With only three days to go to the big day I imagine most people are now well into last minute, undoubtedly feverish, preparations - if you are only just starting, I salute your courage. In our house the Christmas countdown begins in early December with our first foraging trip. This takes place in true urban-hunter style at the BBC Good Food show where we ruthlessly track down cheese, fudge and the never-before bought spirit which will form the basis of this year's Christmas morning cocktail. As with hemlines and heel heights, alcohol goes through fashions: this year, if foodie events and bar openings are any indicator, the current spirit of fashionable choice is gin.
|Wine Making, Ancient Egypt|
|Alchemists and Distillation|
distillation of alcohol. From that point on, we didn't look back: from eaux-de-vie to akvavit to usquebaugh, the "water of life" was born.
Think of gin and you automatically think of gin and tonic, the quintessential English drink associated (at least in my mind, I live in Glasgow so I haven't actually witnessed this) with long hot summers, floaty frocks and croquet. Gin is widely known as the English drink and the world's oldest working distillery, which has been in production since 1793, can still be visited in Plymouth. The drink, however, originated in Holland where it was known as Jenever: the first mention of medical-tonics containing juniper (thought to be able to protect against a range of illnesses, including plague) is found in a Dutch manuscript dated 1269, with the first confirmed production beginning in the early 17th century, again for medicinal purposes.
Given the social ills eventually laid at gin's door, it is somewhat ironic that it was first prized for its medicinal qualities. The Dutch used it to treat gout, gall stones and stomach complaints and the Royal Navy mixed it with lime cordial to combat scurvy and angostura to combat sea-sickness; given that tonic water contains quinine which has anti-malarial properties, it really was a drink to beat all ills. Gin has also added a couple of phrases to our lexicon which are still in common use: Dutch Courage and Mothers' Ruin. The first has rather heroic connotations with its idea of soldiers stiffening themselves before battle and stems from the morale-boosting and damp-beating tots of Jenever given to British soldiers fighting in the Thirty Years War in Holland (1618-1648). Perhaps the meaning has now become rather more derogatory in the sense of turning to drink for false courage but it is still nowhere near as damning as Mothers' Ruin with its whiff of women whose collapsed morals in the face of the demon drink threaten the very fabric of society.
|Hogarth's Gin Lane|
This depiction of a slatternly woman so lost to drink she has forgotten her most basic role is the first time we see an alcohol-reformer, which is what Hogarth was, portraying a female as a villain rather than a victim of drink. Up to this point, reformers concerned with the drinking of ale tended to paint women as the victims of their neglectful and violent drunken husbands. Gin, however, was not drunk in male-dominated ale-houses, it was made, sold and increasingly drunk by women.
|Hogarth's Beer Street|
The debate about the dangers of alcohol continued into the nineteenth century and regulation brought, as it often does, a refinement in quality. Gin's image began to rise. New advances in distilling technology which refined the spirit's taste, its espousal by the Royal Navy and the increasing spread of influence through the Empire made gin (and tonic), rather ironically, a symbol of all that was good about England. With the growing popularity of cocktails after the end of prohibition, gin found itself associated with a new decadence, once that was aspirational rather than feared and Gin and It (Italian sweet vermouth) became the drink of choice for bright young things everywhere, including bright young women.
The gin industry is enjoying another boom with new flavours springing up everywhere (the oddest one I've found so far is marmalade) and the only thing to be feared in the new gin palaces is the ridiculous hipster beards. It's sad that we still haven't, as a society, learnt to manage our relationship with drink. It's sadder still that women are still subject to attacks in the media about drinking which still manages to call morality and their 'role' into question - I've seen so many articles lately about 'Prosecco Mums' but not so many about 'Budweiser Dads'. Still, that's not for this forum - if you want to know more about gin, The Much Lamented Death of Madame Geneva by Patrick Dillon is a good read. And if you want to try our Christmas cocktail, we're making our version of a Moulin Rouge: pink Cava, raspberry vodka, Chambord Black Raspberry liqueur and a good lie down. I don't like gin...
Have a good one!