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Remission of gin

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Cultural history of Madam Geneva finds parallels in war on drugs

By Justin Peters, Washington Monthly

I like gin. Always have. It reminds me of Christmas, and the elderly. I once got laughed out of a trendy Dupont Circle bar for ordering a gin and tonic, but I can't help it: While others of my generation prefer drinks that sparkle and taste of fruit, I'm stuck on that tried-and-true standby.

Perhaps I was just born 300 years too late. In the early 1700s, every Tom, Dick, and Harriet in London was downing gin night and day. The gin craze that swept through the city resulted in such demagoguery, prohibition, rioting, and morning-after headaches that author Patrick Dillon aptly dubs it "the crack epidemic of the 18th century." This story is skillfully recounted in Gin, Dillon's rousing cultural history of drunkenness and despair in 18th-century Britain. Deftly weaving original research, trenchant analysis, and an engaging prose style, Dillon recaptures the spirit of an age that in many ways bears a strong resemblance to our own.

When Dutch Prince William of Orange ascended the English throne in 1689 in the wake of the Glorious Revolution, one of his first official acts was to join the League of Augsburg's war on France. As a wartime measure, William banned the import of French products, including cheese, bad manners, and brandy. Brandy was extremely popular in England, its demise sure to be much lamented. So in order to head off the complaints of the nation's drinkers, William signed a measure encouraging the domestic distillation of spirits from corn.

Backroom distilleries soon sprang up everywhere, dripping out various noxious liquors at a feverish pace. Paramount among these homegrown spirits was gin, or, as she was commonly known, "Madam Geneva." Flavoured with juniper berries and packing a wallop, Madam Geneva seamlessly supplanted brandy in the public memory, and gin drinking soon became the favourite pastime of the damned and downtrodden.

Lower-class English life in the early 18th century was nasty, brutish, and short. Dubious sanitation, stifling debt laws, and a general sense of squalor combined to make the prospect of getting "drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence" remarkably attractive. In a world where the conspicuous disparity between rich and poor was inescapable, people welcomed every chance they had to forget their problems. Dillon ably describes the speed with which inexpensive and widely available gin became "the avenging angel of the slums, and the comforter of the poor; she was the curse of London and the friend of market-women."

This dichotomy between aristocratic and lower-class London is central to Dillon's thesis: that London's gin craze, viewed through the woozy lens of alcohol abuse, was really about class struggle. "The thing conservatives hated most about drink," he argues, "was the transformation it offered; the way it broke down traditional barriers. That was what they hated most about the entire age."

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