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The History of Gin (and Tonic)

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A glass of gin and tonic, with ice

This Entry documents the history of gin. In a brief historical overview we learn of the medical reasons that led to the invention of gin. This idea is picked up for the invention of gin and tonic. A detailed timeline completes this Entry.

Historical Overview

Holland - The Netherlands

It is said that gin was invented around 1650 in the Netherlands by Dr Sylvuis. This man - who is also known as Franz de la Boé - was Professor of Medicine at Leyden, Holland. Originally, he intended this 'medicine' as a remedy for kidney disorders. He used neutral grain spirits flavoured with the oil of juniper. He called it 'genever' after the French term genièvre meaning juniper. By 1655 it was already being produced commercially and English soldiers serving in the area developed an affection for the spirit.

William and Mary

During the English reign of William and Mary (around 1689), home production of gin was encouraged. Some sources claim that one reason for this was the fact that drinking gin was safer than drinking water. Another factor, of course, was that production and distribution of gin was rather cheap. The local landowners produced it as a by-product of grain and taxes were very low. As a result gin was cheaper than beer or ale. Thus, popularity spread, it became synonymous with the poor and abuse of the drink was rampant. It was around this time that the nickname 'mother's ruin' emerged because of the enormous popularity of gin amongst women. In 1751, William Hogarth created the engraving 'Gin Lane' to show just how rampant the abuse really was.

The gin produced around that time was the forerunner of what was known as Old Tom's Gin, which was heavily sweetened. In the 1870s, Dry Gin was introduced and gin took on respectability in England once again. Finer establishments served 'pink gins' (with angostura bitter) and the cocktail age dawned in England. At about the same time, prohibition began in the USA.

The United States of America

During prohibition, the Americans used a different recipe to produce gin: by taking the poisons out of denatured alcohol to recover the ethyl alcohol. This was then flavoured with juniper, diluted and bottled. The name for this was 'bathtub gin' and it probably tasted like the name. There were seventy-five different formulae to denature the alcohol, so if the purification process was not done by a skilled chemist, vile, and even deadly results occurred. In those days the meaning of the line 'to die for' was totally different from today's meaning. A little more literal.

History of Gin and Tonic

Gin and tonics were - like gin itself - originally developed as a medicine. In this case to help fight malaria. When the British were in the East they became susceptible to malaria and eventually found out that quinine, an ingredient in tonic water, was useful for getting rid of the disease. Well, as you would probably expect, drinking tonic water by itself is pretty nasty (unless you've acquired a taste for it) and they had problems getting the British in the East to drink it.

Along comes our friend gin to be mixed with the tonic water, which not only made drinking it much more pleasant, but also created an excellent drink that would be remembered from then on, even if its relationship to the disease was forgotten. So, as you can see, gin and tonic water came about due to medicinal reasons, then caught on later for its more pleasurable aspects.

On a minor note, the lime - served in any good gin and tonic - being a citrus fruit, and therefore containing vitamin C, helps to prevent scurvy. Usually the limes are not the dominant ingredient of gin and tonic, so they won't actually get rid of scurvy if you've already got it - unless you drink a lot of gin and tonics of course.

Detailed Timeline

12th Century

Records reveal that distillation is practiced for medical purposes at Salerno Medical School. The invention of the process is variously attributed to the Chinese, Persians and Arabs.


Franciscus Sylvius, Dutch doctor in the city of Leyden, Holland, infuses juniper berries into distilled spirits in a search for a cure to kidney and stomach disorders and creates 'jenever'.

Late 1680s

Holland exports over 10 million gallons of gin per year.


William of Orange, Dutch consort to Queen Mary of England, bans imports of French brandy and levies duties on German spirits, guaranteeing a market for Dutch spirits in England. At the same time, the distilling trade is opened to locals who begin procuring 'Dutch courage'.


Londoners consume one-half million gallons of gin.


British beer taxes are raised, making gin the cheapest beverage in England.


'Gin madness' spreads through London as an escape from the brutal life of the nascent working class. Dram shops advertise 'Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two pence and clean straw for nothing'.


First of a series of unsuccessful Parliamentary acts to curtail gin consumption in London.


Londoners consume 11 million gallons of Gin per year.


The Tippling Act is passed by Parliament - the beginning of the end of 'gin madness'. The act eliminates small gin shops and leaves the distribution of gin to larger distillers and retailers. Within a few years consumption is down to 2 million gallons per year and the quality of gin has improved. Gin is on its way to becoming a gentleman's drink.

Mid-18th Century

Gin comes to the New World with the settlers.

1825 - 1835

Robert Stein of Scotland and Aeneas Coffey of Ireland invent the column still. The distiller has less control over the product, but can produce far more of it in the same amount of time.

Mid-19th Century

Gin becomes a respectable drink in British high society, served in gentlemen's clubs. In the meantime, it becomes drier and more refined.


A great notion is born - three times in different places!

  • Martini birth #1: Jerry Thomas, bartender at San Francisco's Occidental Hotel, mixes up a 'Martinez' for a traveler bound for that town. It consists of bitters, maraschino, vermouth, ice and Old Tom (sweet gin). Sugar syrup added on request.


Gin's position in Britain moves up as it grows drier and more refined. 'Indian tonic water' is invented to disguise the unpleasant taste of the quinine necessary to fight malaria in the tropics. It combines well with gin, and the gin and tonic is born.

  • Martini birth #2: a gold miner pays for a bottle of whiskey in the town of Martinez with a nugget so big he demands an extra drink. The bartender dubs it a 'Martinez'.


Founding of Dirkzwager distillery in Schiedam, Holland.


  • Martini birth #3: Martini di Arma Di Taggia, bartender at New York's Hotel Knickerbocker, mixes up a drink using equal parts of gin and dry vermouth.


Raffles Hotel in Singapore makes the first Singapore Sling.

August 16, 1920

The Volstead Act (Prohibition) goes into effect. Saloons and bars give way to speakeasies. Gin, the easiest spirit to produce illegally, is king and contributes to the rising popularity of the cocktail because of its smooth, dry quality and because it mixes well with other flavours. Spirit consumption goes up and moves from the saloon to the home. Women civilize the saloons.


The Volstead Act is repealed, ending Prohibition.

Early 1950s

The cocktail hour becomes an established feature of the US lifestyle and executives enshrine the three-Martini lunch.


Executives sober up and Perrier replaces the three Martinis at the executive table.


Vodka surpasses gin and whiskey to become the most widely-consumed spirit in the US.


Time Magazine calls the Martini an 'amusing antique'.


US tax laws are changed to allow only 50 percent of 'lavish and extravagant' entertaining to be deducted as business expenses. Thus ends the three-Martini lunch.


The Martini stages a comeback, particularly among 20- and 30-year olds, and becomes associated with retro culture, deco style, night clubs, cigars and Hollywood's depiction of the 1930s' lifestyle.


The Wall Street Journal reports that while overall spirits sales in 1994 were down 2.5%, gin sales increased by 2%.


Holland does it again! Light, 80-proof Leyden Dry Gin, produced in Schiedam's historic Dirkzwager distillery and aimed to satisfy gin and vodka drinkers alike, is the first new gin to appear on the American market in 10 years.

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