Authors: Patrick Dillon
Time soon showed that the alchemists had missed the philosopher’s stone again. Spirits didn’t grant eternal life; they didn’t even cure the plague. But they did have other effects. Even the most earnest doctor couldn’t help noticing that. Spirit-drinking ‘sharpeneth ye wit,’ one wrote. ‘It maketh me merry & preserveth youth … It agreeth marvellously … with man’s nature.’
Spirits may not have conquered death, but they did make life more palatable. Compared to distilled spirits, beer and wine were just flavoured water.
Something else was about to become clear as well. You didn’t have to be philosopher, alchemist or magician to make these powerful new drugs. You didn’t even need a ready source of wine. They could be distilled from anything – even from grain, the staple food of northern Europe. Soon, on a tour to the Baltic, the Dutchman Caspar Coolhaes noticed that, ‘in Danzig, Königbergen and similar White Sea towns, just like in our countries at Amsterdam and neighbourhood and also at Rotterdam, Hoorn, Enkhuyzen and other towns, corn-distilleries were founded.’
Lucas Bols established his distillery near Amsterdam in 1572. Schiedam was growing as the home of the Dutch distilling industry by the 1630s. The stage was set for Europe to be flooded with a cheap and intoxicating new drug.
That was a more dangerous kind of magic, and many were scared of it. Way back in 1450, a Brandenburg Codex had tried to slam shut the lid of Pandora’s box. ‘Nobody,’ it decreed, ‘shall serve aquavit or give it to his guests.’ Augsburg legislated in 1570 against grain spirits as ‘harmful to the health, and a useless waste of wheat.’
In France, where distilling would remain focused on wine, rather than grain, brandy was banned in 1651. In Russia the rapid spread of vodka-drinking led to a panic clamp-down on drinking houses in 1652. Neither measure lasted long. But in 1677, only five years after the ban had been replaced by taxes, the Paris authorities again noted the spread of the
, and warned
against ‘those sorts of liqueurs of which the excess is incomparably more dangerous than that of wine.’
That was the nub of it. Spirits weren’t just stronger versions of wine or beer; they were different in kind, more destabilising, more dangerous. Beer and wine had been around for centuries. They were hallowed by tradition, ingrained in the woodwork; the tavern and alehouse reeked of them. Beer-drinkers raised their flagons in the same room where their grandfathers had drunk. When they broke into song, they didn’t threaten the order of things; they were figures of fun. Falstaff was a cheery and familiar presence. By contrast, the new spirits were gaunt strangers in town. They took up residence in bare cellars and rooms behind shops; their devotees were vicious and unpredictable. Instead of good cheer and old drinking songs, spirits offered quick intoxication, then long oblivion.
Maybe the aura of magic never left distilling. Spirits would always reek of alchemy, of the dark arts. When English reformers came to revile spirit-drinking in the early eighteenth century, they saw gin not just as different in degree from beer, but worse, different in kind. ‘Man,’ wrote the campaigner Dr Stephen Hales in 1734, ‘not contented with what his bountiful and munificent creator intend[ed] for his comfort … has unhappily found means to extract, from what God intended for his refreshment, a most pernicious and intoxicating liquor.’
The distiller was a second snake in the garden of Eden; gin-drinking was a second fall. Madam Geneva was not only unholy but unnatural as well, part whore and part witch.
By the time Dr Stephen Hales began his campaign, five million gallons of raw spirits were being distilled in London every year. The most common drink in the slums, flavoured with juniper berries, had once been called Geneva, after the Dutch name for juniper spirits. But by then it had ‘by frequent use and the laconic spirit of the nation, from a word of middling length, shrunk into a monosyllable, intoxicating GIN.’
Martial WILLIAM drank
GENEVA, yet no age could ever boast
A braver prince than he …
orty years after the Glorious Revolution, as Parliament passed the first act to control the scourge of gin-drinking, Alexander Blunt (pseudonym of Elias Bockett, a distiller) would write the first epistle to Geneva ‘in verse sublime’. It didn’t take long to develop into a paean to William of Orange, the King who ‘with liberty restored, GENEVA introduced!’
Martial William may or may not have drunk Geneva himself. He certainly drank something. On his first Twelfth Night in London, while Mary spent the evening playing cards at Kensington with her sister, William entered into the spirit of things at Lord Shrewsbury’s with Godolphin and the Duke of Marlborough. An onlooker recorded that in the end ‘they all became so drunk that there was not a single one who did not lose consciousness.’
Coming round, Marlborough managed to stagger back as far as Whitehall, where he passed out in the antechamber to the King’s bedroom. The King himself fell asleep in a chair by the fire. Later, after Mary’s death, William was said to indulge in drinking bouts with his old Dutch friend Augustus Keppel, by then Earl of Albemarle.
Whether it was gin William soaked in or not, to later writers the link between gin and the Glorious Revolution was an obvious one. William was Dutch; so was gin. ‘Mother Gin was of Dutch parentage,’ recorded a
Life of Mother Gin
published in 1736, ‘but her father, who was a substantial trader in the city of Rotterdam … came to settle in London, where … he married an English woman, and obtained an Act of Parliament for his naturalization.’ More importantly, it was William of Orange whose Acts of Parliament opened the floodgates to the cheap spirits that were soon being sold in cellars and garrets all over London, from barrows, out on the river, even in workshops. With the flight of James Stuart, all things French and Catholic were outlawed, and brandy went with them. Dutch Geneva became the spirit of the Glorious Revolution.
