‘Mother’s ruin’; ‘It makes you cry’ – gin drinking has certainly earned itself a few less-than-brilliant epithets over the centuries. But despite its apparently shady past, gin is growing in popularity today, with sales up over ten per cent since 2011.
It seems that gin’s poor reputation has less to do with the drink itself and is more about its erstwhile place in history.
On the surface, there is nothing in gin – a neutral spirit with botanicals (herbs and spices, such as juniper and orange peel) – that is more likely to make you cry than any other tipple. However, alcohol is both a mood enhancer (in small quantities) and a depressant (in greater quantities), which means that if you’re already feeling happy and have a couple of drinks you’ll still feel pretty great, but if you’re already feeling under the weather then no amount of Bombay Sapphire is likely to cheer you up.
The myth almost certainly comes from the era of the ‘Gin Craze’, a time when society was drinking a substantial amount of gin, widely held to have been at its height in the early 1700s.
It is estimated that in the year 1730, around 10 million gallons of gin were being distilled in London, and that the average Londoner (men, women and children included) was drinking 14 gallons of the juniper-flavoured spirit a year. This was a time when alcohol was safer to drink than mains water and, because gin wasn’t taxed, it was even cheaper than beer.
Against this backdrop, gin palaces were opening all over the capital. The first establishments in which women were allowed to drink alongside men, they quickly garnered disapproval among certain groups, including the ‘temperance movement’ – a widespread campaign for a reduction in alcohol consumption – which had grown considerably in influence and scope by the early 1800s. Although later campaigns would call for total abstinence from alcohol, these earlier movements concentrated their efforts on hard spirits rather than wine or beer. Gin was in the firing line.
So although both genders had historically reached for the bottle when depressed or miserable, women were now doing so in public, hence the depictions of women sitting on the kitchen steps, swigging from a bottle of gin and crying. In an era in which women were expected to be virtuous keepers of the household, primary child-carers and all-round chaste beings, such negative portrayals of women took hold.
One such portrayal is the charming nickname ‘Mother’s Ruin’, inextricably linked with gin. Is this simply a damning hangover from a more sexist age?
Indeed, most attribute the ‘Mother’s Ruin’ label to artist William Hogarth, who in 1751 published a series of etchings, including one called ‘Gin Lane’ that depicted disturbing scenes of a gin-soaked London. Desolate buildings and squalor dominate the picture, in which the only thriving business is the funeral home. Another etching, ‘Beer Street’, shows an affluent, thriving London. The contrast – and meaning – is clear. Beer was taxed by government at the time, whereas gin was not, and the city’s taste for the spiced spirit was reportedly starting to cause all kinds of problems.
At the centre of ‘Gin Lane’, one drunk mother suffers syphilitic sores all down her legs, which are overshadowed only by the baby she is about to drop down some stairs. It is thought that this character was based on an infamous case from a few years before, in which a woman called Judith Dufour had collected her child from the workhouse, only to strangle him and sell his clothes for gin.
Through propaganda campaigns from Hogarth and the temperance movement, gin suffered a terrible reputation – and was seen as the cause, rather than simply a symptom, of London’s poverty-stricken streets.
Gin was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but that shouldn’t put modern spirits fans off this wonderfully versatile tipple.