The old beer-drinkers, slurping into their pints, and the old gin-drinkers were surely on the way out.
Those times are past, however, and all their dizzy rapture. One of the most noticeable trends in recent years has been the upsurge of small British breweries, making beer according to old-fashioned recipes, and proving commercially successful. By a similar token, gin has revived. Step into a bar now in the more sophisticated cities of the United States and of Europe, and you will not only find gin on offer, you will be asked by the bartender what sort of gin you prefer—Cambridge Gin or Brecon Botanicals; Tanqueray London Dry or Tanqueray No. Ten; Bombay Dry, Bombay Sapphire, or Bombay Sapphire East. (This last choice was recently offered me in a hotel bar in the capital of Estonia.)
To help one sort through these options, Dave Broom has written his gin “manual.” It is many kinds of book. On one level, it is a modest compilation of the huge variety of gins at present on the market, with some jokey accounts of how to mix them, serve them, and enjoy them. It is also a history of the miracle juniper berry, extolled by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History as a remedy against flatulence and coughing, esteemed by medieval alchemists, and eventually, in the clever Low Countries, made into our drink. It was probably in Bruges, some twenty or so years before Chaucer started to write, that Johannes de Aeltre, in 1351, first wrote down the recipe for his “Aqua vitae, dats water des levens . . . Ende maecten van hertten vro ende oec stout ende coene” (It makes people forget about sadness and makes their hearts happy and brave).
The English imported gin in the period when they imported from Holland a Protestant monarch, a national bank, and credit capitalism. Gin was there at the start of modern Britain, reducing the eighteenth-century poor to desperate conditions, lubricating the Victorian colonialists in their Indian hill stations (where they learned to add tonic to the mixture), and fueling alike the suburban “drinks party” of the twentieth century and the sophisticated cocktail bar on both sides of the Atlantic. Many of the names given to these very recent arrivals on the shelves of the liquor stores hark back to the strange history of this spirituous comfort. “Fifty Pounds Gin” refers to the Third Gin Act of 1736, which, in an attempt to limit working-class alcoholism, imposed a £50 license on the London gin distillers.
Nor is nostalgia limited to the British side of the Atlantic. Bathtub Gin and Bathtub Old Tom Gin are labels that remind the discerning boozer of those heroic American days when hooch—a mixture of industrial alcohol and turpentine brewed in the tub—could, before the days of Prohibition, enable you to drink a powerful cocktail for 20 cents. Harry Wilbourne, the impoverished New Orleans hospital intern and anti-hero of Faulkner’s great novel The Wild Palms/If I Forget Thee Jerusalem, begins his downfall when he goes to a bohemian party in Vieux Carre and fatefully meets another man’s wife. “There,” says the man who welcomes him, “You don’t need to worry about this party. You can already hear the home-made gin.” Bathtub gin plays the same role in the story that is played by the serpent in Paradise Lost.
Or there’s the gin called Dorothy Parker (44 percent ABV), made in Brooklyn by the New York Distilling Company, which carries with it at least the slither of a suggestion that a few sips of this zesty spirit (a very good one, in my view) will soon have you wisecracking in the manner of the Muse of the Algonquin.
Prohibition probably increased the human appetite for spirituous stimulation. In a similar way, we might believe, only its illegality could persuade the gullible that there was much fun to be had from marijuana—though Larkin, noting the comparative cheapness of “weed,” used to tell me he wished he could “make the switch” and give up alcohol, an ambition never fulfilled.
For me, the revival of gin is a happy thing. One of my earliest childhood memories is of my father sitting with his business colleague Josiah Wedgwood in his little front parlor, filling the room with smoke and laughter in the early evenings, as they drank their way through an impressive quantity of Gordon’s gin mixed with Noilly Prat, a drink they called “gin and French.”
In those days in Britain, outside London, or the older colleges, habitual wine-drinking was unknown. Drinkers “tanked up” before they ate. As a child, I made no connection between the laughter of the men for an hour before their evening meal and the soured, unhappy conversation of my parents after Uncle Jos had left. I knew nothing of gin’s capacity to make one aggressive, surly, and peevish after the initial numb comfort wears off.
Josiah and my father now appear in memory as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in double-breasted suits. Both were businessmen of great aplomb: They created the new Wedgwood factory, built on American lines. It was the first electrically powered pottery in Europe, and, as well as being superbly efficient, it saved human lives. Before they built it, life expectancy for a man working in the pottery industry in Staffordshire (our home county) was less than forty. After electrification, and the cleansing of the air, the potters lived a full span.
Their cleverness was guided by benign social consciences. Yet, while work was successful, private life was a disaster. Josiah was unhappily divorced and estranged from his family. My father’s marriage to a mentally ill woman whom he did not understand—my mother—was a wreck which he could neither master nor leave behind. Gin and French made their lives not merely bearable but, for an hour or two of an evening, positively enjoyable. The two men had acquired a taste for this admixture while traveling. It was always a part of their year to take one of the big transatlantic liners to New York, and, when they reached their destination, to meet the American Wedgwood sales “reps” and ask about the progress of business. If the gin and French offered at the captain’s table on the Queen Mary or the Queen Elizabeth was a happy way of beginning the evening, it was as nothing to the dry martinis which awaited in New York itself.
The Scriptures tell us that wine maketh glad the heart of man, and this presumably goes for the heart of woman, too. Notwithstanding the claims of Johannes de Aeltre, gin plays no such benign role in the scheme of things. Mrs. Thrale recalled in her Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson how some busybody objected to people giving money to beggars who would be sure to spend the money on tobacco or gin. Johnson put his finger on the truth. “And why should they be denied such sweeteners of their existence? It is surely very savage to refuse them every possible avenue to pleasure, reckoned too coarse for our acceptance. Life is a pill which none of us can bear to swallow without gilding.” The wine-drinker is either a sun-soaked Californian, a Mediterranean optimist, or someone too temperamentally fortunate to recognize this. Gin is not a drink invented purely for pleasure and gladness. It recognizes the lacrimae rerum, and offers itself, perhaps with siren and deceptive voice, as a temporary remedy.
The brevity and modesty of Dave Broom’s book does not hide the magnitude of its theme. Gin makes us sad—or should that read “Gin makes us realize the sadness of things”? Either way, drinking it sharpens experience. From Johannes de Aeltre’s first creation of the stuff to Samuel Johnson’s recognition of the need to sweeten life’s bitter pill, gin has had a metaphysical dimension. No doubt those who have conquered their human nature—Buddhist sages, Carthusian monks—can live without it. But St. Paul, who said that “the good that I would I do not; but the evil that I would not, that I do,” showed himself to be a spiritual gin-drinker thirteen centuries before this earthly spirit was so fearfully and wonderfully distilled.
A. N. Wilson’s newest novel, Resolution, will be published in autumn 2016 by Atlantic Books.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?