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The Intoxicating History of Gin

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If you want someone to blame, or to praise, for opening the floodgates to the deluge of gin, the obvious candidate is William of Orange, the Dutch ruler who came to the throne—the English throne—in 1689. A ban on trading with France, the eternal foe, meant that, with French brandy off limits, a gap yawned in the market. Better yet, in 1690 Parliament passed “an Act for encouraging the distilling of brandy and spirits from corn.” (Almost any grain crop qualified as corn.) From that innocent present participle “encouraging” a mighty fountain sprang. And, lo, the people came to lap.

Accurate figures for the lapping are provided by Jessica Warner, in “Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason.” She writes:

"In 1700, the average adult drank slightly more than a third of a gallon of cheap spirits over the course of a year; by 1720 that amount had nearly doubled; and by 1729, the year when the first act restricting sales of gin was passed, the number had nearly doubled again, to slightly more than 1.3 gallons per capita."

The annus mirabilis, Warner adds, was 1743, when one person’s average annual consumption hit 2.2 gallons. Note the word “restricting.” For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and for every government that goads us on to consume something delicious, taxable, or addictive, there will be another, not long afterward, that panics, blusters, and tries to turn the tide that it unleashed.

In all, there were eight Gin Acts between 1729 and 1751, which suggests that not all of them had the desired effect. The problem was that distilling had become a domestic trade, with low-grade gin freely and easily produced on private premises. Beer was subjected to well-established regulations, but not gin. Patrick Dillon, in “Gin: The Much Lamented Death of Madam Geneva,” points out that “anyone who could afford a vat and a still could set up shop and make spirits.” All that the seller required, Dillon writes, was “a cellar or garret—failing that, a wheelbarrow.” It’s estimated that, in one district of London, the ratio of normal houses to dram shops, as they were known, was five to one. The city suffered an epidemic of drams. The craze was on.

Read entire article at The New Yorker

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