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January 10, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST
The history of gin is, in some ways, the history of the Western world over the past 500 years. Since the 16th century, gin has been both subject to and the subject of political and social changes of the day. In The Book of Gin, Richard Barnett traces the drink’s rise from its alchemical and medical roots to notoriety as a social solvent for the working class in a newly industrialized England, before finally establishing a glamorous home for itself in James Bond’s martini.
In its most basic form, gin is a spirit distilled from grain and flavored with juniper berries and other additives. Gin, unlike whiskey and other liquors, requires no aging, a quality which lends itself well to industrial production. Well before industrialization began, alchemists concocted early forms of gin as medicinal treatments for nearly every conceivable ailment.
“Proto-gins,” as Barnett calls these early incarnations of gin, were used to rinse inflamed eyes, heal head sores, ease tooth pain, cure jaundice, promote good digestion and to calm colicky children.
Gin’s popularity grew with tavern-keepers, who found it kept better than wine and beer. Farmers encouraged production of gin because it gave them an extra market for their grains. By the mid-1600s, a “cottage industry” of gin-makers started to give way to mass production. In fact, so much grain started going into gin and other alcohols that some feared a strain on the food supply.
In tracking the cultural meaning and economic implications of gin, Barnett shows his talents as a historian. His book is most illuminating when it explains the combination of forces behind historical events (though his prose at times tends toward the high-fangled in these passages).
With the advent of gin, what seemed like a new and frightening kind of drunkenness raised questions about the relationship people had with their governments. As Barnett writes, “The rising European tastes ran in parallel with stronger and more frequent forms of state regulation and control.” England would go on to pass a series of Gin Acts in the 1700s as gin became the drink of choice for a new urban working class.
The political restrictions were partly a response to the “gin craze” of 18th century London, when gin-shops became social gathering places and the sites of brawls, dog fights and other unsavory activities.
Barnett’s narrative is sharpest when soberly recounting anecdotes from history, such as when detailing how some well-known, gin-based drinks came to be. Western colonists sailing the world added lime juice to gin, creating the gimlet, to ward off scurvy. They mixed it with a tonic developed from what was originally a malaria treatment to make the first gin and tonic. U.S. bartenders mixed gin with vermouth in the 1800s to create the martini.
Barnett draws from hundreds of years of intertwining social developments, which makes The Book of Gin good for a refresher on all that European and American history we forgot from high school. And as the martini on the cover promises, the book also makes for good cocktail party conversation.