Wednesday 21 August 2019

Mary Kenny: 'Gin's the thing... The drink once branded as Mothers' Ruin has been reinvented with a health-conscious profile'


Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

If I ever took up drinking again, I'd probably join the Gin Revolution. I didn't even know there was a gin revolution until the other day, when I discovered there's a hugely fashionable renaissance of gin in both Ireland and Britain - up by over 47pc last year in Ireland and by some 56pc in the UK.

Anything can be re-branded and relaunched, and gin has discarded its tag of Mothers' Ruin to re-emerge as a refined new drink, with added botanicals: that is, herbs and spices, which meshes in trendily with being close to nature. You can be a vegan, now, and knock back the gin and botanicals goodo - cardamom and red chilli, cracked pepper and light violet, ginger, cumin, coriander seed, bitter oranges, fever tree, and of course, the original juniper berry.

The stuff they put in gin these days! But that's the secret of the bevvy's rebirth. It's not just gin any more. It's 'craft' gin. It's not the rough draught that William of Orange brought to Britain and Ireland in the 1690s - oh yes, King Billy, like most Dutchmen, had a canny eye for trade, and he cleverly arranged it so that Dutch Gin could be imported cheaply, and more tariffs placed on competing French wine.

And so began the spread of gin, which led to the deplorable scenes as pictured by Hogarth's Gin Lane, when gin's selling-point was "drunk for a half-penny, dead drunk for a penny".

Even in my saloon-bar days, I found King Billy's gin - known as Geneva Gin, from the Dutch 'Jenever' - unpleasant and bitter. But a boozer will imbibe anything, and as I was in a remote bar in Iceland at the time, with nothing else easily available, imbibe it I did. Today, even the Geneva gins have their craft versions.

Since there was always more stigma attached to a woman drinking than to a man, gin's special appeal to females was its invisibility.

Whiskey, brandy, sherry and rum were all unmistakeable in the glass and on the breath: gin (like its later rival, vodka) looked innocent and could seldom be discerned by smell. How ladylike. But the perils of women indulging in anything to excess were ever cautioned against.

The hilarious Victorian music-hall ballad Don't Have Any More, Missus Moore, sung by Lily Morris in 1929 - see it on YouTube - refers to Mrs Moore's insatiable appetites for gin, men, and child-bearing. "The more you 'ave, the more you'll want," warns the ditty, with the added caution that "too many double gins/Give the ladies double chins!"

There was some secret folklore that gin was an abortifacient, so if you were inconveniently pregnant - which, if you drank enough gin you might well be - you drank a lot more gin and took a series of scalding hot baths. I never heard tell that the process worked, though I can think of some cases where women were afterwards glad that it hadn't.

The tonic that so often went with gin contained a genuine medicinal quality - quinine. That fended off malaria, and those bound for the tropics were bidden to partake of gin and tonics on the verandah, after the sun had gone down on the yardarm.

Maeve Binchy and I once devised a gin-and-grapefruit diet. The diet consisted of, basically, grapefruit for food and gin for liquid. Gin is low in calories so it might have been effective if we hadn't gotten so legless, and then gone off for a curry - although Maeve held her drink, it must be said, an awful lot better than I did.

The fashion for cocktails in the 1920s - so helpful to disguise spirits in the era of Prohibition - rescued gin from its Hogarthian image.

The Tom Collins (gin, lemon juice and fizzy water) the Negroni (gin, Campari, sweet red vermouth), the Gimlet (gin with lime cordial) and Gin & It (gin and vermouth) were all much favoured. Pink Gin - gin and Angostura bitters - were a Soho favourite among artists back in the day.

As vodka came on stream, gin receded, and seemed a little dated.

It wasn't a compliment to be described as "gin-soaked". And gin was said to be a depressant, though that rather avoids the point that all alcohol is a depressant, in the long run, and if you take enough of it. Initially, a gin perked up with some pleasant accompaniment can be a refresher at the end of the day.

Latterly, wine took over as a new form of Mothers' Ruin, as mums were reportedly cracking open the vino bottle once the kids were in bed: and wine, too, seems acceptably ladylike, with all its connotations of sunny climes and Mediterranean vineyards.

The problem, as I recall, with the bottle of wine is that you usually feel you have to finish the bottle, if not open another. Whereas in a well-ordered world, you could have one gin and tonic and just stop at that.

Gin has successfully been re-branded and reinvented to suit a health conscious age, and it's now taken with a range of enticing and exotic accessories. Gin is also, I am told, extremely easy to concoct, which is why small distilleries have started up in home sheds and grown to successful enterprises in the new gin boom.

If gin's your poison, enjoy it! Responsibly, as they say.

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