Monday, September 21, 2015

Can I get a G&T... with a Garnish of Life?

Many people enjoy the taste of a gin and tonic. It is the quintessential cocktail: ice, splash of gin, splash of tonic water, maybe a splash of lime. It is easy to make, easy to procure the ingredients, and easy to drink. But what if I told you that drinking a gin and tonic could actually save your life? Too good to be true, right? Well, sit back, pour yourself a refreshing G&T, and learn how a spirit known as "mother's ruin" and a South American tree species unknown to anyone but the natives combined to fight malaria and help the British Empire rule the largest Empire in World history.

History of Malaria

Malaria is a disease that has plagued humans for thousands if not millions of years. The symptoms are fairly well know- fever, vomiting, flu-like symptoms, and in severe cases respiratory issues and death. For thousands of years, "experts" believed the disease to be caused by bad air- the name we have for it is from the Italian mala aria, "bad air." In more recent times, people noticed a link between humid climates, swamps or sitting water and prevalence of malaria. It was not until 1880 when a French doctor, Charles L.A. Laveran, noticed that people who had malaria also had parasites in their blood, which he hypothesized were causing the malaria.  And it was not until 1908 that the Cuban doctor Carlos Finlay presented solid evidence that the disease was transmitted by mosquitos. Because no one knew what was causing malaria, it was difficult to then look for a cure for it, which is why the disease was so troublesome to humanity for so long- malaria has been credited with impacting both events including World War II and the decline of the Roman Empire, and even causing the deaths of several popes and kings.

History of Cinchona and Quinine

The first cure for malaria introduced to the world was the bark a shrub native to Peru and Bolivia. The Quechua natives that lived in the area used the bark from the shrub, mixed with water, to control shivering associated with low body temperature or fever, including, presumably, the fever induced by malaria. Legend has it that in 1638 a Spanish Countess, whose husband was the viceroy of Peru, contracted malaria and was introduced to the bark of the plant by natives. When she was cured of her symptoms, she showed the plant to other Spaniards in the region. The lady was the Countess of Chinchon, and so they named the plant "cinchona" after her. Some of the people the countess told about cinchona were Spanish Jesuit priests, who began to study the plant for it's medicinal value. In the 1630s and 40s the bark of the cinchona plant began to be imported back to Europe as a cure for malaria.

While it was known that cinchona bark, which also came to be known as "Jesuit's bark" or "Peruvian bark", cured malaria, it was unknown what it was in the cinchona plant that fought malaria. In 1820, two French researchers isolated a bitter substance which they named quinine, derived from the Quechua name for cinchona quine, or "holy bark." They proved this to be the active ingredient in cinchona which fights malaria.  Quinine was not commonly used in its pure form to fight malaria until the 1850s.

There was still not a large supply of cinchona available to the world until the 1860s, when a British expedition was put together in which a large number of plants were smuggled back to British controlled areas, especially the British Raj in India (Mysore Gazette). Hundreds of thousands of acres were eventually cultivated with cinchona plants in India and Sri Lanka. In the early 1800s Peru began trying to stop the smuggling of cinchona plants, attempting to maintain a monopoly on it. Dutch smugglers were successful in continuing to smuggle seeds out of Peru to their colonies in Indonesia, and by the 1930s the Netherlands controlled 97% of cinchona production around the world (Mysore Gazette). When the Netherlands was conquered by Nazi Germany and Indonesia was conquered by Japan during World War II, the Allies were cut off from almost all of their supply of cinchona bark and the quinine it produced, leading to more than 20,000 Allied deaths during World War II of malaria.

Mixing cinchona with water allows quinine to seep out of the bark into the water, and quinine is able to combat malaria. Cinchona bark is cut into thin strips or powdered, and then it can be seeped in liquid to extract the quinine. The resulting mixture (called an herbal tonic in medicine) could then be drunk, but it had a bitter taste- fine for a medicine used to save a life, but not so great if one wishes to drink large amounts of quinine as a malaria preventative. The Quechua had been observed mixing the powder with sweetened water, and Europeans began the mix the substance with wine or sugar water to alleviate the taste, creating a "quinine tonic", but the result was still an unpleasant one. Somehow, a way needed to be found that would make cinchona tonic more palatable.

The cinchona tree.

History of Gin

Gin finds its origin in the Netherlands in the early 1600s, where it was called genever, although the name genever does pop up in writings before this time, which means that some variation of it has existed since at least the 1200s. Genever was a popular drink which was also sold as a medicine for kidney ailments, lumbago, stomach ailments, gallstones, and gout. Genever is made by distilling malt grain wine and then infusing it with various botanicals, most commonly juniper berries. The juniper berries were originally added to mask the foul flavor of the distilled liquor that came from the malt grain wine, which gave the drink a sharp, fresh taste. By around 1650 the Dutch had mostly perfected their version of genever, though it had already begun to find it's way across national borders.

