Back in the 1960s Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver! premiered in London’s West End, and in 1968 the film of that stage show, which was based on Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, was released to great acclaim. It starred Ron Moody as Fagin and contains those memorable lines in Fagin’s den (which have lived with me to this day!) when one of the boys calls out, “‘Ere Fagin, these sausages are mouldy!” Fagin replies, “Shut up, and drink your gin!”
Very few people would give a child gin to drink in this day and age, but back in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, gin was a medicine, supposedly a cure for anything from gout to indigestion, and one of its attractions was that it was cheap. Very cheap in fact! It was the poor man’s drink sold by almost anyone from barbers to grocers, and in London alone there were more than seven thousand so called “dram shops” where gin was available. In the capital it is believed that ten million gallons of gin were sold annually, the average man or woman could not afford expensive French wines and brandy, or even strong beer, and so they drank the cheapest thing on offer. The government tax on beer was four shillings and nine pence a gallon, but on gin it was only tuppence (or two pence, if you’ve not heard that word before!) Not only was it cheap, but it was also very strong! It reportedly rendered men impotent, and women sterile, hence the phrase mother’s ruin!
The government had to act, and so raised the tax on gin. Unfortunately it pushed the sale of gin underground, people were still led to ruin, madness, suicide and even death, they would do anything to get their gin. There are stories of people selling their homes, their belongings to get their hands on it, there are even reports of a cattle drover selling his eleven-year-old daughter in order to buy a gallon of gin, and of a coachman who pawned his wife for a quart bottle! By the time of Dickens, gin was not the great problem that it had been in earlier years, but it was still a popular and common drink, available even to children!
William Hogarth’s print Gin Lane (1751)
Gone are the days of the gin palaces, but gin is still a popular drink. If anything it has seen something of a revival in recent years.
Scene in a London Gin Palace
That revival has seen the advent of many small artisan distilleries, and the interest in flavoured gins. For many years, I have enjoyed a glass of gin and tonic, with a slice and ice, and usually here in the United Kingdom there were perhaps two of three brands to choose from. Those days are gone, the choice today is enormous; not only are there different brands to choose from, but there are many flavours too; Pink, Rhubarb, Lime, Orange, Strawberry, different botanicals, and I’ve even seen Lavender gin, Marmalade gin, and gin with Charred Lemon, Rosemary and Coriander.
My favourites, after the classic Gin and Tonic with a slice and ice, are Strawberry gin, which has a very subtle flavour, and can be served with a frozen strawberry instead of an ice cube, and Rhubarb gin, which is easily bought, but just as easily flavoured at home. All you need are a few sticks of young pink rhubarb cut into inch long pieces, tossed in sugar (or not, if you prefer it unsweetened). Leave it to steep for anything up to six weeks or until the gin has changed to a beautiful pink colour. We tried this with some cheap gin a few weeks ago, but became impatient after about four days and so drank it then! It was good, both the colour and the flavour were fine, and if you like ginger, a slice or two of root ginger gives added flavour to the gin and of course, goes well with the rhubarb.
I would be interested to know if you like gin too, and what your favourite might be?