When I think about gin, my mind takes a trip to Dickensian London where the streets are filthy, the people filthier, and everyone drinks gin like it was water. There is a reason for this imagery coming so readily to many people’s minds: The Gin Craze.
England vs France
The Gin Craze began as a result of the history of bad blood between England and France. At the end of the 17th century, when William the Orange took power in England, several acts were passed to thwart French influence in England. These acts made it more difficult to import French brandy, and at the same time encouraged the production of local gin. Further, the London Guild of Distillers was essentially neutered and new distillers were encouraged to start producing gin. Licensing requirements to produce or sell the spirit were completely dropped. On top of all of that, the government put a considerable effort into encouraging the population of London to imbibe this locally produced gin.
These reasons alone would be enough to start a whirlwind of popularity for the distinctly flavored liquor, but other factors caused it to spin out of control.
The Industrial Revolution
By the 1720s, the Industrial Revolution was starting to pick up steam and people were being encouraged to leave their rural communities for the hustle and bustle of the city. London started to get overcrowded far beyond what the infrastructure could handle and the factories could employ. Having this overabundance of potential workforce meant that business owners could demand longer hours for less pay from their employees (if you complained you could be easily replaced). Miserable, unsafe work conditions became the norm. Couple that with the dreadful and unsanitary home conditions meant that life was desolate without any hope of getting better. Any one of working age (6 years old or older) wanted to find a way to just forget about how miserable their lives were. Lucky for them, there were more gin shops in the poor areas than any other shop in London (most of which were unlicensed, selling gin made in the back room).
During this time, food prices also started to drop, meaning that the working class (aka the dirt poor) had a little more money in their pocket, which to them equated more drinking money.
“Gin Lane” and the end of the Gin Craze
By the 1730s, gin consumption had reached an average of two pints per week per Londoner and would only increase from there. The best illustration of just how terrible it had become was an engraving by William Hogworth entitled “Gin Lane” which depicted a street piled with lazy and careless drunks, including a woman allowing her child to fall to its death.
The Gin Craze started to fizzle around 1751 and is attributed to the passing of the Gin Act of 1751, though the rising price of grain probably contributed to it as well.
While I have no evidence to support it, I’m quite sure that the reason that gin remains such a prevalent and popular spirit is partially to do with the Gin Craze.