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Gin Glorious Gin: How Mother's Ruin Became the Spirit of London

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Gin Glorious Gin is a vibrant cultural history of London seen through the prism of its most iconic drink. Leading the reader through the underbelly of the Georgian city via the Gin Craze, detouring through the Empire (with a G&T in hand), to the emergence of cocktail bars in the West End, the story is brought right up to date with the resurgence of class in a glass - the Ginnaissance. As gin has crossed paths with Londoners of all classes and professions over the past three hundred years it has become shorthand for metropolitan glamour and alcoholic squalor in equal measure. In and out of both legality and popularity, gin is a drink that has seen it all. Gin Glorious Gin is quirky, informative, full of famous faces - from Dickens to Churchill, Hogarth to Dr Johnson - and introduces many previously unknown Londoners, hidden from history, who have shaped the city and its signature drink.

336 pages, Hardcover

First published August 28, 2014

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Olivia Williams

89 books7 followers

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5 stars
71 (23%)
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121 (39%)
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91 (29%)
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20 (6%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 44 reviews
Profile Image for Paul.
2,143 reviews
February 21, 2015
There is nothing more English than a G&T on a fine summers day. Only two flaws in that statement; the chances of having a fine summers day are not high, and gin is Dutch.

Bought over with William of Orange in 1688 as genever, the English have taken this potent spirit and made it their own. But on it's way to becoming a quintessential English spirit, it has wreaked havoc in London, where you could be drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence and clean straw for nothing. For several decade the majority of the poor in London was completely plastered, and only proper legislation meant that the drink problem was tackled and bought under control.

All through the book, Williams brings you stories, tales and anecdotes of the rise and fall and rise again of this aromatic drink. From the histories of the stills and distillers, and the methods that gave us London Dry gin, to the rise once again as a base for the drinks in the modern cocktail industry, it is a fascinating account of this simple drink.

Worth a read for anyone who has a penchant for gin, now pass me the tonic.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,675 reviews2,667 followers
December 19, 2014
Mix yourself a G&T and settle in for a pleasant tour through London’s modern “Ginnaissance.” More so than other liquors, gin has a very English history, and with its six distilleries, London is an especially important site. “Gin is very much a drinker’s drink,” Williams remarks, “complex not only in cultural associations but [also] in its flavors.” It has certainly come a long way in just over three centuries, from a symbol of poverty and vice to one of nouveau riche sophistication.

The story begins with William of Orange, the Dutch heir to the English crown, who liberalized gin distilling in 1688. Like the Dutch spirit genever, gin is flavored with juniper berries and other botanicals. In the early days it was served neat at room temperature, and was cheap enough that it became tipple of choice for the poor. “Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two pence,” was the slogan of many a gin shop. Indeed, throughout the 1700s, “gin was portrayed as the ultimate corruptor of the poor,” Williams reports. It also came to be associated with lascivious women.

“By 1750, Londoners were consuming over eleven million gallons of gin a year,” Williams marvels. That staggering figure explains the urgency behind campaigns that arose to curb gin production. The government increased taxes and license fees, while the SPCK railed against drunkenness and proposed bans on gin. Drawings by William Hogarth (“Gin Lane,” which introduced the phrase “Mother’s Ruin”) and George Cruickshank, Dickens’s frequent illustrator, served as propaganda. All of a sudden the issue was politicized.

Dr. Johnson came down on the side of the drinkers, though there is perhaps a touch of condescension to his rhetorical question: “Why should [the poor] be denied such sweeteners of their existence?” Gin makes frequent appearances in Dickens’s oeuvre, too, where it certainly has its share of bad connotations. “Gin was still commonly used as a shorthand for poverty,” Williams notes, even though the enthusiasm of figures like Byron and Charles Lamb gave it a touch of bohemian class. It was also, alarmingly, “the alcohol of choice for DIY abortions.”

The spirit also had its American incarnations, namely “bathtub gin” and martinis, though there’s a whole plethora of gin-based cocktails out there (recipes for many of which head Williams’s chapters). World War II saw the bombing of many distilleries, as well as a grain shortage, which pushed gin distribution into the black market. Yet alcohol was still available at London’s Savoy and Dorchester Hotels throughout the War, of course.

