The Spirit That Shook (or Stirred) the World
‘The Book of Gin,’ by Richard Barnett
The best part of “The Book of Gin,” a new survey of the history of this most clever and lively of spirits, arrives at the very end, in an appendix.
Times Topic: Gin (Liquor)
That’s when its English author, Richard Barnett, drops the chipper but tone-deaf narration he has maintained throughout — “In the next chapter we’ll walk the streets of 18th-century London” is a typical, docentlike utterance here — and goes out for a drink. Actually, he goes out for several drinks. He needs them. We need them too.
This appendix is called “The Hogarth Sampler,” after William Hogarth, the social critic and painter whose popular 1751 print “Gin Lane” evoked the poisonous addlement gin was said to be inflicting on British society. In the spirit of Hogarth, Mr. Barnett decides to sample 19 commercial gins, and he delivers tasting notes.
Finally his prose is etched with a toothpick, not a muddler. Greenall’s Berkeley Square London Dry Gin summons, for him, “the atmosphere of an English physic garden in summer.” After sipping G’vine Floraison, a boutique gin, he declares, “I’m almost tempted to dab some on my pulse points.” About Foxdenton Blackjack, he utters simply, “Good heavens.”
It’s as if Mr. Barnett, newly fortified with wit and feeling, were channeling the Winston Churchill who said, “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.”
The bulk of “The Book of Gin” is not a carefully prepared cocktail, however. It more closely approximates a watery well drink. Not that well drinks don’t get the job done. Whether you choose to remember the evening at the bar or the hangover the next morning depends on your personality.
Mr. Barnett is previously the author of “Medical London: City of Diseases, City of Cures” (2008). In “The Book of Gin” he chronologically touches the important bases. He covers the history of distillation, which came of age in the seventh and eighth centuries A.D. in the Muslim world. He notes how the Dutch had the sense to combine juniper with grain spirits to mask their roughness and bring them alive.
Dutch sailors helped gin — known then as genever, a sweeter version of the spirit we’ve come to drink — make its way to England. That country’s 18th-century gin craze was not far behind.
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.”
He piles on the condemnations of strong spirits from the temperance-minded. This was “pagan alchemy,” a “black art.” Gin was “a street drug cut with industrial byproducts.” One writer called gin “a fiery lake that sets the brain in flame.” Another called it “liquid madness.” In 1806 a New York newspaper wrote that gin “fuddles the head.”
Gin was said to lead to prostitution, poverty and worse. Horror stories circulated, like the one about the woman who became so sodden that “she fell on the fire, and was burned in so miserable a manner, that she immediately died and her bowels came out.”
Mr. Barnett is wise to detect a class component in this tumult. Gin was seen as ignoble in 18th-century England. The attacks on gin, he posits, were part of a campaign against the perceived “ indolence, indecency and indiscipline of the lower orders.” Gin joints were gaudy; they attracted a rough clientele.
The second half of “The Book of Gin” shifts largely to the United States, where Prohibition made gin sexy — the drink of modernity. Where once upon a time gin was sipped neat, now the cocktail came into being.
“The history of respectable gin-drinking,” Mr. Barnett writes, “is very largely the history of the cocktail.”
He lingers over the invention of the martini. Citing the writer Barnaby Conrad, Mr. Barnett views the martini “as an embodiment of American history at its most magnificently diverse: Dutch and English gin (or, at the height of the cold war, Russian vodka), mixed with French vermouth, and served with Mediterranean olives, German-Jewish pickled onions, or Caribbean lemons.”
You still had to be careful with a martini. Witness the tragic tale of Sherwood Anderson, the novelist, who swallowed the toothpick from his martini and died of a perforated colon.
Mr. Barnett’s book is buttressed by literary anecdote and quotation. Daniel Defoe, Samuel Pepys and Nathaniel Hawthorne are among those who make appearances early in “The Book of Gin.” Later we spend time with Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles, and with George Orwell, who wrote satirically of “Victory Gin” in “1984.” J. D. Salinger and John Cheever have cameos, as do James Bond, Travis McGee and Edward Albee’s gin-soaked 1962 play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Gin, and cocktails in general, fell out of fashion in the late 1960s and didn’t really return until well into the ’80s. The 1970s were dominated by Jimmy Carter’s abstemious persona, by the rise of Alcoholics Anonymous and by an increasing awareness of fetal alcohol syndrome. Mr. Barnett gives some credit for the current cocktail revival to the 1996 film “Swingers,” a sly ode to martinis and cocktail-lounge culture.
I’m a drinker of gin martinis, and I feel about them the way Napoleon felt about Champagne — that is, in victory you deserve them, in defeat you need them. Hendrick’s has been my brand, but Mr. Barnett subtly ridicules Hendrick’s in his appendix.
About its dark, squat bottle, stopped with a cork, he asks, “Have we stepped into an 18th-century apothecary’s shop?” About its taste, he avers, “Perhaps not quite as iconoclastic as Hendrick’s makes out.”
Ouch. That’s the kind of commentary — more, please — that happily fuddles the head.