COVID-19: Updates on library services and operations.

Craze : gin and debauchery in an age of reason : consisting of a tragicomedy in three acts in which high and low are brought together, much to their mutual discomfort : complete with stories, some witty and some not, conducive to meditation on recent events /
Jessica Warner.
New York : Four Walls Eight Windows, c2002.
xviii, 267 p. : ill.
1568582315 (cloth)
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Strong Waters

Since to drive away cares, or the plague of Dull Thinking, All men more or less give themselves to good Drinking, To refresh their tir'd Senses, and chase away Sorrow, Grief, Pain, and the troublesome thoughts of to morrow: Yet in the choice of the Liquors Disputes have arisen, What to one Palate's grateful, to others is Poison ...

RICHARD AMES, The Bacchanalian Sessions , 1693

ON 27 OCTOBER 1688, William of Orange, stadtholder of the United Provinces of the Netherlands and husband of Mary, daughter of James II of England, was stranded in the small Dutch port of Hellevoetsluys. His old enemy, Louis XIV of France, was once again on the move, and French troops were poised to invade the Netherlands. A few miles away, in the stormy waters of the North Sea, William had at great cost and even greater risk assembled an armada of 225 ships, ostensibly to come to the rescue of his fellow Protestants in England. Winter was fast approaching, and with it the prospect that William would not only have to call off his invasion of England, but also leave his own country vulnerable to being invaded by the French. The following day, however, the storms that had been buffeting the Dutch fleet lifted; two days later William set sail; and four months later, with James II now in ignominious exile in France, William was crowned along with his wife Mary.

A triumphant Parliament had toppled a Catholic and crowned a Protestant. But it had done so at the price of dragging England into an interminable conflict with France. At the time no one could have predicted how long or how costly that conflict would be. Over the next 126 years, from Blenheim to the Plains of Abraham to Waterloo, England would fight a total of six wars against a country much larger than itself, each time adding to the national debt and forcing Parliament to raise ever larger amounts of money for men, ships, and weapons.

One of the ways in which Parliament raised money for the wars of William III and his successors was by taxing a beverage called gin. Aside from its name, this beverage bore little resemblance to what now passes for gin. It was made from the worst possible ingredients, and because of this it was flavored with fruits and other additives in an attempt to mask its harsh and musty taste. Gin was the punch of the poor, and for one generation, from 1720 until the passage of the eighth and final Gin Act in 1751, the taxes paid on this homely beverage helped finance the acquisition of an empire while also lining the pockets of its leaders. The story of gin in England is the story of war, taxes, and the greed of a nation's leaders; it is, above all, a modern morality tale, set, as it was, in what was then Europe's largest city and occurring at a time when men and women of all classes were not only eager to experiment with new tastes and sensations, but also suddenly had the means to do so. And so while distilled beverages had been available in England since at least the end of the Middle Ages, their use became problematic only when England started to become something approaching a consumer society and its manufacturers had achieved significant efficiencies in producing and distributing their goods. Even then, the ensuing crisis was for the most part limited to the nation's largest and most modern city. That city was, of course, London-capital and marketplace to an empire.

* * *

That, however, was all in the future. Our story begins several centuries earlier and hundreds of miles away, in the Italian university town of Salerno. It was there, in the early twelfth century, that spirits were first distilled from wine. Like opium, these spirits were originally used as a type of medicine, under the guise of aqua vitæ , or water of life. From Italy they made their way across Europe, first in the southern grape-growing regions, and only much later in regions too inclement to produce grapes. These early spirits were commonly known as brandy, or burnt wine, and for several generations they were neither widely drunk nor widely distributed. It was not until the end of the Middle Ages that aqua vitæ emerged as a popular alcoholic beverage in its own right. In 1496, for example, the city of Nuremberg restricted sales of brandy because it was already a cause of "serious misconduct and disorder." Over the next several decades a series of other German cities, including Augsburg, also placed restrictions on its sale and use.