In the 1950s gin was seen as an old person’s drink, fusty and tweedy; gin cocktails were a favorite with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Then came James Bond, and gin (especially the ‘pink’ variety) was suddenly cool again. It still has its royal connections, though: a specially concocted gin cocktail has featured at every major royal wedding, including Charles and Diana’s and William and Kate’s. Despite a big surge in popularity for vodka and rum in the 1960s-70s, “these days gin has strong intergenerational appeal,” Williams insists.

In appendices Williams gives tasting notes for different gins and explains types of stills. It is fascinating to see the array of flavors that go into gin; who would guess that coriander seed is the second most important botanical after juniper?! Williams also lists gin hot spots in London and environs (I never knew Bombay Sapphire had a mill on the River Test, near my husband’s hometown). This is certainly a UK-centric book (it’s not currently available in America); after all, Williams’s central argument is that gin “is 300 years of London life – distilled.”

However, I gleaned a few interesting facts about the gin scene in America, too. For instance, gin brands are 2-5% stronger in America to combat the country’s sweeter tonics. Schweppes has corn syrup as a key ingredient, you see, whereas posh English brands of tonic, like Fever Tree (once the tonic of choice at elBulli; now sold in Waitrose), are much less sweet.

Unless you have a keen interest in liquor distillation, this is a book to dip in and out of, finding whatever tidbits pique your interest. The G&T has increasingly become one of my favorite drinks over the last five years, so I was intrigued to learn a bit more about it and pick up some information about its political and literary associations over three centuries of English history.

(Included in a BookTrib article on recent books about drinking.)

Related reads: Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt by Mark Will-Weber and Moonshine by Jaime Joyce.
Profile Image for James.
607 reviews113 followers
October 22, 2015
Gin has become trendy again. A ginnaissance if you will (and Olivia Williams will) although the number of things now being ended with -aissance is starting to get annoying. I'm a member of The London Gin Club myself (although I don't go there that often, but the tasting menu is amazing). There they follow all the rules of the form – big balloon shaped glasses, a wide selection of gins and garnishes as well as top of the range Fevertree tonic.

But, back to the book, it's an excellent, and very enjoyable, jaunt through 300 years of gin history. Ginstory maybe. The tone is always friendly and conversational so that it feels more like Olivia is telling you her story over gins in a little nook seat somewhere in a cosy gin bar in London. In fact, you probably shouldn't even attempt to read this book without a gin drink in your hand – Olivia will just out-drink you if you don't.

From the original 'Dutch courage' drink of genever, which gave us the British gin of mother's ruin and the use of gin to keep naughty children subdued, through the gin palaces, the art, and on to the explanations of the various distilleries – their sometimes brief histories and variations – through to the diverse modern gins: the Sipsmith and Hendricks and the like who have helped drive the, so called, ginnaissance. There really seems to be nothing left out here, Williams really has covered all the possible points of interest. Right down to the story of the trouble that Sipsmith had applying for their license to distil when Customs and Excise failed to respond for six months it turned out it was because they weren't really sure what to grant – nobody had applied for such a license since 1823!

At the back of the book is a section of appendices. Not your usual appendices that explain the footnotes from the book, these are quick gin cheat-sheets – a description of gin types (make sure you know your genever from your Old Tom from your London Dry); botanicals and garnishes; distillation techniques; and most importantly of all descriptions of all the top gins, mixers and places to go to get somebody else to make them for you. Heartily recommended for even the casual gin drinker or just the gin-curious. The gin fan should obviously already have a copy if they want to be taken seriously...
Profile Image for Rebecca.
193 reviews8 followers
July 9, 2023
The first section could have been an essay, there was so much repetition, it did not need to ramble on. The whole book focuses on brands’ history &, after the dragging start, high society. I would have liked to know more about the drink, botanicals etc (the last How to Explore Gin Further section sits oddly with the rest of the book) and the real human stories. Also fails to mention the Gordon’s controversy.
Profile Image for Gordon Mcghie.
598 reviews90 followers
September 5, 2014

I found Gin Glorious Gin to be informative, educational, entertaining and often disturbing, Also, the cover should carry a warning about reading the book in public.

