Some years ago, I discovered Greenall’s gin – on special at Heathrow’s Duty Free shop. It was love at first sip. From then on, a bottle was a prize from every trip abroad. Until last January. At the airport, Greenall’s was everywhere I looked: wild berry gin, blueberry gin, blood orange and fig gin. But of the “classic London Dry Gin handcrafted by England’s oldest gin distillery since 1761” – simple unadulterated Greenall’s – not a drop. Surely, today’s gin craze has gone too far.

Cover courtesy of Bloomsbury Academic

I suspect Shonna Milliken Humphrey would agree with me, although her engaging and curious nature would make her more forgiving. “Gin is,” she writes, “… grandfathers, Christmas, or sweaty summer nights. Rotten pine needles or raging headaches. Bathtub hooch, speakeasies, British Gin Acts …” The long list goes on until, finally, “Gin is the first alcohol I tasted.”

There follows a delightful bit of biography from Humphrey’s adolescence in northern Maine, related with all the frank charm that readers of her work (a novel, a memoir, and magazine essays) enjoy so much. It’s a lovely aperitif to the task ahead, exploring the hidden life of an ordinary thing – in this instance, gin – which is the stated object of Bloomsbury Academic’s Object Lessons series.

Having dispensed with its various homonyms (e.g., Eli Whitney’s contraption or the rummy card game – “skip to the next section,” she advises if you aren’t a word wonk), Humphrey gets down to the basics, which in the case of gin is juniper berries. Juniper is “the single aspect that separates gin from other spirits.” Much of the lore she has gathered – “like a magpie or crow, I look for the shiny bits” – comes from a core of references she acknowledges with generous praise. But her research starts at home. An experiment with juniper and rhubarb jam makes her kitchen smell “like an open bottle of gin for a weekend.”

The origin (pun intended) goes back to Europe’s Low Countries and the late Middle Ages. Crude distilled spirits fortified people against the cold (the Little Ice Age was in full swing), and the taste of juniper made it palatable. If that sounds grim, it gets worse across the English Channel. With the Glorious Revolution (1688), Catholic James II was replaced as King of England by Protestant William III. Out with James went “the grape,” while the Dutch William brought in “the grain,” i.e., gin. By 1751, the English (mostly the destitute) were consuming seven million gallons of gin (often cut with sulfuric acid) each year. Put another way, London had 17,000 gin shops, which was about “one legal dealer for every thirty-five residents.” Soaring crime and death rates among the poor were the result.

It took relatively enlightened legislation to bring the gin crisis under control. Mother Nature offered a helping hand in the form of a looming famine: grain had to go to the bakers, not the distillers. Nonetheless, in a chapter on “Gincidents,” the author continues to favor the dark or shady side of gin consumption, ranging from social embarrassment to homicide. In “Lyric and Verse,” she describes gin as “a soundtrack to heartache, poverty, or at best and most hopeful, nostalgia.” Even in “Film and Literature,” apart from the requisite exegesis on “shaken, not stirred,” the accent highlights tragedy (the Great Gatsby) or being generally strung-out (Hunter S. Thompson and, more surprising, Nathaniel Hawthorne).

Humphrey found researching “Gin” to be “very much like falling into Alice’s Wonderland rabbit hole.” She aptly describes the endless fun of being led from pillar to post via links, books, conversations. It apparently became addictive. “One minute I was reading a clever menu (in a gin tasting room) and the next I had pulled up the history of the term ‘gin palace’ on my phone.”

She spent hours scrolling through images on the Library of Congress website, and the book includes various plates, notably William Hogarth’s famous admonitory etchings. In addition to the gineral (sic – sorry) history, the book is a treasure chest of fun and little-known facts: did you know that the first vending machine was for gin? Or that the Philippines is, per capita, the biggest gin-drinking country in the world?

A couple of verbal tropes are overused and wear thin, especially “Here is where I mention/claim/etc.” Otherwise, the author’s upbeat style makes for a fascinating, enjoyable read.

As I finished “Gin,” I craved an antidote to rinse off the taste of some of the historical grime. Oh for something light, like taking the glass of gin and “waving it in the general direction of Italy,” Noel Coward’s recipe for the perfect dry martini. Then it dawned on me: a book about gin is not the same as one on the martini. Is there another Object Lesson here? I hope so, and that Shonna Humphrey writes it.

Thomas Urquhart lives in Falmouth. His new book, “Up for Grabs,” a history of Maine’s Public Reserved Lands, will be published next May.


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