The Book of Gin

  • Richard Barnett
  • Grove Press
  • 304 pp.
  • January 16, 2013

With a storyteller’s flair, the author traces the history of a controversial spirit that’s enjoying a modern resurgence.

Reviewed by Garrett Peck

For every person who appreciates gin’s juniper and citrus qualities, you can find five people who swore off it after a bad experience drinking it in school. Bartenders do their best to explain that the gin of one’s college days was most likely swill — and that decent gin bears no resemblance to Pine-Sol. Disbelieving, many people simply stick with vodka. What a shame.

Richard Barnett’s The Book of Gin traces the history of the sordid spirit, a centuries old Dutch and English concoction that has long been controversial but is seeing a modern resurgence. “In the early-twenty-first century gin has come full circle: once a drink of the rich, then a drink of the poor, it is again in vogue,” he explains.

Barnett is an excellent storyteller. While he covers well trod ground in some areas, he uncovers much new research, making this the most complete history of gin I’ve ever read. (And I’ve read a few, having written two books on Prohibition.) The author may be English, but he tells the story of how global gin truly is and how tied it is to cities. Gin “is urban, and it possesses — or has been said to possess — all the vices and virtues of urban life.” Gin shops in 18th-century England were like the crack houses of the 1990s: a cheap place for the urban poor to get high.

Perhaps you’ve seen the 1751 William Hogarth engraving Gin Lane. In one of the most enlightening sections of the book, the author tells the fascinating tale of this work as political and social commentary. “In one inexpensive print Hogarth created the defining image of the gin craze — an allegory of social breakdown and suffering which has transcended its original historical setting, and which continues to inspire satirists more than two and a half centuries later,” he concludes.

Barnett shifts the narrative to the United States to provide a good, albeit brief, summary of the American temperance movement and its rise to power. The author plays up (even overplays) the role of gin in American mixology. Gin wasn’t really part of our equation: 19th-century Americans drank beer and whiskey. Gin was a niche product in the United States, largely confined to cities.

Barnett’s summary of Prohibition, which opened the American market to gin, is splendid. “Gin was a gift to the bootleggers,” he observes. Indeed it was. Gin achieved its breakout with Prohibition, when it became a staple of bootleggers for its ease of production and high profitability.

He zigzags seamlessly between American and British shores, explaining gin’s post-World War II decline but 21st-century revival with the renewal of cocktail nostalgia. “Strange as it may seem to say it, now is the best time in the last five centuries to be drinking gin,” he observes.

Ultimately, Barnett is in favor of gin, and you know it from the mouth-watering array of gin-based cocktail recipes that he includes. He discusses the rise of the cocktail, noting that gin is a key ingredient: “The history of respectable gin-drinking is very largely the history of the cocktail.” He delves into fascinating detail about the gin and tonic, one of the most global cocktails ever invented (bitter South American quinine, an anti-malarial tonic, was made more palatable by adding gin).

He asks, “Be honest. Have you ever sat down at a bar and ordered a straight gin?” While people often order tequila and vodka shots, it’s almost unheard of ordering a shot of gin. (There is a worthy exception, in my opinion: Bols Genever is very nice neat. The Dutch often drink it alongside a beer.)

The book’s faults are minor. Barnett explains how the English Parliament passed a series of Gin Acts in the 18th century, most of which failed, as it drove gin production and consumption underground — eerily prescient of Prohibition in the United States two centuries later. The final Gin Act was deemed successful, but the author doesn’t adequately explain why it was a success. Additionally, in a few key areas Barnett relies on Iain Gately’s comprehensive Drink for sources (such as Nathaniel Hawthorne writing about Washington’s drinking scene), rather than going directly to the original material.

The book does have an England-centric quality to it, and the extensive list of artisanal gin distillers in the appendix are entirely English. You won’t find listed any of the myriad American gin craft distillers, such as Philadelphia Distilling’s Bluecoat American Dry Gin or New Columbia Distillers’ Green Hat Gin. Still, the list of English distillers includes some pretty delicious gins — and happily many of them are at your local liquor store.

Give gin a try.

Garrett Peck is the author of four books, including The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet and Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren’t. He also leads the Temperance Tour of Prohibition-related sites in the nation’s capital.

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