Unlike the empire that first concocted it, the sun will never set on the Gin and Tonic—or the “G n’ T” to its most loyal imbibers. However, before this vaunted alcoholic brew acquired its current state of ubiquitousness, it needed a push from science and historical happenstance.
A drink for Holland
The origins of gin are murky. The most popular theory places its origins at the hands of an enterprising Dutch physician named Sylvius de Bouve in the late 16th century (although others point to reports of its presence when the good doctor was only age 9, nevertheless...). After distilling a potion to improve blood circulation, Dr. Sylvius decided to add juniper berries to soften the liquid’s unpalatable taste. The Dutch word for juniper is jeneverbes and the doctor naturally named his liquor jenever.
Intervening in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648)— a devastating squabble over the schism in christianity— British soldiers on expedition managed to acquire some jenever and returned with it back to England under the adopted and aptly named “Dutch Courage”. As the warfront moved to the home front, the moniker didn’t stick. What did stick was the English dismemberment of jenever to its current abbreviation of gin.
The liquor was not at its conception a smash hit. Rather, its rise coincided with a French budgetary crisis--in 1691 France had 273,000 soldiers in the field—and Louis XIV’s need to raise revenue through levies on England’s then-favorite drink, brandy. As the price of brandy rose in London, King William III—the (coincidentally) Dutch royal anointed by the British Parliament following 1688’s glorious revolution and expulsion of the prior king—recognized the need to inebriate the masses and eased laws hampering the distilling of gin. The corresponding drop in the price of gin fostered its adoption and popularity, particularly amongst the lower classes that could no longer afford brandy.
Gin became so widely, and deeply, consumed that by the mid-18th century Parliament was grasping at ways to evaporate it. By 1830, about 10 million gallons of gin were being produced each year in London and the accompanying drunken buffoonery came to be called "The Gin Craze". The 1736 Gin Act sought to temper the party by imposing stiff taxes and license requirements. Predictably, the law only served to channel bootlegging. Only later macroeconomic and consumption fluctuations brought gin under control.
Tonic and Empire
Meanwhile, as gin was blossoming in England, the ingredients for tonic were being seeded in the outreaches of European empire. Tonic’s critical component is quinine. An alkaloid from the bark of the cinchona tree of South America, quinine had long been used by local tribes to combat fever and was quickly embraced by Spanish colonists to protect against malaria. Arriving back in Europe with the elixir in tow, chemists by the early 19th century managed to sequester the quinine from the bark and package it in a more readily consumed liquid, tonic water.
By the advent of tonic water, the competition for the spoils of empire was reaching a climax. The British government and its corporate proxies, none more influential than the British East India Company, were sending their minions deeper and deeper into the unwelcoming tropics of Asia and Africa. Ravaged by disease, workers were apportioned gin to ease their pains, limes to combat scurvy, and tonic to combat malaria. By the 1840s, 700 tons of cinchona bark were needed for tonic just to support British frontier colonists in India.
Fearing an over reliance on trade from volatile former-Spanish colonies in South America, the British (and Dutch) began to cultivate quinine in their Asian colonies--dominating its production by the end of the 19th century.
The Gin and Tonic arrives
In 1857, a rumor spread amongst local conscripted soldiers in India that their new rifles required the use of beef tallow and pork lard to grease its cartridges. As the consumption of pigs and cows are anathema to Muslims and Hindus respectively, and you had to bite the cartridge to tear it open, the soldiers did not take kindly to the news. The rebellion that followed—generally referred to as the Sepoy Rebellion, "sepoy" being a derivative of the Persian word for "infantry soldier"— led the British to assume the formal governance of India and to infuse a steady flow of Brits to quell the unrest.
While it was years earlier—around 1825— that some inquisitive bloke had the idea to lessen the bitterness of his tonic with a touch of gin and lime, the expanded British presence increased the demand for tonic, its production, and the growing colonial population that would come to popularize its alcoholic mixture.
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