There was a time when finding a cabin boy sober enough to climb a mast was no mean feat. A pint of gin could be bought for a penny and every other property was the site of a bootleg distillery. The burgeoning British Empire was awash with gin during the 18th century in a debauched and depraved period that became known as the Gin Craze.
Gin remained the working class spirit of choice up until the mid-20th century when suddenly a pseudo-Russian, counter-cultural spirit called vodka took over the show. Gin became staid – the once illicit spirit of the people had become establishmentarian. G&Ts were something one sipped at country clubs, or even worse – the tipple of choice for retirement villages.
If you've been frequenting hipper establishments over the past few years, you might have noticed a change in gin's stuffy image. Twenty-somethings are brand-calling their gin of choice, bartenders are plastering their menus with gin cocktails, and the brands themselves are promoting weird and wonderful ingredients contained in designer bottles that would make cognac marketers blush. Whilst the spirit and its production are no longer illicit, it appears we're in the midst of a new gin craze.
Jeremy Spencer, one of the masterminds behind award-winning Western Australian gin brand West Winds, agrees there's a significant resurgence in gin's popularity. "Gin's revival has in no small part been thanks to the working class again," explains Spencer, "this time in the form of bartenders. As with last time, the power brokers will be doing their best to stop us!"
Spencer's gin, which launched in 2011, uses unusual native botanicals in addition to gin's classic juniper and coriander seed flavourings. Spicing up the gin (of which there are two variants) are ingredients including lemon myrtle, cinnamon myrtle, wattle seed and bush tomato.
West Winds is by no means the first gin brand to look outside the box when it comes to exotic botanicals. One brand that has had a massive impact on gin's renaissance is the Scottish Hendrick's Gin, owned by William Grants & Sons. Launched in 1999, Hendrick's has a less juniper-dominant flavour profile and uses Bulgarian rose and cucumber as its unique botanical ingredients. Hendrick's unusual recipe, distinctive 'medicine bottle' design and an iconoclastic approach to marketing has not only benefited their own brand, but helped to bring the whole category back into favour.
Sebastien Derbomez, Hendrick's Gin's ambassador for Australia and New Zealand, agrees. "(Hendrick's) played an important role in helping consumers rethink the gin category – stimulating peoples' minds as well as their tastebuds. Hendricks's is always looking for new ways to be innovative and a little unusual, offering for example a different approach to your regular G&T using the cucumber slice as a signature serve."
Since Hendrick's launched, major players including Tanqueray and Beefeater have also launched luxury gin lines, Tanqueray Number Ten and Beefeater 24. They employ ingredients such as whole grapefruits, chamomile flowers and even Japanese sencha green tea.
Micro-distilleries in Tasmania, New South Wales and Queensland produce excellent gin and nearly every state in the US seems to sport its own particular brand of juniper spirit using every potable spice, fruit and herb known to man or beast.
But can this gin revival be sustained? Will gin attract a cult status or the same sort of connoisseurship as Scotch whisky? Spencer reckons it's a fair bet it will keep going.
"Gin will have a different following to Scotch as it isn't tied to such history and it is slightly more versatile in flavour, hence lending itself to a younger crowd," he explains. "People are and will continue to be brand loyal, but will certainly be open to more suggestions. Both categories are experiencing a lot of growth and development from a wave of new, cashed-up young drinkers who challenge tradition and stereotypes."
What do you think of gin? New and hip, or old and boring?