Cocktails & Cocktails: Cheers to Your Health, a medicinal history of gin


Nobody really needs an excuse to drink gin cocktails. 

They are uniquely herbaceous, light, refreshing, and always delicious. Though if anyone really wanted to give you a side eye about it drop them as a friend, or, perhaps less aggressively, tell them it’s medicine.

In 1550 a Dutch physician named Franciscus Sylvius began prescribing a “distilled spirit with juniper berries” as a medicinal cure. Historically, he is thought of as “the father of gin”. 

While Dr. Sylvius may be the “father” of gin, he is not necessarily  the inventor. 
In 70 AD, a Greek physician named Pedanius Dioscorides published an encyclopaedia on herbal medicine in which he described the use of malt wine-soaked juniper berries to cure chest ailments. 
Later in the Early Middle Ages, 11th century Italian Monks, and other Alchemists across Europe were distilling “a malt wine spirit infused with juniper” medically, but also realized you could just have a nice little time. 

look at what a nice little time he's having

Distilled spirits infused with juniper berries continued to be prescribed medicinally for centuries, and the ailments it was prescribed for was, basically, everything. Among these ailments were snake bites, gout, dyspepsia (indigestion), most kidney ailments, most stomach ailments, lumbago, the common cold, and something only described as “coward’s fist”. 

This is even before gin’s besties, tonic and lime, got involved. 

Gin, as it is consumed today, is a liquor derived from grain distillation flavoured with Juniper berries (or, more recently, extract), and gin didn’t technically become gin until Dutch-born Sir William of Orange took the English throne in 1688. 

England was at war with France, and French Brandy became illegal to import. 
A couple of thousand English soldiers had fought Spain in Holland during the Thirty Year War, and began drinking genever before they went into battle (which is where the phrase “Dutch courage” came from). In England they had a lot of access to cheap grain, and they began to produce their version of “genever”, which later became “ginever”, which was then just shortened to “gin”.
This is also when they began to infuse citrus and other botanicals during the distilling process. 

In 1702, party girl, Queen Anne took the throne and removed most of the restrictions on gin distillation.

party girl, Queen Anne

Resulting in the “English Gin Craze”; by 1720 historians say that one could find homemade gin in almost a quarter of the houses in London. 

A bunch of stuff happened, and rich people were annoyed that poor people were “over consuming” gin, they very dramatically began to call it “Mother’s ruin”, and asked to speak to the manager. 
British Parliament then spent 22 years imposing taxes and laws on the production of gin, pretty much making it so that for a time only the wealthy could drink gin in what they called “gin palaces”.  The exception to this was is if it was prescribed medicinally, then at the beginning of the 19th century the British Navy would receive a daily allotment of gin. 

This is where gin meets tonic and lime, and their forever love begins.

While all of that was happening in England, one of the many places they were colonizing was India (fun fact: “loot” is an Indian-derived word that made it into English vernacular meaning “the pillaged spoils of war”)
While the East India Company was posted up, malaria had become a huge persistent problem for the Europeans. 

Quinine was a traditional cure for malaria, and was drunk in a tonic, but tasted gross. The British Navy began putting their allotment of gin, along with water, sugar and lime, in with their quinine tonic, to make it more palatable. Which is how we got the Gin & Tonic. Today tonic water still contains quinine, but a much smaller amount, and the sugar is already in there. 

The gin gimlet was also invented at this time. 
The members of the British Navy that were out at sea needed a way to fight scurvy. A brand called Rose’s created a lime juice as a way to have large amounts out at sea without it going bad, and a naval doctor named Sir Thomas Gimlette would pair the juice with gin and give it to sailors as a medicine (the gin itself doesn’t help to fight the scurvy, just the demons).

During prohibition in the United States in the 1920’s, the only legal loophole to receive any type of liquor is if it was prescribed to you by a permit-holding physician. 
One of the few liquors that was still allowed to be distilled in incredibly small batches was gin
(if you’ve ever been to Chicago, you’ll know the extremely delicious Malort was also one of these few medicinal liquors).

(a gin prescription issued during prohibition)

Still today gin is considered to have medicinal properties. Maybe not enough to be prescribed by a doctor, but juniper berries are considered a “superfood”. It’s claimed they can help fight infection, inflammation, achy joints, prevent heart disease, improve blood circulation and even help fight kidney and liver disease.

So tonight we at Zart are prescribing you a gin & tonic or three, and a cheers to your health.