The London Gin Scene – Then and Now
London’s love affair with gin has not always been healthy. It has, at times, been the ultimate in destructive relationships! In the early 1700s London’s passion, or more accurately obsession, with the spirit nearly bought the proud city to a standstill. The widely available ‘mother’s ruin’ was ruining a lot more than the pitiful women who queued up to get their daily dose.
Gin’s troubled past in the capital city
The gin of our past is not the spirit that we know today. It was first imported into Britain from Holland in the 1600s as a weak (around 30 percent alcohol by volume) drink. This was very different to what was eventually distilled in the capital city! London gin was terribly strong; it burned the throat, made the eyes water and could even make you gag! As if this was not bad enough, it was also often adulterated with impurities such as turpentine spirit and sulphuric acid. It’s amazing that any gin drinkers survived at all!
There were around 7,000 gin shops and these were just the ones that the authorities knew about. You could add countless more illegal drinking dens to this total. An estimated 10 million gallons were distilled each year. The results were, sadly, inevitable. The widespread addiction led to social despair, violence, child cruelty and destitution.
Yet, it is easy to see why it was so attractive. Poor Londoners were cold, hungry and led miserable existences in slums and workhouses. Who could blame them for wanting a drink? For just a few pennies they could get drunk enough to escape their surroundings and the reality of their lives. The situation, however, was not sustainable. The 1751 Gin Act was brought in which prohibited distillers from selling to unlicensed merchants. Gin could now only be sold in bigger pubs where the quality control was tighter and things started to calm down.
The modern gin scene
Perhaps it is this less than favourable past that has caused a certain reluctance amongst consumers to make gin their tipple of choice. However, in recent years, there are signs that London is falling in love once again with gin. Only this time, there are some seriously high-quality products on offer.
A selection of small distilleries have opened up in London and are winning prizes. You can even visit some of them for a distillery tour and learn more about London’s enduring but chequered relationship with gin.
Beefeater, Kennington. This is not exactly a new venture because Beefeater got its distilling license in 1829. You can take a two-and-a-half hour tour of the distillery for £12. As part of the tour, you will learn more about the history of gin in London. Then a guide leads you through the distillery where you find out all about the process and get to sample a Beefeater Gin and Tonic.
East London Liquor Company, Mile End. This great company produces gin as well as vodka, whisky and rum. They are based in an old glue factory in Bow Wharf. Tours are available where you will learn how they produce their spirits and more on the history of distilling in London. Of course, some samples are included! The Spirit of Gin Tour and Tasting costs £45.
Sipsmith, Chiswick. On this tour, you will be greeted with a tipple before you start the tour. You will learn about the history gin in London and see the three copper stills which have names! They are called Prudence, Patience and Constance. Tours cost around £15
The Ginstitute. If you like the sort of day that starts with a Gin and Tonic, moves on to a Tom Collins and ends with a Martini then this is for you. The whole experience costs £110 pounds and is paradise for gin lovers! You will learn all about the history of gin; visit the still room and get up close to the gin-production process. Then you will have a run through the botanicals – with a lot of sniffing! Finally, you will blend your own gin from a selection of botanicals which will be presented to you when you graduate.