Even as distilled spirits entered the mass market, they continued to be widely used as a medicine, and this doubtless added to their appeal while also blinding consumers to their potentially deleterious effects. When, for example, a young woman in Hackney "was taken with a violent Fit of the Cholick" in 1738, her landlady "gave her a Glass of Geneva, which gave her Ease." And when in 1737 a pauper woman was found naked in a ditch outside London, local workers kindly revived her with a glass of gin. Because distilled spirits continued to be used as a medicine, contemporaries were caught off guard when they were first widely sold as a recreational beverage. Abruptly and without warning, men and women were faced with a seemingly insurmountable paradox: the same substance that seemed to revive some was also capable of harming and even killing others.

Because they could not grow grapes, northern Europeans were at a considerable disadvantage when it came to distilling, and it was only over the course of the sixteenth century that they finally mastered the art of distilling spirits from mashed grains. By the second half of the century Poles were already distilling and drinking spirits from grain, albeit in small quantities. At the same time the Scots were producing whiskey in ever-increasing quantities, so much so that in 1555, and then again in 1579, production had to be temporarily banned in order to avert shortages of grain. For the time being, however, these beverages were generally of poor quality, and unlike brandy, were unfit for export. Then, in the mid-seventeenth century, the Dutch invented the beverage that is now known as gin. Credit for the invention goes to Franciscus de la Boe, otherwise known as Dr. Sylvius, of the University of Leyden. The new beverage was originally known as genever , and it was made by redistilling pure malt spirits with juniper berries. This process made for a smooth and reasonably palatable beverage that was, in its own way, almost as good as French brandy.

One of the markets for this new and greatly improved beverage was England, which by the end of the sixteenth century was already importing large quantities of French brandy. The Elizabethan satirist Thomas Nashe, writing in 1592, included among his rogues' gallery of drunkards Fol Lang the Fencer, who died "sodainly ... drinking Aqua vitæ ." A sermon dating from 1624 mentions "three young men meeting to drinke strong waters" in Essex; these they drank in half pints, with the result that "one fell dead in the roome, and the other prevented by company coming in, escaped not without much sickness." By 1635 there were already drinking games to determine who could drink the most aqua vitæ , Three women, for example, might share "a bottle of Aquavitæ, or Strong-Waters ... till two of them decease ... then the surviving Gossip may carry away the Bottle whole (if she breake it not by the way) and that by the way of survivership." "We have strong waters," John Taylor recorded in 1637, adding that they are "stronger much than Wine: One with a quart of water drunke may be."

By 1643, distilled spirits were sufficiently common in England to be included among the luxuries subject to the excise duties newly imposed by Parliament. They were originally taxed at the rate of eightpence per gallon; in 1654, the rate was reduced to just twopence per gallon for spirits manufactured in England, but it was increased by fourpence per gallon on imported spirits. Three years later, an act of Parliament mentioned the existence of "strongwater houses," while according to Defoe the nation "suddenly ... began to abound in strong Water-Shops" upon the cessation of hostilities with the Netherlands in 1674. These shops sold crudely flavored spirits, of which a beverage known as aniseed water was the most popular.

By the second half of the seventeenth century, then, there was already a strong demand for distilled spirits in England, with those who could afford them insisting on French brandy or Dutch gin. Both imports owed their popularity to the conspicuous failure of English distillers to produce a drinkable beverage. This failure, in turn, can be attributed to the use of ingredients that were at once inferior and indiscriminate; whether by accident or by design, these ingredients were used as long as grain was both scarce and expensive, that is, from the early days of the industry in the late sixteenth century until well into the seventeenth century. In 1593, a man by the name of Richard Drake was granted a patent to produce distilled spirits. The same patent authorized Drake to correct existing abuses in the trade, including the use of hogwash and brewers' dregs by local distillers. Drake, however, would appear to have failed in his mission, for as late as 1668 members of the London Company of Distillers were still using such unappetizing ingredients as "Afterworts of Wash ... musty unsavory or unwholesome Tilts or Dregs of Beer or Ale," "unwholesome or adulterated wines," and "unwholesome sugar-waters."