The British were probably first exposed to genever in 1585, when Britain was supporting the Dutch against the Spanish during the Eighty Year's War, in which the Dutch fought for and won their independence from Spain. But gin, as the English began to call it, really became popular in 1688 during the Glorious Revolution. The Glorious Revolution, briefly described, is when the King of England, James II, who was Catholic, had a son who was also Catholic. Before James' son was born, his daughter Mary, a Protestant, was heir to the throne. When James' son was born, it appeared that the assumed transition back to a Protestant monarchy under Mary was now threatened, something the mostly Protestant English Parliament was unhappy about. So they invited Mary and her powerful Protestant husband, William, Prince of Orange, royalty in the Netherlands, to invade and take the throne. William and Mary were successful in taking the English throne and restoring Protestantism to England. More importantly for this story, a strong connection between the Dutch and English was created, bringing with it a pathway for gin to become a popular drink in England.

After William of Orange took power, and as conflicts with Catholic nations, especially France, continued to broil, Dutch gin became a popular alternative to French brandy. This rise in the popularity of gin coincided with a price collapse in grain caused by several bountiful harvests, meaning that England had far too much cheap grain lying around unused. The new King William, knowing the demand gin production had placed on grain in the Netherlands, and wanting to push the price of grain back up, passed an Act of Parliament allowing anyone that gave notice to the throne and paid a small fee to distill alcohol using English grain. The Act was incredibly successful in propping up the prices of grain in England. But it also made it very easy for a person to get their hands on gin. Iain Gately claims that the average amount of gin drank per capita in England in 1700 was 1/3 of a gallon, and that by 1723 the average person in England, including children, was drinking more than a pint per week! Obviously this was contributing to a high level of drunkenness and resulting crime sprees, in what became known as England's "gin craze." Critics of gin also claimed that it, unlike other alcohols, caused people to be pale, sickly and more likely to die, which they compared to people who drank things like beer and ale, which caused fatness, redness of face, and a healthy demeanor. People started to see gin as a negative for society.

After witnessing a rise in crime and drunkenness, the English Parliament finally decided to act against the so-called "Mother Gin" in 1729. Gin was blamed for the upheaval, for causing people to be "unfit for useful labor and service..." and began to be known by such harsh names as "mother's ruin" (Gately, Drink). The 1729 Gin Act allowed gin to be sold only at licensed premises, and set a high price tag on getting a license to sell. This new price was so high that it caused a rise in black market gin sales. This Act was so unsuccessful that in 1733 Parliament took the opposite approach, reducing taxes on distilling while putting in place several hardly noticeable restrictions on those who sold gin. This new Act did hardly anything to cause people to stop drinking gin, and in fact increased the supply of it.

Stories began to proliferate in newspapers about the horrors gin was unleashing upon England, including a story about a woman, Judith Defour, who, with the help of a gypsy named Sukey, murdered her own child, sold his clothes, and used the money to buy more gin, which she shared with the gypsy (Gately, Drink). There were many stories such as this, of people drinking several pints of gin and dropping dead in their glass, of murders, thefts and other crimes committed for gin. As gin-related crimes grew worse and worse, Parliament again passed an Act, this time in 1736, which created fines for home distilling, made the fee to license gin a hefty 50 pounds, and created a system in which people who snitched on gin-drinkers and sellers were handsomely rewarded. This Act, like it's predecessors, hardly had an effect. Another Act was passed the next year, which made it easier for snitches to be rewarded for informing. Informers began to be a hated group, so much so that another Act was passed the following year which made it a felony to attack an informant, necessary because a shocking number of informants were being beaten or killed, ironically enough.

In 1743 the gin craze began to end. In that year another Act was passed, one that finally made a difference. Firstly, the new Act taxed all alcohol, not just gin, so that the tax on gin was no longer seen as an attack on the gin-drinking poor, but as a tax on all alcohol, including the wine and brandy drunk by the rich. Secondly, the Act put in place a strict licensing system and a tax paid for drinking gin. The goal was to restrict demand without encouraging black market gin. This new Act was a success, and taverns began to get these new licenses, lowering the need for illegal sources of gin. This new Act also coincided with fiery new preachers emerging under the Methodist movement, such as John Wesley, who urged people to no longer drink hard alcohol. By the 1750s England was settling down from the chaos of the first half of the century. A final Gin Act was passed in 1751, which increased the tax, put tighter controls in place for licenses, and banned sale of alcohol on credit. The sale of gin dropped nearly in half in the following years (Gately, Drink). Half a century of excess, new religious morals, increased taxation and control, an increase in grain and food prices, and an increase in negative propaganda and beliefs about gin in this period seem to have wiped out much of the desire for "the mother's ruin" in England. But not before England had been forced to pass five different laws to try and regulate gin consumption.

