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Nina Caplan on gin: beyond the dark old heart of mother’s ruin

Reams have been written about the British empire, but one culprit in the colonisation project has yet to receive its fair share of blame.

Mother's ruin.
Fact: in 18th-century London, one in every four people drank a pint of gin a day. Image: Look and Learn/Peter Jackson Collection/Bridgeman Art Library.

In a charming turquoise hotel in south Malaysia, I spotted a familiar-shaped bottle with an unfamiliar label. The Majestic in Malacca was built as a Chinese tycoon’s mansion in the 1920s; the place probably didn’t have a cosy boozing nook with mahogany bar just inside the front door in his time, but that’s progress.

He might, however, have had a bottle of Tanqueray, in the unlikely event that he was a gin enthusiast, as it’s been around since the 1830s. This particular Tanqueray, with its khaki label and white lettering, is a recent creation, a softly cinnamon homage to the firm’s founder, Charles, who turned his back on the family business – the church – to distil gin. It is named for the city of Malacca, which was once the hub of a commercial activity as lucrative as slavery and a lot more glamorous: the spice trade.

At that gleaming bar, I sipped a pink gin, or Gin Pahit (gin and bitters – pahit meaning “bitter” in Malay), and considered the colonies. Reams have been written about the British empire but one great culprit in the colonisation project rarely receives its fair share of blame: gin. Without quinine, malaria would have felled the conquerors; without gin to alleviate the bitterness of this highly effective anti-malarial, the soldiers would have refused to down their medicine.

The Spanish went to the Andes and found the cinchona tree, the bark of which turned out to contain an acrid but exceptionally useful substance. The British planted the tree in their Indian colony and attempted to sweeten that bitter bark with sugar, water and lemon: the resulting “tonic” turned out to be much more palatable when dosed with gin. Halfway down my second Pahit, I still can’t work out which is more peculiar: that those long-ago soldiers needed booze to persuade them to protect themselves from an often fatal disease? Or that a spirit so lethally popular that a quarter of mid-18th-century Londoners averaged a pint of the stuff a day was enlisted to save the lives of those same poor people – the ones who became foot soldiers in the Imperial British Army? The ability to withstand malaria helped Britain to conquer half of Africa and keep India subjugated (more or less). So much misery, engendered by one of the world’s most inspired taste combinations.

Of course, gin – invented by the 16th-century Dutch to “cure” kidney disorders – is merely vodka colonised by juniper and other botanicals and spices. Old Raj gin contains saffron, that precious crocus-stamen, naturally grown in India; and if you pour me a generous measure and top it up with an anti-malarial, I’ll refrain from complaining that the Raj – India’s name for the British crown – is old, and that my evening tipple is not improved by tautology. Instead, I’ll raise my glass to that Old Rager, the Queen Mother, who was known to be un-averse to gin and survived on the stuff to the age of 101.

As my contemplations appear to have brought me home from the colonies just in time for a preprandial, I will briefly turn my attentions to a rather more local spirit: Warner Edwards gin, made in Northamptonshire by two chums who met in agricultural college, the finest martini gin it has been my pleasure to upend in a very long time. The water is local; the main botanicals are not. Juniper, coriander and cardamom could all tell a richly scented tale of adventure and encroachment, precious powders bartered or stolen, and enormous fortunes, like golden milestones, marking treacherous roads to Elsewhere.

The stories probably make better reading than they did living, particularly for the indigenous peoples encroached upon. Colonies, thank goodness, are mostly out of fashion; gin, thank a higher power still, is not.

On 13 May, Nina Caplan was named Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the year for her New Statesman columns