The writing is informed and the style conversational at times so, despite the volume of anecdotes and information that is conveyed, you keep coming back for more.

What I did find as I read through Gin Glorious Gin was that I made new friends (cover warning time). The book is eye-catching and the subject matter seems dear to the hearts of many. Random strangers would spark up conversations with me on my train journeys as I read – they would share their stories of gin (mothers ruin always gets a mention) and I would smile and nod and resist telling them that I read the very story they were sharing in the book that I was holding. It seems to have an appeal that draws strangers together.

full review at http://grabthisbook.net/?p=224
Profile Image for R.J. Lynch.
Author 8 books21 followers
November 17, 2014
I won this book in a Goodreads Giveaway which I had entered because I enjoy books that combine factual research with social history--and Gin, Glorious Gin did not disappoint. The author has researched her subject thoroughly but the research is nicely embedded in the text and not glaringly in-your-face. What I enjoyed most of all was the way she put the history and development of gin making and gin drinking through three centuries firmly in the context of British society at the time. I had some slight cavils--I wasn't sure about the unjustified text and there were a few sentences that I felt could have been edited to read more felicitously, but overall a very good read.
1,325 reviews19 followers
September 27, 2014
Gin is a peculiarly English drink, developed in the seventeenth century from a Dutch spirit. Due to tax breaks gin became a very cheap spirit which was consumed in vast quantities before falling out of fashion and currently undergoing a revival. This simple premise has been woven into a truly fascinating exploration of the social history of drinking in London.

The detail and research is great but there are wonderful twists in this book - ideas for cocktails, information about the newer artisan brands and the references to great literature - which make it a good read as well.
11 reviews
March 17, 2016
I couldn't quite give this 3 stars. It's an interesting history of gin and its social influence, but read as a disjointed collection of facts that seemed a bit repetitive in parts. Enjoyable, quick read, but might have benefited from a bit more editing.
Profile Image for James.
54 reviews4 followers
December 15, 2022
"Negroni - Sbagliato - with Prosecco in it" is a massive meme at the moment. Look it up. Emma D'Arcy's cool voice will probably drive gin sales through the roof this year. Gin, like everything else in the world, is a fashion victim.

And so to this book. A jaunty preppy read chronicling the history of gin from its introduction to England from The Netherlands until the present day. This is an easy read.

 The author is an Oxford University history grad and you can tell by the strict focus. She gets a few facts wrong apparently according to the review in the Spectator magazine but let's not be pedantic. 

The appendices are very thorough. 

All the various methods used to distill gin and  the botanicals involved are described. A very detailed  list of the best (and most expensive I imagine) bars to drink gin in London tops it off. 

Everything you could possibly want to know about gin is here. The author doesn't go off on tangents as others do which is a pity as I quite like that style. 

Mild criticisms include the etymology of the cocktail and why James Bond likes his martinis shaken not stirred. 

Social commentary is lacking. Nothing on the nature of alcoholism(Gin is a favourite of alcoholics) or even drunkenness which is odd as she praises the abortion act. 

All in all a decent read. 3.5 stars
Profile Image for Katelyn Martin.
63 reviews4 followers
June 13, 2023
Now I know why my grandparents were so surprised when I told them that gin was my choice of drink! It has an interesting history, and the guied at the end is very helpfully informative for those wanting to know their way around the many tastes of gin.
Profile Image for Jaffareadstoo.
2,642 reviews
September 6, 2014
This is not just a book for those who like a twist of lime and a couple of ice cubes with their gin and mixer. It’s a riotous romp through the culture and history of London as seen through the eyeglass of this most iconic of drinks. From the squalid image of the bawds and hookers of Hogarth’s Gin Lane, through to the sophisticated pleasure palaces of our modern day, Gin Glorious Gin covers a whole range of senses and uncovers the complex history of a drink which knows no common dominator.

Immortalised in the work of Dickens, Fielding and Dr Johnson, this story begins its journey with the history of gin and its development from the steeping of juniper berries in alcohol, to the origin of the phrase ’Dutch Courage’ during the Thirty Year War in 1618-1648. Initially, a tipple of the poor, the great unwashed of London would seek an hour’s oblivion in a pint of mother’s ruin, whilst the upper classes preferred a more elite form of inebriation in their glasses of sherry, brandy and claret.