Beer Street and Gin Lane- Engravings from 1751 that are seen as some the best propaganda against gin- showing fat, happy beer drinkers on "Beer Street" versus the skeletal, syphilitic, lethargic gin drinkers of "Gin Lane."

Just because the desire for gin fell does not mean that gin disappeared. In Victorian England in the early 1800s Gin Palaces, high class establishments in which one could purchase gin became popular enough that they were described by authors like Charles Dickens. But gin would need special circumstances to help it regain some of its former "glory." Like quinine tonics, gin needed a partner that would make it more palatable, in gin's case socially and morally.

The Beautiful Combination

In 1858 the government of Britain took control of the colony of India from the British East India Company, following an uprising of unhappy Indian soldiers called the Sepoy Mutiny. This new government-controlled India became known as the British Raj, and was considered such an important part of the British Empire that it was referred to as the "Crown Jewel of the British Empire." Queen Victoria even adopted the title "Empress of India." But taking control of so much territory did not come without logistical drawbacks for the British Empire: to rule such a large area, many more British would have to move to India to help govern it. And India lies right in the middle of the tropics; it was hot and humid, with lots of standing water: perfect for mosquitoes and the malaria they carried to thrive. Malaria, which had been mostly eliminated in Britain by the 1850s, posed a serious threat to the soldiers and civilians moving en masse to India.

To combat this new threat, the British in India were apparently using 700 tons of cinchona bark a year as medicine (Raustialia, "Imperial Cocktail"). This was great for use as medicine, but as discussed above, the cinchona quinine tonic being used still had a foul taste. But in 1858, a British citizen named Erasmus Bond introduced a commercially available tonic water: a mix of quinine, water and sugar which reduced some of the bitter quinine taste and made the quinine drinkable if not pleasant, allowing Britons in India to drink a daily dose of quinine to protect themselves from malaria. Bond's success was followed in 1870 by the release of Indian Quinine Tonic by the Schweppes Company, a tonic water company which still exists today. This tonic water was aerated, giving the tonic water it's famous bubbly state. Drinking quinine infused tonic water became a daily rite for British people in India.

A modern-day bottle of Schweppes Tonic Water- it still says "Contains Quinine" on the bottle.
The British in India also viewed the local water as unsafe, even as "worse than raw sewage." (Gately, Drink) Following the fine tradition of people throughout history who did not have access to clean water, the British in India instead resorted to drinking alcohol as often as possible. Alcohol was seen as the only safe drink, and it was consumed with every meal and at other times as well. Gin became one of the alcohols of choice. As discussed above, gin consumption among English did not disappear, but had only slowed down. In fact, gin consumption went from being considered a poor-man's drink to a drink of the sophisticated and wealthy. Conveniently enough, most of the people going to India, who were drinking large amounts of alcohol and quinine tonic water, were middle and upper class.

It should not be seen as too big of a surprise that some resourceful Englishmen decided to mix his two daily drinks, gin and tonic water. Why have a distasteful glass of tonic water in the morning when you can mix it with your gin for lunch? What that marvelous person discovered was that the gin masked the taste of the quinine, that the sugary water cut back the slightly harsh flavor of the gin, and that the two tastes mixed perfectly together. We do not know the name of the first legendary human that tried to mix gin and tonic water, but we know that someone did, and that it caught on quickly. Soon the English army in India had gin included in the daily rations given to soldiers, to encourage them to get their daily helping of quinine. The gin and tonic was a multi-faceted cure- it encouraged the drinking of large amounts of quinine, which surely saved a large number of lives. It also created a resurgence in demand for gin. Even the garnish people put in the drink could be lifesaving: limes, which remain to this day one of the more popular garnishes in a gin and tonic, contained enough vitamin C to prevent scurvy. The two liquids, both unpalatable in their own ways, came together to become what is now known as a traditional British drink. And maybe, just maybe, they allowed the British Empire to keep control of India.

Final Note

Surely the gin and tonic was not the only thing that helped the British Empire to expand and become the biggest Empire in human history. But it certainly helped the success. India was not the only place the British were able to take over- parts of Africa, the Pacific, East Asia all came under the hegemony of England- and all were places that a person could catch malaria if they had not built up a resistance to it.

Don't believe me? Think this story sounds too good to be true? Ask someone who is an expert on the British Empire, someone who lived during it's heyday, and who has a personal opinion about the importance of the gin and tonic in English history: Winston Churchill. The English Bulldog, the Prime Minister of England during World War II, had this to say about the gin and tonic: "The gin and tonic has saved more lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire." So next time someone tells you you are having too many G&T's, tell them, "No, I'm protecting myself from malaria!" It could save your life!

Fun Facts About Gin and Tonic

  • The tonic water sold in stores today is much sweeter and has a much lower quinine content than tonic water in the 1800s.
  • Quinine is fluorescent in a black light, which gives it the appearance of glowing in the dark.
  • Gin is one of the largest categories of alcohol in existence today.


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