Monday, February 21, 2011
Gin: England's Drug
Beer and wine have existed and been popular for centuries but it wasn't until the middle ages that hard liquor came to being. Thank you Italy. Aqua vitae is what they called it, and it was something like our modern brandy (burnt wine) and used for medicine rather than having a good time. To make brandy you needed grapes, a fruit not exactly bountiful in the climates of northern Europe. By the 15th century the renaissance mind figured out how to create grain alcohol and drinks, such as whiskey, soon followed (The Scots took up that trade, even exhausting their wheat fields in their excitement). In the mid-17th century the Dutch invented gin and less than one hundred years later it was nearly outlawed. Perhaps the Dutch Prince (cough, cough William!) running England could be partially to blame for the introduction of the Dutch-made liquor which caused such problems in London; after all, their arrival coincided.
Gin was an alternative to Brandy which had unpopular French connotations, so naturally that helped elevate gin's popularity. As a country fond of their beer, the working class ordered their gin in the same quantities as their beer, unaware of the fatal results. People (poor people, usually) would consume such large quantities they would literally drink themselves to death, sometimes in one sitting. Soon people made the connection of the sudden increase in public fighting with the popularity of gin. What especially seemed to horrify witnesses to the Gin Craze was its effect on women. Many of the bloody brawls were cat fights, The Grub-Street Journal reporting of a woman "beating off" another's nose. There was also a story of a woman tearing off her infants clothes to pawn them for a drink. Although gin mostly terrorized the poor, the rich were also subject to its charms. Queen Anne was known for her love of the drink.
If you are morally outraged by hearing that, you now know how others felt when these many reports reached their ears. England had a drug problem. In 1736 the Gin Act was created and the cheaply-produced liquor was now heavily taxed. You also needed a license to distribute gin which was quite expensive and had to be renewed annually. Only two people actully took the license out. The gin craze would and could not be stopped. The government then set about rewarding informers who tattled on unlicensed gin distributors. That caused even more violence.
The gin laws were revised with the Gin Act of 1751. Instead of being a strict reaction to the trouble caused by gin, the new laws made it so that one didn't have to go through hoops to drink gin, but you still had to be better behaved. Following the second Gin Act, the consumption of the liquid nuisance went down. However the bad grain crops that ironically occurred at the same time and consequential rise in prices are more to blame for that than the revised law.