Not only was Gin viewed as a means of escape, but was also extensively promoted as a medicinal. In 1642, the London herbalist, Nicholas Culpeper, considered juniper berries to be a wonder drug and a cure all for all ills. The area around Clerkenwell Green where he collected his herbs would go on to become the hub of London’s gin making.

The book brings the evolution of Gin right up to date with a journey through to the modern day distilleries, and discusses the sophisticated distillery processes which have evolved, from the mass production of our more iconic brands, to the smaller and more stylish, smaller companies who blend for a sophisticated palate.

It’s a great read, thoroughly enjoyable, informative and witty, with just the right amount of history, so that it doesn’t become too bogged down in facts and figures.

It would make the perfect accompaniment to a long cold glass of gin and tonic – ice and a slice of lime in mine.

My thanks to Netgalley and Headline for my copy of this book.
Profile Image for Damaskcat.
1,782 reviews4 followers
September 22, 2014
This is a totally fascinating story of how gin has waxed and waned in popularity over the centuries. From its origins in the Dutch drink 'genevra ' to modern 'limited edition' varieties. I don't actually like gin myself but having read this book I wonder whether that is because I haven't yet found the right flavour.

I did disagree with one statement in the book - that there is no scientific proof that gin makes drinkers depressed. The only time I have drunk gin I felt very depressed afterwards in a way that no other form of alcohol had ever made me feel. I'm willing to try it again to see if it still has that effect or whether it was a particular combination of circumstances which led to the depression. I wasn't too keen on the taste either but I have learned from this book that there are many different flavours and combinations of flavours available.

The book covers the early days of gin in England and how it became the drink of choice for many poor people. There were many - largely unsuccessful - attempts by parliament to prevent the excessive drunkenness which plagued not just London but other cities. Gin was cheap and could be produced by anyone with the equipment to do so because restrictions on who could produce it were largely ignored.

From its heyday in the eighteenth century when Hogarth drew Gin Lane to gin's current popularity as the basis for all sorts of cocktails this is a roller coaster of a story taking in a great deal of social history which is fascinating to read. There are brief histories of all the wel known distillers as well together with details of gin varieties currently available and distilleries which welcome visitors.

If you enjoy reading social history - even if you don't like gin itself - this is an interesting read. It is well written in a lively and entertaining style and it is well researched too. I received a free copy of the book from NetGalley for review purposes.
Profile Image for Victoria Harris.
97 reviews49 followers
December 3, 2014
I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway for honest review.

I thought I was a gin lover, but after reading this book I realised that I knew absolutely nothing about gin. Well, this was a fascinating way to go about correcting that. It is a wonderful history that took me right through the different classes of England and the different circumstances they found themselves in, all linked to gin. As well as being a great history of gin, it showed me the mind sets of people. It showed the coping and suffering of the lower classes, but also the fads and fashions of the (mainly) upper ones.

I loved the way it contained many references to key individuals and works of literature, as well as famous artwork. It painted a really broad picture and made the reading experience all the more enjoyable. This book was funny and fast and I flew through it.

I have talked more about this book and done a full video review on it - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fweX...
Profile Image for Margaret.
Author 20 books84 followers
May 24, 2017
A charming, interesting, and entertaining book about London's fascination with the spirit gin.

I learned a lot about gin from this book. Especially how gin is tied up with the social history of London.

Worth reading.
Profile Image for Louise.
43 reviews3 followers
July 23, 2015
Enjoyed the early part of how gin came about, and the 20s/World War Two/modern day history. In between was a bit slow - basically everyone was drunk on gin...
Profile Image for gemorms.
31 reviews
May 21, 2015
A great read for any gin drinker. I am now desperate to work my way through a plethora of gins! Loved it.
Profile Image for Siobhan Johnson.
558 reviews2 followers
August 17, 2017
This was a bad book.

Badly written, badly researched and badly presented. There wasn't a single footnote in the entire thing, sources are important if you're writing history!, and the bibliography at the end was a page and a half long. A page and a half long! I've written 3000 word essays with bibliographies longer than that. My dissertation, 10000 words and 70 odd pages, had a bibliography 4 times as long and still got (rightfully) criticised for not showing more research!

