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10 november 2012

Like several of my friends and acquaintances, I once got very drunk on gin (no scandal value, sorry; this was 25 years ago). And like them, I haven't touched it since. I hated it to begin with (as many who have tried gin report), and if it hadn't been mixed with just the right fiendish amount of vermouth on the fateful night, I doubt I would have gotten down even a swallow.

Gin, as Leslie Solmonson documents in her global history for Reaktion Books, inspires extreme reactions. For several decades in the 18th century, Londoners were aggressively addicted to the stuff. Solmonson cites data indicating that in 1733, Londoners drank 14 gallons of gin per person. Given that children drank less, despite the stuff proverbially being like mother's milk to East Enders, that was some serious blue ruin under the reign of the early Hanoverians. You probably could have dumped barrels of olives into the upstream Thames and scooped out acceptable dry Martinis from London Bridge.

Gin, though now the classic spirit of England, is Dutch in origin, and survives there as the quite different (and to me equally unappealing) genever. (The leading brand of genever is Bols, which I always thought was just the name of the drink.) Both liquors depend on the juniper berry for their special quality. Otherwise, genever is a kind of malt spirit, and gin is neutral, essentially a variety of vodka. I just uncorked a bottle of gin that for some reason sits on our liquor shelf (and will long survive me, because I intend to drink none of it). I can't really smell the juniper (or much of anything else), but I remember it from my more-osmic years: honestly, more like aftershave than anything else. In fact, men of my boyhood were fond of both gin and aftershave, and I probably got the two scents crossed in my proto-Proustian neurons.

But as my muzzy memories suggest, and Solmonson confirms, gin in the American 1950s and 60s was connected pre-eminently with adulthood. "I believe in you," sang Robert Morse in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, in part because of a "slam, bang, tang, reminiscent of gin and vermouth." The very noxiousness of the compound guaranteed that no weakness for Martinis could ever be childish. As baby-boomers have aged, Martinis have gone in and out of fashion, sometimes representing nostalgia for the pure steely forms of 50s adulthood, sometimes disappearing behind drinks that are sweeter and more palatable. Mad Men is sometimes associated with Martinis, but if my perceptions can be trusted, the hard drinkers in that series tend to pour whiskey or vodka neat out of the bottle into those cunning roundish glasses that seem always at hand. I have no doubt there's a forgotten episode where Don and Roger suck down Martinis at great length (perhaps the one where Don persuades Roger that the elevator is broken and has him walk up the stairs dead drunk?), but for the most part I think these manly alcoholics think of mixtures of anything as a bit of a concession to trendiness. And I can't remember what Robert Morse's character Bert drinks, if he drinks at all.

Where was I … gin, of course. Solmonson is good at charting the many interventions that the British government has made in the gin trade over the centuries, most of them rife with unintended consequences. (One early-18th-century law made it illegal to billet troops in distillers' houses, with the result that a huge percentage of English people took up distilling.) Gin is very much a manufactured spirit; terroir and distilling techniques are less important to its quality than the proprietary, and somewhat arcane, mixtures of botanicals that give gins their distinctive flavors. Gin's quality is often described as a "perfume," and indeed making gin is not all that different from making perfume: the woodsy and citrusy notes that accompany the juniper are much like those used in perfumeries. So I may not be far wrong about the aftershave connection after all.

Solmonson, Leslie Jacobs. Gin: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2012.