Until then, England had lagged behind the rest of Europe in the fashion for spirits. Dutch distillery manuals had been translated early in the sixteenth century, but most distilling took place in the farm kitchen, where country housewives used the still to prepare home remedies. Through most of the seventeenth century, professional interest stayed medical as well. When Charles I granted a monopoly of distilling to Sir William Brouncker in 1638, it was two distinguished physicians, Sir Theodore Turquet de Mayerne, a Huguenot and the King’s doctor, and Sir Thomas Cademan, physician to the Queen, who joined him in setting up the Company of Distillers. Rivalry came from the apothecaries, not the brewers. When Samuel Pepys recorded his only encounter with Madam Geneva, on 10 October 1663, she was dressed up in nurse’s
uniform. Colleagues at work recommended ‘strong water made of juniper’ to cure constipation and pain in making water (‘Whether that … did it, I cannot tell, but I had a couple of stools forced after it and did break a fart or two’).
All through the 1650s, while the French and Russians panicked about spirit-drinking, the puritan English stayed on their knees, sober and spiritless. The first change came with the return of the monarchy. ‘Our drunkenness as a national vice takes its epoch at the Restoration,’ Daniel Defoe wrote in 1726, ‘anno 1661/2, or within a very few years after … Very merry, and very mad, and very drunken, the people were, and grew more and more so every day.’
This time, there was more than beer for them to get drunk on. Brandy, outlawed in France, flooded across the Channel. Customs inspector and writer Charles Davenant soon noticed the ‘considerable brandy retailers’ in East Sussex, and all over Wiltshire, the ‘abundance of brandy brought into every corner of this county.’
Brandy – from the Dutch ‘brandewijn’, burned (distilled) wine – was a generic for all spirits, but until the Glorious Revolution most of it did come from France and was made from wine. The best quality, fashionable at court, was often called Nantz, after the port it was shipped from.
Cheaper home-made spirits also started to make their appearance on the streets. Restoration London, Daniel Defoe recorded, ‘began to abound in strong water-shops.’ Defoe, born at the time of the Restoration, was an enthusiast for the Glorious Revolution, and would become London’s most prolific journalist. For three decades he would also be the most ardent advocate of the distilling industry. ‘These were a sort of petty distillers,’ he recorded of the early days, ‘who made up … compound waters from such mixed and confused trash, as they could get to work from … Till then there was very little distilling known in England, but for physical uses. The spirits they drew were foul and gross; but they mixed them
up with such additions as they could get, to make them palatable, and so gave them in general, the name of Cordial Waters.’
Distillers had been experimenting for generations with the flavourings that best masked the taste of cheap spirits. Juniper had been discovered early on – Augsburg had seen a petition against ‘Cramatbeerwasser’ back in 1613. In London it was aniseed – elsewhere the flavouring for spirits like raki and ouzo – that started out as the favourite. ‘The quantity that was drunk of it was prodigious great,’ Defoe recalled. ‘The famous Aniseed Robin … was so well known in Leaden-Hall, and the Stocks-Market for his liquor, and his broad-brimmed hat, that it became proverbial, when we saw a man’s hat hanging about his ears, to say,
he looks like Aniseed Robin
.’ Defoe listed some of the other flavoured spirits that gained favour after the Restoration:
|Aqua Vitae||Aniseed Water|
|Aqua Mirabilis||Cinnamon Water|
|Aqua Solis||Clove Water|
|Aqua Dulcis||Plague Water …|
|Colic Water, which in short was Geneva.|
At this stage, though, the quantities didn’t add up to much. As London recovered from plague and fire, no one was talking about a social problem, let alone a Gin Craze. The sudden explosion in spirit-drinking would only come when William of Orange crossed the sea from Holland, home of grain spirits, to ascend the English throne.
His first act was to declare war on France, and immediately measures were passed to ban trade with the new enemy. They made a point of singling out France’s lucrative brandy exports. With French spirits out of the way, that left a gap in the market. And so Parliament opened the door to the English distilling industry.
In 1690 they passed ‘An Act for encouraging the distilling of brandy and spirits from corn,’ and the industry was born. If later Parliaments wondered how the scourge of spirituous liquors had taken root, they had only to look at their own statute book.
William was killing two birds with one stone. He wasn’t just hurting the French by banning brandy. A new British distilling industry would lead, as the Act promised, to ‘the greater consumption of corn, and the advantage of tillage in this kingdom.’ Farming was Britain’s key industry, and a distilling industry in London meant a new market for English grain. The Act’s main beneficiaries were English farmers – and through their rents, the landowners whose support the new King needed in Parliament.
To encourage distilling from corn (meaning any of the four grain crops, wheat, barley, rye or oats) William’s Act took advantage of the manufacturing process for raw spirits. Distillers began their work by fermenting a wash, much in the way that brewers made beer. That wash could be made of almost anything – corn, wine, fruit or molasses were favourites (reformers later hinted darkly at human excrement and animal bones). When that weakly alcoholic base was put into the still and heated for the first time, it wasn’t proof spirit that condensed out of the spout. The first run-off produced coarse spirits, known as ‘low wines’, which were well below proof strength. Low wines were distilled a second time to make proof spirits, and it was these, in turn, which were sold on to compound distillers to be flavoured as aniseed water, ‘plague water’ or gin. Since Charles II’s reign, there had been separate taxes on low wines and on proof spirits. William’s new legislation now tweaked the rates on low wines so as to give a huge advantage to low wines made from British corn. Distil most materials and you paid 12d a gallon on the resulting low wines. Put malted British corn in your vat, and your gallon of low wines paid just a penny of duty.
It was all a long way from 1638, when the Company of
Distillers had specifically outlawed ‘working upon malt made of wheat or barley to the misexpense thereof.’
They had worried what people would say if corn went into their stills instead of to the bakers. They didn’t want to be blamed for pushing up the price of bread. Now corn spirits would be distilled with official sanction.