FROM THE BLACK DEATH AND PLAGUE IN EUROPE TO MALARIA IN THE ENGLISH COLONIES – THE ROLE OF THE GIN AS A HEALTH BRINGING ELIXIR IS NOT LOSING GROUND. IF I MENTION GIN TODAY, YOUR THOUGHT MAY GO TO AN ICE-COLD GIN & TONIC ON A SUNNY EASTER DAY IN THE MOUNTAIN, AN APPETIZE-STIMULATING NEGRONI BEFORE DINNER OR A REFRESHING AND DELICIOUS SOUTHSIDE AT AN OUTDOOR RESTAURANT. BUT DID YOU KNOW THAT GIN & JUNIPER AND PHARMACY SHARE A JOINT HISTORY?
According to legend a ship arrived at Bjørgvin in 1349, an English ship bringing the plague known as the Black Death to Norway. After only a couple of years half the population was wiped out. Of the countries’ 300 farms, 231 were left desolate. The plague had also ravaged the continent and at that time medical science had no way to cure even one case. The only thing the so-called medically trained minds of the time were convinced of was that the plague was airborne and that the only way they could protect themselves was to breathe thru a bag filled with healthful Juniper. The bag was placed inside a mask shaped like a bird´s beak. You could see the “plague-doctors” wearing their odd masks all over the continent.
Even though breathing thru Juniper didn´t seem to help much, its status as healthful was cemented all over the European continent. In Netherland, it was very popular to distill malt wine spiced with Juniper to use as medicine for arthritis, kidney failure or just about anything. This mix was named Genever after Juniper. This drink is the ancestor of the drink we call Gin. English soldiers in the city of Antwerp in Belgium, waring with Spain during the 80 Years´ War (1568 – 1648), noticed that Dutch soldiers drink Genever before battles. And because of the Dutch soldiers´ legendary courage the Brits renamed the drink Dutch Courage. Ironically, shortly after the 80 Years´ War, England, Scotland and Ireland were invaded by the Dutch regent William of Orange, and one of the first things he did after gaining power was to legalize distilling.
The Gin Craze
The next 100 years the Brits were drunk. While the upper classes still sipped their sherry, the people of London´s poor neighborhoods drank gin in such amounts the beverage got nicknames like Mothers´ Ruin or Madam Geneva. An annual average of 10 liters of gin per person flushed down with lots of beer forced the English government, between 1690 and 1750, to heap huge taxes on distilling to curb the abusive drinking. In 1736 distillers had to pay 50 British pounds, approximately 70 000 NOK in today´s value, for a license to distill. The purpose was simply to make it financially irresponsible to trade in booze. Only two distillers bought licenses and the consumption of gin slowed down by 1751. Over the next 100 years, gin’s reputation gradually improved.
Gin Palaces and Malaria
During Queen Victoria´s reign in the 19th century gin palaces popped up all over the British Isles. They were a cross between pharmacies and lavish Victorian pubs where the Brits could drink the healthful gin (sigh) in socially correct circumstances. These establishments were not as easy to frequent for the Empire´s military troops battling and/or protecting British interests in the colonies. Instead they got daily rations of 7 centiliters of gin or rum, depending on what colonies they were deployed at. In India, the troops also got daily rations of the very bitter drug quinine to protect against mosquito bites that could cause malaria. Quinine was mixed with sugar and soda to make it a little more palatable. And the rest is, as they say, history. Gin & Tonic was born. Indian tonic still contains small amounts of quinine, but far less than the original. Overdoses of quinine can have negative effects on women´s uterus and cause horrid side effects. But fortunately, nobody needs to worry about commercial tonic or the new wave of craft-tonic like the test-winning Indi & Co.