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.
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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.

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

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

Photo: Tashphotography / Stockimo / Alamy
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The Negroni fools no one – it’s easy to make and contains nothing but booze

It is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

The cocktail is designed to lie about its origins; no wonder it reached its apogee during Prohibition, which forced everyone with an unrepentant thirst to lie about their cravings. Even today, when only extreme youth, religious belief or personal inclination prevents a person from draining the bar dry, the cocktail continues its career of dishonesty. It hides ingredients or methods. It provides a front for poor-quality booze. And it often dissolves, within its inscrutable depths, mountains of sugar, enabling drinkers to pose as sophisticates while downing something that tastes like a soft drink – to get drunk without leaving the playpen.

This is why I love the Negroni, which fools no one. It is easy to make and contains nothing but pure booze. Despite being a third sweet vermouth, it isn’t saccharine: the other two thirds, equal measures of gin and Campari, may have something to do with this. And it is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

They say it was invented in Florence at the request of a Count Negroni, who wanted a drink unsullied by club soda – a drink stiff enough to get a man back on a bucking horse, perhaps, since this Count may have been a rodeo rider. I prefer to believe that the Count, if Count he was, came in, tossed down enough strong liquor to start telling stories about his American adventures, and, when he finally staggered out into the night, the exasperated bartender poured three straight shots into a single glass and baptised this wondrous reviver in grateful homage to the fabulist who had inspired it.

In a former glue factory a very long way from Florence or America, the East London Liquor Company now makes very good gin – Batches One and Two, the former tannic with Darjeeling as well as cassia bark, pink grapefruit peel, and coriander seeds; the latter redolent of savoury, bay, thyme and lavender. Transforming these plants into excellent alcohol seems an improvement on boiling down horses for adhesive, and the company also makes superb Negronis from Batch Two.

We sit outside, in a carpark made marginally more glamorous by border boxes of Batch Two botanicals, and marvel at the transformation of this grimy part of East London, next door to a park intended to give Victorian working men brief respite from lives all too lacking in myth or fantasy. It is a reincarnation at least as miraculous as the transformation of three strong and entirely unalike spirits into the delectable harmony of the Negroni. The sun shines; a fountain plashes. Nuts and charcuterie arrive. All is right with the world.

I leave my herbaceous bower and dangerously pleasing drink for a peek at the large copper distillery behind the bar, walking in past the fountain, a whimsical stone construction that pours vermilion liquid into two, tiered basins topped by a chubby putto clutching a rather reluctant fish.

And then I stop. And double back. Vermilion liquid? It is, indeed, a Negroni fountain. There are even slices of orange floating in the basin. I dip a finger: the taste is slightly metallic but still undeniably that potent mixture of booze, botanicals, bitterness, and just a hint of sweetness. A streak of citrus from the orange slices. It turns out that the world’s most straightforward cocktail lends itself to a decadent neo-Renaissance fantasy. There’s a message here, one forthright as a temperance tract: without imagination, we would have no lies – but no Negronis, either.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder