The Boozy Backstory: England’s 18th Century Gin Craze
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 print issue of Quench Magazine.
In one of the earliest scenes in Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci, the film’s main character, Patrizia Reggiani, orders up a Tanqueray martini at the bar of a lively party in Milan.
It’s a fateful moment, especially for the man caught behind the bar, who turns out to be none other than Maurizio Gucci (yes, that Gucci), who would fall in love with and marry Reggiani. Don’t cheer. She’s kind of a gold-digger. And they do not live happily ever after.
Gin is also an interesting choice for a character so tightly defined by class, gender, and morality, especially given the spirit’s history. Long after England’s 18th century “Gin Craze,” this liquor was irretrievably associated with poverty, debauchery, and fallen women.
“One of the things about the gin craze that’s most notable is its feminine identity,” says Mallory O’Meara, author of Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol. “It was called ‘Mother’s Ruin’ and ‘Mother Gin,’ and it got that identity because people were so scandalized by women drinking it.”
So scandalized, in fact, that many thought women’s new drinking habits would cause the downfall of society. But there was more to this moral panic, circa the fi rst half of the 1700s, than just gin joints.
“It was really the first time in London that there were lots of young, single, independent women rushing to the city, trying to find jobs and having free time and money to spend on things like gin,” she continues. “What’s really clear is that it wasn’t so much that women were drinking more than men, it’s just that they were drinking at all.”
It was also the first time that a spirit was affordable and widely available. Prior to the mid-1700s, most people in England drank beer. A combination of lowered taxes for distillers and shortcuts made a pint of gin cheaper than a pint of beer.
O’Meara points out, however, that the real social upheaval of the era was caused more by the rapid growth of the City of London than cheap gin. But it was easier to focus on the “low-hanging fruit”—gin—than, say, housing, medical care, or adequate schools for children.
Funnily enough, O’Meara and I actually “met” (virtually) last year, when we were both asked to be guest experts on an NPR show about women and alcohol in the pandemic. We were surprised how many callers were concerned about “wine moms,” who we found ourselves in the position of defending.
“We still see people doing the same thing today when they say we have to stop people from drinking so much and it’s just completely upside-down,” says O’Meara. “I feel like that should be so far down our list of priori-ties. Maybe we should get people healthcare. She adds: “Let’s give people the basics of life and then maybe we can worry about that other stuff .”
We could offer up a recipe for a Martini here, but it’s worth pointing out that Maurizio is a terrible bartender—he shakes this simple classic where he should have stirred. So, instead, we’re wrapping up this column with the Hanky-Panky, a drink invented by Ada Coleman, a trail-blazing bartender who ran the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel in London from 1903 to 1925. Coleman is the subject of an entire chapter in O’Meara’s new book and, unlike Mr. Gucci, she knew when to shake and when to stir.
- 1½ oz gin
- 1½ oz sweet vermouth ¾ oz Fernet-Branca
- 1 orange twist (for garnish)
Add all liquid ingredients to an ice-fi lled mixing glass and stir for 45 seconds. Strain and pour into a chilled coupe. Garnish with a twist of orange.
Feature Photo: Ada Coleman bartending at the Savoy, circa 1920 – Public Domain