Ruining Mothers and Mosquitoes

The Principle Sin of Gin,
Is, Among Others,
Ruining Mothers.

Called the ‘Mothers Ruin’, this popular ditty from late 19th Century London makes it quite clear that people then did not share my passion for Gin (although mostly accompanied with Tonic, as far as I am concerned). In fact, Gin was not very affectionately called, among other things — ‘Mother’s Ruin’, ‘Slappy Bonita’, and ‘The Makeshift’. Considering the circumstances, one cannot blame them. The widespread use of gin, through more than 8000 ‘establishments’ in London alone, was the cause of a widespread drinking epidemic among women and even children.

Gin is not a popular drink in India yet, though it is coming up. Across the world, however, Gin is having its ‘moment’. Its antecedents, however, are far from fashionable. The word used would, in fact, be disreputable. Gin became famous, or notorious, in London, as the ditty above indicates. Londoners used to drink a lot of wine, and all of that came from France. Now we know that even much before the time of Sarkozy and Bruni, the British have not looked very kindly on the French. In the 18th century, in fact, they were at war. The first thing that the Brits did to punish the French was to impose a very heavy customs duty on all foreign spirits, and simultaneously greatly incentivise and delicense the production of local swill, which mostly turned out to be gin. Sodden with patriotic spirit, the British citizenry responded enthusiastically to their government’s moves and started imbibing gin as if it was going out of fashion. Thousands of ginneries came up, all using inferior grain and polluted water, which the beer brewers had rejected. Londoners started dying like flies, and the government was forced to clamp down on the industry it had itself evangelised. Duties were raised, gin pottages destroyed, thousands arrested, riots ensued; in fact, the war on gin is often seen as a model for the war on drugs these days!

Gin came back into fashion again, however. And again the British had a hand in it; but this time in far off India, the jewel in their crown. Hardy Scotsmen and Britishers and their memsahibs could tolerate everything that India threw at them, but they could not stand the mosquitoes and the malaria it inflicted on their unacquainted bodies. Quinine or Jesuit’s Bark as they called it was their salvation — the only known cure for the shivering death. But while quinine had to be had every day, it was very bitter and almost undrinkable. But it was necessary to have and was excellent for their health, and so it was diluted in water to be had as tonic. Until a particularly afflicted Britisher discovered that the solution was to mix a little bit of gin in it. And gin and tonic was born.

The tonic available today is frankly an apology of what used to be — a hint of artificial quinine and a lot of sugar. But it still does have the Jesuit’s Bark — look at a bottle of good tonic water next you have it, and read the label to make sure that the medicine is there.

Next time when you hold a glass of perfect Hendrick’s or Monkey 47 and Fever Tree Tonic Water in your hand, and hold the liquid to the light, think of this story behind it. You might want to feel bad about the ‘mothers it ruined’. But, on the other hand, you can choose to feel good that what you are drinking is truly medicinal 🙂

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