This feels less like a strict history of gin and more like a series of interesting stories told in chronological order, but it was still really fun to read. It’s also inspired me to do some gin-based activities sometime this year, as there are so many London gin distilleries.
So what’s it about? It is a basically a social history of gin in London. It’s light on the political and commercial elements, and heavy on the trials and tribulations of London’s gin drinkers. It takes us from William III wanting to stimulate a spirit industry in England, through gin being the ruin of London’s poor, right up to today’s hip trend in artisanal gins.
And there were some fucking brilliant stories, such as Sarah Stokes, a 60 year old pauper (and of course, avid gin aficionado). She was taking poor relief from four different parishes a week (I mean, why wouldn’t you) and spending the bulk of it on gin. At one point, she’s brought up on charges for insulting the Beadle of Aldate and “threatened to beat him” (p 99). But what endears Sarah Stokes to my heart is that during the trial she challenged the Beadle to a fight once she was out of prison: “I’ll tell you what Kinnersley, keep your body up till I comes out, and then we’ll see which is the best man, you or me” (p 99). I mean, my gosh. Probably an absolute menace but what a great story.
My other favourite (possibly apocryphal) fact was that the phrase ‘Dutch Courage’ comes from the Thirty Years War, when soldiers who went over to fight on the continent would have a shot of genever before battle. It was basically the precursor to English gin and still a favourite Dutch spirit. SUCH A DELIGHTFUL FACT. All Thirty Years War related facts are the BEST facts.
The book was just packed with so many interesting stories of London, the distillers and how it influenced London life. It was so colourful. It makes me want to read a book on all the ridiculous botanicals and how they make them for so much bloody gin. I wanted to go to an old gin palace, until I realised I had already been in a former gin palace – The Princess Louise by Holborn Tube station. I didn’t have any gin (as it’s now a pub) but had quite a few double chocolate stouts.
It was an effortless read, probably because of all the stories and light on historical context. But did that thing that all history books do – made me want to learn more (and to be frank, drink some gin). It reminds me of one of my other favourite London Books, Necropolis: London and its Dead which makes you just love London for all its fucking bizarre history. This city is brilliant.