* * *

It was not until the early 1720s that English distillers succeeded in producing a halfway drinkable beverage, coinciding with an appreciable drop in the real price of wheat and other grains. They did so by making two simple changes. First, some-but by no means all-started to use marginally better ingredients, primarily in the form of malted corn, molasses, and cider. Sir Joseph Jekyll noted as much in 1736, claiming that thirty or forty years earlier, the industry had used only "the worst of our Grain." But again, only some distillers went this route, while the industry as a whole was anxious to avoid even the appearance of using grain that might instead be used for bread. Hence the distillers' insistence in 1736 that they were still using "the worst of grain," or what was commonly known as "Distiller's Grain." This was, to quote one of their hacks, nothing more than "coarse foul damaged Grain" that was unfit for bread.

The second change made by the distillers was as cheap as it was effective, and that was simply to mask the product's awful taste by compounding it with a variety of additives, most of them sweet and fruity. These included aniseed, juniper berries, elderberries, sugar, cherries, raspberries, and other fruits. The mix was then diluted with water, providing the poor with a cheap substitute for the fruit punches enjoyed by the rich. English distillers had, in the words of Defoe, finally "found out a way to hit the palate of the poor, by their new fashioned compound water, called Geneva...."

Like Dutch gin, Geneva, or English gin, went through two stages of production. In the first, malt distillers produced pure spirits, or what were known as low wines. Large-scale enterprises dominated this end of the trade, and in greater London they were represented by the Company of Distillers. Because their operations were large and thus difficult to conceal, they were easily monitored by local excisemen. The ease with which they could be monitored and taxed, along with the fact that many of the men in the trade were politically well-connected, helps to account for why Parliament was often sympathetic to their interests.

In the second stage of production, low wines were delivered to compound distillers. Compound distillers were so-called because they compounded or flavored raw spirits with a variety of additives. It was at this juncture, too, that they diluted the mix with water. Once this was done the finished spirits were sold by a wide variety of individuals, including the compound distillers themselves. Unlike the wholesale distillers, the compound distillers were both numerous and small-scale, making it fairly easy for them to evade both regulation and taxation. By the same token, they were easy targets whenever Parliament chose to rein in the sales of distilled spirits. Relations between compound distillers and members of the London Company of Distillers were ambivalent at best. Compound distillers provided a ready and seemingly inexhaustible market for pure malt spirits, but because they catered primarily to the poor, they ultimately threatened the reputation of the entire industry.

The growing use of additives, along with the occasional use of better grains, was the single most important factor in creating a market for English spirits, the consumption of which climbed steadily from 1720 on. Defoe, writing on behalf of the London Company of Distillers in 1726, observed that "the ordinary people are now so very well satisfied with the malt spirits, and especially with their new compositions, that they do not seek French brandy in such a manner that they formerly did." Over the next several years English distillers continued to improve their product, although it is unclear how many of their innovations were intended for the low-end market. In 1728, The London Evening-Post reported that a patent had been issued to "Mr. Stammers, a Distiller," granting him "the sole Use and Benefit, for the Term of Years therein specified, of his new Invention for rendring English Spirits equally as good as French Brandy." An advertisement dating from January of 1736 boasted of "BRANDY, universally confessed as fine as any Foreign ; and daily more and more used instead of it," adding that it was selling "less than Half foreign Price"; at the same time, the advertiser offered "GENEVA, of the Right HOLLAND Sort, (made in London ) the most different thing in the World from the English Geneva."

Despite these modest advances, concerns over their ability to compete with foreign spirits continued to dog English distillers for many more years, and are writ large in the rhetorical skirmishes preceding the enactment of the famous Gin Act of 1736.


