PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
In The Dedalus Book of Gin, Richard Barnett artfully charts the aromatic distillate's unlikely path from medicine to public menace, blending references as varied as the Archidoxa of Paracelsus and the American television series Mad Men to create a nuanced portrait of the drink and its impact on humanity.
A myriad of interesting facts, along with social commentary and historical information... Having awakened our thirst, Barnett reminds us after five centuries now is the best time to enjoy gin.
A colourful journey through gin's history and its intersection with culture... this is a must-read for those who love gin.
His expertise and passion for the subject is immediately gin-clear... an intoxicating blend of history and entertainment that is sure to stimulate drinkers and teetotallers alike.
Gin has always had a bit of an identity problem: is it the drink of the jet-setting sophisticate, or is it the chosen tipple of the secret, shamed, drinker, living up to its sobriquet of “mother’s ruin”? As this fine book points out, it’s both. This is best illustrated during the 50s with two influential works of fiction. In one, at an exclusive casino, a man orders a dry Martini with the instruction: ‘Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?’ The man, of course, is James Bond and he’s about to give his liver a good pounding in Casino Royale. Published the same year was John Cheever’s “The Sorrows of Gin” which could hardly be more different in tone, describing the self-destructive excesses of the lonely alcoholic. The story of gin actually begins in seventeenth-century Holland and Barnett traces its history – and its multiple lives – through Restoration England and beyond where it continued to be hated by the likes of William Hogarth and Charles Dickens, and feted by young rakes who viewed it as a modish and exotic commodity. A potent read, then, and guaranteed hang-over free.
Perhaps brewed up to ride the wave of gin revivalism – the junipery spirit is highly in vogue thanks to brands like Hendrick's and more boutique efforts not carried by Tesco. It's eminently readable, detailing gin's prehistory and 400-year journey across Europe, America and India; its changeable class associations and how it waylaid 19th century British communities.
Mr Barnett takes the reader on a historic journey from the city-states of Italy at the end of the Dark Ages to the gin-fuelled dance floors of the Stork Club in New York City... If you love a classic gin martini, pour yourself one and tuck into this fascinating story... Oh, and make sure the gin bottle is full.
'Strange as it may seem to say it,” writes Richard Barnett, “now is the best time in the last five centuries to be drinking gin.” And he has to be right, even when you find yourself confused by the rows and rows of gin bottles in your local off licence, almost every one of their distillers less than a decade old, yet straining hard to give the impression that they have been around since Victorian times. Barnett dates the stirrings of this renaissance to 1987, with the creation of Bombay Sapphire; I like to think that a further impetus was given after Gordon’s decision in 1992 to lower the ABV of its domestic product to 37.5% from 40%, prompting a host of outraged gin-drinkers, including your reviewer, to look elsewhere for their spirit.
Barnett takes as his starting place the invention of distillation, said by some to be the responsibility of the “semi-legendary” alchemist Maria the Jewess (who lived sometime around the second century); better-documented distillers flourished in eighth-century Baghdad, and the volatile liquid produced by the process became known as al-kohl, which, as Barnett puts it, “signified both a psychoactive substance and a djinn, prefiguring the double meaning of “spirit” in English.” (Thatdjinn and “gin” are homophones is, on the other hand, purely coincidental.)
The first thing we might begin to recognise as gin – a combination of juniper and alcohol – was invented in the 11th century, in the Benedictine monastery of Salerno in southern Italy; it was prescribed as a medicine, and to be used in strictly controlled amounts. We are a long way from the gin palace, or the horrors of Hogarth’s Gin Lane.
The Dutch went through several stages before the Bulsius family moved from Cologne to Amsterdam in 1575, changed their name to Bols and opened a distillery.
Barnett’s history will be semi-familiar to people with an interest in the history of drink, or especially of grain spirits; what makes his book more worthwhile is the detail he goes into, and the way he tells it. Did you know why “Old Tom” gin is called that? The story involves secret pipes, codewords and a tavern sign with a tomcat: an example of great ingenuity in the face of official disapproval, of survival in a world of zealous officers and informers.
Because, of course, the history of gin is also the history of people trying to stamp it out. London was gripped by the “Gin Craze” in the mid-18th century, and Hogarth’s propaganda was influential in turning the situation around – conspicuously aided by Henry Fielding, novelist, magistrate and prison reformer – by helping to inspire the 1751 Gin Act. Their example is more wholesome than that of later reformers, who decided that prohibition of all alcoholic drinks was the answer. There were two bestsellers in mid-19th century America:Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin from 1852, and Timothy Shay Arthur’s “juicy Prohibitionist epic” (Barnett’s adjectives are to his work as botanicals are to gin: they give it its piquancy and flavour)Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I Saw There from 1854. One shudders to think what might have happened to the abolitionist cause had the latter been the more influential.
About a third of the book is appendices, but these are fun: recipes for gin from the 17th century; an extract from the 1705 Compleat Distillerby the wonderfully named William Y-Worth; contemporary descriptions of gin palaces; and a selection of tasting notes (“this is a deeply unscientific survey”) by the author on various brands of gin, each given a “Hogarth Rating” on a scale of one to five, depending on flavour. “A high score reflects richness, depth and sweetness, redolent of the 18th century.” But without, one trusts, the accompanying Hogarthian ruin.'
Gin is very much back in fashion at the minute with many bars now stocking different types rather than just your common or garden Gordon’s. So it seems like a good a time as any to dip into Dedalus’ Book of Gin which is as readable as their previous book on the joys (and otherwise) of vodka. Richard Barnett traces the history of the drink from medicine to public enemy number one during the 18th century when William Hogarth painted one of his most famous images: Gin Lane. It’s packed with anecdotes galore as the history of the drink is followed through the 19th and 20th centuries (including the prohibition era in the United States), through to its present renaissance today. There’s also an appendix in which the author gives us his views on today’s more popular tipples. Me? Whichever way it’s dressed up I still think that it tastes like alcoholic flowers and will continue to give it a wide berth. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the awful stuff however, and its topsy turvy history.'
Mr. Barnett is good on the social upheaval gin brought to England, formerly a mellow beer culture. This was “a new kind of drunkenness,” he writes, “wilder and more socially destructive.”
Gin is in. Once an ‘old fashioned’ drink, something your Mum might drink on a trip to the local, gin has now had a resurgence and is trendy once more. It’s also a drink with a fascinating history, from medicinal purposes, to being blamed for society’s ills. The Dedalus Book of Gin takes the reader on a journey through the many phases of gin’s history, right up to today and what he calls ‘The Gin Renaissance’. It’s an interesting, accessible history and fascinating not just for lovers of the spirit but also those with an interest in social and medical history. Richard Barnett writes in a clear accessible manner, that engages as well as educates on the fascinating journey gin has taken in drinking culture and beyond.
No. of pages: 292
Publication date: 24.02.2017
978 1 910213 49 0
978 1 907650 03 1
978 1 907650 70 3
USA (Grove Atlantic), Russia(New Literary Observer).