Gin and the Upper Class in the 18th Century

We’re absolutely delighted to bring you this guest post by author Paul Himmelein all the way from New York City.  Paul is a fount of knowledge when it comes to the 18th Century and he very kindly agreed to shed some light for us on the infamous gin craze of that period. We hope you enjoy his post as much as we did. Please let us know what you think by leaving a comment below.


You Get What You Pay For: Gin and the Upper Class in the Eighteenth Century

by Lord Peregrine

How was it that an aristocratic, quasi-medicinal liquor from Holland nicknamed “Dutch courage”—for adding a little bravado to troops heading into battle during the Thirty Years’ War—came to be referred to as “kill me quick” in the slums of 18th century London?

This is a tale of two Dutch imports and how they shaped British drinking history. The first was Prince William of Orange, the second, a spirit called genever, a juniper-flavoured distillation that would become known as gin. When Prince William was invited to invade England to boot out the old Catholic king, James II, in what is called the Glorious Revolution of 1688, he brought with him genever, Holland’s national drink and his beverage of choice. In Britain, genever’s availability was limited and pricey. This put it in the same sophisticated league as other imports of the time such as French wines and brandies, meaning it was a spirit enjoyed exclusively by the elite.

Guillaume III d’Orange by Jan Davidsz de Heems

Soon after the new Dutch king was crowned coregent with his English wife Mary, he set about relaxing the rules and regulations that governed the manufacture of his favourite spirituous liquor. In a relatively short time, the distillers’ guild was dismantled, tariffs and taxes reduced, and licensing lifted. Basically, anyone—not just large-scale operations, but any household or shop—was allowed by law to distill their own genever. Unwittingly, King William had just paved the way for the devastating gin craze of the 18th century. France might’ve had their Sun King, but Britain had their Gin King.

The dance of death: the dram shop.Coloured aquatint by T. Rowlandson, 1816.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. 

Aristocratic landowners benefited greatly from this easing of restrictions as it gave them new opportunities to sell off their surplus grain to all the new gin distillers that began to blossom in and around London. Unlike beer and ale, which could only be sold in licensed establishments, the sale of gin was not regulated. Before long there were thousands of gin shops serving the public 24/7. With low grain prices and a tax hike on beer, gin was the cheapest drink in town and attracted the basest clientele. What started out as a highbrow drink soon became synonymous with thievery and prostitution, violence and mortality, and above all poverty; an elixir for the lowest class, fit only for the pauper’s palate. With additives of turpentine (a cheap substitute for juniper berries) and sulphuric acid (for sweetening), it became the crack cocaine of the 18th century.

Gin Lane by William Hogarth

Central London was socially and economically mixed. The rich, the middle class and the poor lived shoulder to shoulder in claustrophobic quarters. As the gin craze continued, crime and violence increased. It’s not surprising the upper class began to move out to new airy neighborhoods on the outskirts of the City such as Kensington and Chelsea. The wealthy avoided the drink of the prostitute and the destitute and were aghast at the social decay left in gin’s wake. When the one percent did indulge in gin, they chose the expensive import that came from Holland, leaving the lowest class to get “drunk for a penny or dead drunk for two pence” as William Hogarth’s 1751 print Gin Lane suggests. The privileged class left gin in the gutter where it was made. Indeed, gin would not become popular with the upper class until the rise of the cocktail.

In Parliament, Lord Lonsdale declared that the poor looked upon gin drinking as an insult to the rich. There was a twinge of anarchy in these words and it made the ruling class fear gin all the more. Still, many of the landed gentry were reluctant to curtail the gin binge since they were profiting handsomely from their grain sales.

Only after the passing of eight acts from 1729 through 1751 and a series of poor harvests was the gin craze finally wrested under manageable control. However, it would take much more time to reconcile gin with the upper class. They would have to wait until the mid-19th century when London dry gin, as we know it today, was developed and mixed with another import—quinine from the cinchona tree of South America. This ushered in the age of the gin and tonic and changed the game completely.

Paul Himmelein is co-author of Bohemian Manifesto: A Field Guide to Living on the Edge. He has published fiction and non-fiction and is currently completing his first novel. Set in the late-18th century, it uses only vocabulary presented 
in Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) and Francis Grose’s Dictionary of slang, The Vulgar Tongue (1785). He lives in Greenwich Village, New York and is Editorial Director of Faerie Magazine.

Follow him on Twitter @Lord_Peregrine

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  1. Lynn says:

    April 3rd, 2015 at 6:19 pm

    I enjoyed Paul’s article on GIN. Great historical background. Will remember this as I have my next Beefeaters & tonic!

  2. Cabinet Rooms says:

    April 3rd, 2015 at 6:39 pm

    Glad you enjoyed the read, Lynn. Chin chin!

  3. Laura says:

    April 5th, 2015 at 1:32 am

    Love! I coincidentally sat down to read this with my current cocktail of choice: a gin and tonic. Glad this libation’s tarnished reputation is in the past. And equally glad I didn’t have to fear my drink was made with turpentine. Thank you for the fun history lesson!

  4. Cabinet Rooms says:

    April 5th, 2015 at 8:32 am

    Yes, Laura, times have definitely changed! And while we’re experiencing a renewed gin craze in Britain, it’s an altogether more classy affair for everyone concerned! Enjoy your G&Ts!

  5. History Carnival 148 | William Savage: Pen and Pension says:

    August 1st, 2015 at 8:04 am

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