Excerpted from Craze by JESSICA WARNER Copyright © 2002 by Jessica Warner
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 2003-04-01:
Beginning in 1720, England, and especially London, was in the apparent grip of a "gin craze" that lasted until mid-century. Warner (Univ. of Toronto) deftly elucidates the dilemma in which this phenomenon placed the country's ruling elite. On the one hand, the craze provided a market for surplus grain as well as a source of excise taxes for a debt-burdened state; on the other, according to moral reformers at least, it enfeebled the country's working poor, with especially devastating effects on nursing mothers. Hence, Parliament's legislative response was ambivalent and, in any event, largely ineffective in the face of popular resistance. The Gin Act of 1736, designed to curb consumption, was "unmade" by riotous hostility to the use of informers deployed to uncover illicit vendors. The book's artful comparison between the moralistic opponents of gin and current zealots in the "war on drugs" should give it wide appeal. Its main flaw is the author's contradictory assertions that demand for gin was driven by grinding poverty and a rise in discretionary income among London's lower orders. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. All collections at all levels. J. Sainsbury Brock University
Appeared in Library Journal on 2002-10-01:
This is an insightful account of gin, the new drink that emerged with a vengeance in London in 1720. Warner (graduate professor, Univ. of Toronto) illustrates that the economic circumstances were ideal for both gin production and its ready consumption. The drink's main proponents were the landowners who produced the grain and the working poor for whom gin was cheap and readily available. Parliament both welcomed it as a source of tax revenue and introduced legislation to limit its use. Gin's enemies were the moral reformers who focused solely on its detrimental effect on "polite society." Numerous failed Gin Acts (eight in all) were introduced to address these perceived social ills. Warner closely examines the custom of paid informers, a corollary of the introduced legislation, and contends that this practice did more to undermine society than gin ever could. She highlights the flamboyant characters of Prime Minister Walpole and reformer Joseph Jekyll, as well as the often tragic stories of ordinary folk. Warner draws parallels between the gin craze and our current drug problems. An interesting and educational read, this book is recommended for all public libraries. Isabel Coates, CCRA-Toronto West Tax Office, Mississauga, Ont. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2002-08-05:
Gin took London by storm in the first half of the 18th century. It "was the original urban drug," says Warner in this intriguing slice of social history. "Cheap, potent, and readily available," it aided London's poor in escaping the wretchedness of their lives and was considered a public menace by Daniel Defoe and Samuel Johnson. (Hogarth's famous print Gin Lane imagined a nightmarish world destroyed by a seemingly demonic drink.) Warner, a University of Toronto professor, gives us the whole story of gin: where it came from (Holland), who drank it (a large percentage were women), how it was perceived among elites (as a threat to the nation), and how legislative efforts to curb consumption fared (badly). Due to its popularity among the English lower classes, gin became synonymous with squalor. And as back-alley gin-shops doubled as meeting places for thieves, gin also became associated with debauchery and criminality. Warner brings us inside these rundown, unlicensed gin shops to show us how and where gin was consumed. and into Parliament, which in 1736 passed the "most notorious" of a series of Gin Acts, which ended in failure. Gin consumption increased; moreover, the laws created a working-class atmosphere of "open contempt for the law and its agents." In the book's final chapter, Warner paints an interesting parallel between the "gin craze" and the recent war on drugs. This informative and accessible popular history should appeal to those with a taste for 18th-century English history as well to those interested in histories of mind-altering substances, such as Dominic Streatfeild's recent Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography, Richard Davenport-Hines's The Pursuit of Oblivion and the forthcoming Out of It: A Cultural History of Intoxication by Stuart Walton (Forecasts, July 29). Illus. (Oct. 21) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews, July 2002
Publishers Weekly, August 2002
Library Journal, October 2002
ForeWord Magazine, November 2002
Reference & Research Book News, November 2002
ForeWord Magazine, January 2003
New York Times Book Review, January 2003
Choice, April 2003
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Table of Contents
Preface and Acknowledgementsp. IX
Dramatis Personaep. XIII
Introductionp. I
In Which A New and Bewitching Liquor Is Introduced to an Unwary Nation
Strong Watersp. 21
A Curious Machine Makes a Brief Appearancep. 43
The Ladies Succumbp. 65
In Which Virtue Triumphs Over Prudence
A Lesson in Political Arithmeticp. 85
A Whig and a Prigp. 105
Enter the Informersp. 135
Exit the Informersp. 161
In Which Time Passes and Wisdom Is Gained
Mother Gin Grows Oldp. 181
The Author Also Grows Old, and, Reluctant to Conclude the Narrative, Meditates upon Recent Eventsp. 209
Chronologyp. 221
Notesp. 225
Indexp. 263
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

This information is provided by a service that aggregates data from review sources and other sources that are often consulted by libraries, and readers. The University does not edit this information and merely includes it as a convenience for users. It does not warrant that reviews are accurate. As with any review users should approach reviews critically and where deemed necessary should consult multiple review sources. Any concerns or questions about particular reviews should be directed to the reviewer and/or publisher.

  link to old catalogue

Report a problem