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The story of gin: A spirited interview

December 26, 2012|By Jasmine Elist
  • "The Book of Gin" and author Richard Barnett.
"The Book of Gin" and author Richard Barnett. (Grove Atlantic / Richard…)

As we roll into the final holiday parties of the year, spirits are high -- and flowing. “The Book of Gin” by Richard Barnett traces the history of gin, which was once believed to prevent plague, ease the pains of childbirth and treat a lack of courage.

Barnett found in gin a story that combined pleasure, history, pain and politics. When not writing about gin, the award-winning author runs the Sick City Project, which explores how medicine intersects with public life. Barnett took some time to chat with us about the flavors, aromas and varieties of gin -- as well as the spirit’s complex and rich history.  

Out of the wide range of liquors to choose from, why gin?

I spend my days teaching and writing about the history of science and medicine, so I’m always looking for stories that cast light on human life and the ways in which we think about pain and pleasure, health and disease. The story of gin takes in alchemy and science, royal families and poor migrants, armies and navies, fashions and revolutions as they have moved around the globe. Gin has a history with ethical and philosophical overtones. It reveals how we’ve chosen to comfort ourselves when times were tough, and how we’ve aspired to elegance and modernity when times were better. (Oh, and it’s good to drink, too.)
 
What are the features that delight you most about gin?

Gin is nothing less than world history in a glass. Dutch genever, the first incarnation of gin, was created in an age of world-changing trade and exploration. It was distilled from Baltic grain, flavored with spices from the East Indies and sugar from the West Indies, and it was carried all around the world on the ships of the Dutch East India Company, the world’s first multinational corporation. Gin has had many global adventures, and its status has changed radically over five centuries, from a drink of the rich and well-traveled to the poison of the poor and back again. Most of all, I think, gin is an urban drink, and it has been said to possess all the virtues and vices of urban life. You can map the spread of modern cities by following the changing consumption of gin.
 
Was gin ever used for anything other than a drink?

Absolutely! The idea of distilling spirit and scenting or flavoring it with herbs and spices emerged in the Islamic Golden Age of the 8th and 9th centuries AD, and indeed our word "alcohol" comes from an Arabic word meaning "spirit." At the House of Wisdom -- a kind of research institution in Baghdad, the capital of the Islamic empire -- alchemists and philosophers experimented with stills and alembics, trying to make perfumes and medicines. When they distilled wine, they discovered a mysterious substance, a "water" that burned and evaporated away to nothing. Some thought it was an elixir of life, others that it was a form of the universal force that permeated all things. For centuries distilled alcohol was used almost exclusively as a medicine, and the very first "proto-gin" -- spirit infused with juniper -- was made in an Italian monastery-hospital in the 11th century. It wasn’t until the late 16th century that Dutch distillers began to make a sweet, juniper-flavored liquor for drinking.
 
Why was gin one of the most popular bootleg liquors during Prohibition? 

One of the great reasons for gin’s popularity, both in Prohibition-era America and in the British gin craze of the 18th century, is that its flavor could be faked fairly easily. Scotch whiskey, for instance, has a complex flavor, which depends upon high-quality ingredients and years of maturation in barrels. But gin in its most basic form is neutral spirit flavored with juniper, and bootleggers quickly found that they could make a passable gin with industrial alcohol and juniper oil or turpentine. Even bootleg gin, however, might have been preferable to its gin-craze predecessor. Eighteenth-century distillers were not above adding a splash of sulfuric acid to give a little extra fieriness.
 
You write that since the late 1980s there has been a gin renaissance. What caused this sudden rise in gin’s popularity?

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