What we said (more or less...)
Matt: Welcome to Coming Clean from Thomas Clipper, the podcast that opens up our small business and lets you see inside in all the gory detail. I’m Matt.
Tony: and I’m Tony. This week we’ve got a small departure for you from shaving and crowd funding.
Matt: That’s right, we’re recording this after a trip to our local gin distillery. So let’s start off with some exciting news: we’re making a small batch Thomas Clipper gin. Why gin you ask? Well we were inspired by our juniper fragranced natural shaving soap. One thing led to another, and here we are - gin in hand - ready to take you on a whistlestop history of gin. Now we should say that our gin isn’t getting made before Christmas - or even before our Neolithic Shave which we’ll be talking about next time - but we’ll get there eventually, and you - our listeners - as well as investors, past customers and our broader community - will get first dibs.
Tony: It will only be available in the UK (sorry everyone else) and we’re only making 97 bottles available. It’s not really mean to be a ‘forever’ product line, just a ‘thank you’ for some of our most loyal (and quickest to sign up!) fans.
Matt: So to do that simply visit thomas clipper . com / gin and follow the instructions there.
Tony: To get you thirsty, today we’ll be talking about the history of gin.
So let’s start at the beginning. Gin’s a spirit made, in short, by adding complex flavours to vodka. Gin’s most characteristic flavouring is the juniper berry. So if we’re saying that at its most simple, gin is juniper flavoured spirit, then we’ve got to give the prize for inventing gin to the Italians. Bit of a shocker there to any proud Brits listening.
Matt: Since the 11th century Italian monks have been making distilled spirits flavoured with juniper berries. According to The Secret Gin Club it was used as a remedy for the black death and was popular during the Renaissance.
How effective it was as a black death remedy is probably open to debate… but it’s nice to think that it might have been a part of the celebrations after the completion of the Sistine Chapel. Maybe it was responsible for the Rondanini Pietà in Milan or the leaning tower in Pisa. Would explain why both are a bit wonky.
Tony: The leap from medieval gin to the modern proper stuff happened a bit later though in the 17th century. In another blow to British pride, this time the gin innovation, or gin-ovation...
Matt: Very good.
Tony: Thanks. This time, the gin-ovation came from the Dutch.
By 1663 there were 400 distilleries in Amsterdam alone. It was at this stage that gin gained its military reputation. British soldiers bouncing across the continent having wars were keen to have a drop of gin to get them ready for battle. That’s the origin of the usage of ‘Dutch Courage’ to refer to alcohol drunk to calm your nerves before a battle. Thankfully at the time battle consisted of aiming rubbish guns at people. There were no planes to pilot, for example. I imagine for that reason drinking pre-battle is now frowned upon.
Matt: Nevertheless, once soldiers have a taste for something in war, they often bring it back to their home lives. We’ve seen how that works with shaving: double edge blades really hit the mass market when they were issued as standard in the world wars. The same sort of thing happened with gin, and this cultural interchange. Or gin-terchange if you will.
Matt: Thank you. This cultural gin-terchange hit a peak when William of Orange popped to England with his wife on holiday and then took over Britain.
He reduced taxes on gin, increased taxes on beer and bob’s your uncle: distilleries sprouted up all over London.
Tony: Not surprisingly, all this cheap gin got people drunk. Although it took half a century for Britain to admit it had a drinking problem.
Matt: It was time for a gin-tervention.
Tony: Perhaps these puns should stop now.
Tony: A chap called Lord Hervey summed up the dire situation in London at the time, saying that "Drunkenness of the common people was universal, the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from morning till night.".
Matt: Glad that’s a thing of the past…
Tony: After a series of stumbling attempts to increase the price of gin were met with outright riots, the less aggressive gin act of 1751 was passed. It served to make the small gin houses uneconomical and so reduced ready supply. At the same time, taxes were increased, making individual consumption slightly less appealing. This helped to bring down the gin consumption in England from a 1730’s high of two pints per adult per week. Which actually seems like rather a lot, even after an afternoon of gin tasting.
At that time gin was often drunk warm with a slice of gingerbread. That sounds like a fantastic idea in our opinion and if anyone opens up a London bar with hot gin and gingerbread on the menu we’ll be there in a flash.
Matt: The next big change was in the development of new distilling methods in the 19th century which made it easier to make gin and enabled the famous ‘London Dry’ gin style.
Tony: At the same time as all this was taking place, Britain was gradually taking over the world. We all know Brits abroad love drinking, and the Colonial Brit of the Imperial era was, it appears, no different from the Ibiza Brit of today. Gin was a favourite tipple of the British army, and in India the top brass used it as a way of preventing malaria.
Matt: First it cures the plague! Now it cures malaria! Gin really is brilliant...
Tony: Not quite. Quinine helps stave off malaria. But quinine tastes disgusting. So the story goes that the army added gin to their quinine health tonic. That was how they got the soldiers to drink the stuff. Hence the invention of gin and tonic. Modern tonics don’t usually have much quinine in though so we’d recommend taking a tablet or something. Not sure if you’re supposed to mix them with gin...
Matt: I imagine not. The next big development for gin was the growth of gin palaces in London. These were brilliant ostentatious clubs covered in bright colours, glass and crystal. They were the epitome of bling before bling was a thing. In fact you can still visit one or two today. There’s a brilliant pub just near Holborn tube station called the Princess Louise gives a flavour of the sort of decor associated with the gin palaces, even though it’s not technically from that era. Still, worth a visit.
Tony: Then came the popularisation of the cocktail in the early 20th century. Gin’s a brilliant drink for mixing because all of its complex flavours can add texture and depth to a few simple ingredients. That’s probably why so many classic cocktails have a gin base.
Matt: And that brings us squarely up to today and our trip round our new friends’ distillery an hour north of London in Market Harborough, the same place we make our razor handles.
Britain is the world’s biggest gin exporter and year on year sales since 2010 have been rocketing up. That’s in part driven by the revival in craft gin makers like the ones we spoke to today in Harborough.
Tony: We’ll have more on our new gin soon, so do subscribe to our podcast by searching Thomas Clipper on iTunes to get new episodes delivered automatically.
So until next week’s gin-terview...
Matt: I thought we weren’t doing puns anymore? Gin-credible.
Tony: Until next week’s gin-terview I’ve been Tony.
Matt: I’ve been Matt.
Tony: We’ve both been gin tasting.
Matt: And this has been Coming Clean from Thomas Clipper. Thanks for bearing with us.