Granted, this book wasn't aimed at me. I'm an occasional drinker at most, while the author obviously loves gin with a passion that can best be called admirable. But I picked up this book because it promised history, and was annoyed when instead it only contained a lot of gushing about a drink with some anecdotes vaguely thrown in. If you want to write a book about how much you enjoy drinking, then by all means go ahead and have fun with it! But don't present it as a deep and historical look at London, that only leaves everybody feeling a bit disappointed.

(Also, jesus christ stop telling negative stories about sex workers with zero analysis. One can be excused, by the sixth I was starting to suspect a vendetta.)
Profile Image for Tony.
214 reviews
January 19, 2021
I started this a long time ago and it's taken me a while to finish. I found some of the early history of gin a bit tedious, but then I realized I wasn't bored, but shocked to discover just how much the history of alcohol and drinking is all about wealth and class. The 18th and 19th century panics about drunkenness among the city poor... report after report, commission after commission... NEVER said "The poor drink like this because they are poor, wretched and miserable. Let's do something to end poverty." No, it's always, Let's make gin more expensive so that the poor can't afford it. (They always found ways of getting gin anyway, though not enough of those ways included curing the plague of the wealthy.)

It got much more interesting for me when we came on to the ups and downs of gin's history during the 19th and 20th centuries, and then the great revival of the last few decades which have made gin the trendy drink it is today. And I would never have known this, if my 23-year old colleague hadn't introduced me to gin back in 2014.

If you want to learn more about gin, this is a great place to visit.
Profile Image for Minna.
8 reviews
November 3, 2021
Found this book on the side of the road for free. I thought it was well written, and I really liked how the author explored the history of Gin drinking in London: the cultural context, the way that policies encouraged or discouraged consumption, as well as the changing attitudes towards the spirit. She details extensive and unregulated use of gin amongst the industrial lower class and describes the effect of this on public health, attitude, and industry.

The book also talks about the different ways gin is/was made, and how ingredients have changed over the years.

At the end of the book she provides an extensive list of bars in and around London that serve gin, which was frustrating to read as I felt like I was reading a travel guide for a place I have no interest in going.
Profile Image for Louise Milton.
3 reviews
October 22, 2016
I am not usually a fan of non fiction, but have this a go after receiving it as a gift - and so glad I did! The way it was written was very engaging, I found myself absorbed in it to a similar degree as a good novel, whilst actually discovering a lot about the history of gin at the same time. The little reference guide at the back also makes a handy "cheat sheet" when discussing with true gin experts.
Profile Image for Kate Parr.
284 reviews4 followers
January 13, 2018
A fun and informative Trek through gin's history, all from the point of view of London's developing place in the world. The timeline bounces around a bit and sometimes gets lost in minute descriptions of old gin palaces, or gin-fuelled crimes, but but was easy going, and had a handy primer on gin's, botanicals and the best bars to drink them in.
Profile Image for Sakina (Y.L.) Angel.
107 reviews15 followers
December 30, 2018
I tried to read this the previous year, but had difficulty getting into it, so I put it aside and gave it another go this year. Glad I made it through, as it was a good informative journey through the history of a lovely drink. Thanks William, for bringing it to London all those centuries ago!
4 reviews
November 18, 2022
Great read.

The history of gin through the ages told beautifully. Every page is packed full of detail and anecdotes. The characters are brought to life.

Makes you realise that very little is new in the world of gin and the wheel keeps on turning.
Profile Image for Stoic_quin.
238 reviews2 followers
June 4, 2017
Interesting enough but a bit high level I'd have liked more analysis
Profile Image for Emma Rosen.
Author 6 books21 followers
November 13, 2020
A well written and researched book, just not one that overly interested me. I did discover though that I do actually like gin - I had no idea that Pimm's and martini were gin based!
Profile Image for Tina Ambury.
401 reviews1 follower
May 31, 2021
Fascinating. Bit out of date as is from 2014 so doesn't cover the explosion of recent makers.
490 reviews17 followers
June 17, 2021
Liked this much better than I thought.
Well researched with interesting history
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