Historically gin hasn’t had the best reputation, and I think that’s exactly why Orwell gave it such a prominent role in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s known to be addictive and mood altering, cheap and easy to make, even during hard times. So to recreate VICTORY GIN, I needed to go back to the beginning for inspiration.
Although there’s a lot of debate over exactly when gin started to be produced, the 16th century seems to be the time, and the Dutch Republic seems to be the place. It was actually used medicinally at first and tasted awful. So bad that the Dutch started to flavor it with juniper berries to improve the taste. This is actually where the name ‘gin’ comes from – genievre and jenever, the French and Dutch words for juniper.
During the Dutch War of Independence, British Troops used to drink it to keep warm on the cold, damp battlefields. They also said it gave them the strength to keep fighting, hence the term ‘Dutch Courage’. Returning soldiers brought gin back to England with them, Dutch royalty William and Mary took the throne, and gin really took off.
A gallon per person
In the early 18th century, gin drinking in England (in particular London), was off the chart. The government turned a blind eye to unregulated and unlicensed gin production, while heavy taxes were put on imported alcohol. This resulted in a period known as the gin craze.
By the 1720s, it’s estimated that 25% of households in London were involved in the gin trade, and the English were drinking around 5 million gallons per year. To put things in perspective, the population at the time was only 5.2 million people.
The stuff the masses were drinking was not good. Producers used poor-quality grain that tasted foul. To improve the flavor, they sometimes distilled the gin with sulphuric acid and flavored it with turpentine. It was quick to make and a lot cheaper to buy than anything else on the market, including beer. Because of this, the poor became the main market for gin, which contributed to deteriorating conditions in the slums – check out Hogarth’s famous print, Gin Lane:
William Hogarth, Gin Lane, 1751.
As a result, Parliament passed five different acts between 1729 and 1751 in an attempt to curb the unfettered production and consumption of gin. But the laws were often met with riots, and the trade just moved underground. It was only after 1751 that things calmed down – in part because the price of grain increased, making production more costly than it once was.
Gin had a resurgence in the Victorian era. Fashionable gin palaces popped up in London, a stark contrast to the poverty-stricken scene of the 1700s. The period also saw the invention of the Coffey still, an apparatus which made distilling a high-quality, consistent gin possible. The gin produced tasted so much better that no sugar was needed post-distillation, bringing about the term ‘Dry Gin’. As most Dry Gin was produced in London, it became known as ‘London Dry Gin’ and many of the famous brands we still drink today such as Gordon’s, Tanqueray, Beefeater, Boodles, and Brokers were born.
Fast forward to Prohibition America and again gin makes an appearance. While some speakeasies sold the coveted imported British gin, many kept profits up by making their own. These homebrews varied. Some used antifreeze to remove toxins from ethyl alcohol, which, if done incorrectly, had deadly consequences. Others made gin through cold compounding, or infusing a base alcohol with aromatics such as juniper instead of needing to distill the alcohol. In other words, it was an easy way to mass-produce gin at low cost and in secret at home using common ingredients.
The product of this cold compounding became known as bathtub gin, which was a rough and ready alcohol. People added sugar or mixed it with fruit juice in a cocktail to make it more palatable. Many gin cocktails developed during this period to combat the taste of poor-quality gin.
Today, gin has made another comeback. We have gin palaces here in London with many wonderful craft distilleries making heavenly, triple-distilled, aromatic, fragrant and floral gins! Luckily a far cry from the tipple’s humble beginnings in turpentine and sulphuric acid, but also a far cry from the VICTORY GIN I need to recreate…
So how can I apply all this history to making VICTORY GIN? There are a few things we can draw on from the gin’s colorful past, both practically and contextually.
Firstly, governmental policy that led to mass gin production in the 1720s was protectionist. In other words, let’s only drink what we can make at home, none of that foreign stuff. Ingsoc adopts the same policy in Nineteen Eighty-Four, so in some ways it’s a great example of fiction mirroring history.
Next, the gin craze showed that cheap alcohol leads to an addicted and compliant population. Winston’s description, ‘[the] burning in his belly died down and the world began to look more cheerful…’ resonates here. The population of Oceania is given VICTORY GIN everywhere – home, work, extracurricular activities – leaving the population indifferent and cooperative.
Practically speaking, the London Dry Gin from the Victorian period dominated the market from the 1800s forward. This type of gin is recognizable by its strong juniper flavor, which makes it oily and pungent, just like the VICTORY GIN described by Winston in 1984.
Lastly, in terms of production method, I thought bathtub gin seemed a more likely process since it’s cheaper and faster to produce. Also, Winston always drinks his VICTORY GIN from a teacup, which is a nod to this Prohibition-era sneakiness.
I did a lot of research into how to make your own bathtub gin at home and, quite surprisingly, learned that gin is made from a base spirit. Back in the day this was pretty nasty and dangerous stuff. Today, I’ll use a mid-range vodka.
For the botanicals, I went heavy on the juniper for an oily taste and added some peppercorns and coriander seed as a base. Then I took inspiration from the Chestnut Tree Café’s specialty gin that was flavored with cloves and saccharine. So I added whole cloves with liquorice root and cassia bark for sweetness. There’s a little dried orange peel at the end for fun.
I’m no master distiller, but my VICTORY GIN was a fun experiment. It has a killer kick and made my eyes water a bit, but since that’s how VICTORY GIN is supposed to taste, I’m pretty pleased. And honestly, it’s pretty good when mixed. Overall, it was a lot of fun to make, so I’d definitely recommend giving it a try. Have some fun with the botanicals and make sure to start on Thursday so it’s ready for the weekend!
- 500 ml glass bottle*
- 500 ml vodka
- 4 tbsp juniper berries
- 2 black peppercorns
- 1 tsp whole cloves
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1 liquorice root
- 1 cassia bark
- 2 inches dried orange peel
First sterilize the bottle
Wash your bottle well with hot water and dish soap.
Place in a pot and fill to the top with water, completely covering your bottle.
Bring the water to a strong boil for 10 minutes.
Use tongs to remove the bottle, set on a tea towel or paper towel to cool and dry.
Now make your gin
Put all the dried spices and aromatics into the empty bottle.
Fill the bottle with vodka.
Leave in a cool, dark place to infuse for 24 hours.
Add dried orange peel, and leave to sit in a cool, dark place for another 24 hours.
Taste to see if the gin has infused enough. If not, let sit for max another 12 hours. Don’t let the gin infuse too long – you can overdo it.
Once the gin is ready, pour the liquid through a sieve into a measuring cup to remove the botanicals.**
Pour filtered gin back into your bottle and if there is any sediment, filter using a coffee filter or muslin. Otherwise, enjoy!
*Make sure your glass bottle is made of tempered glass and doesn’t have any cracks. I first used a very cute sloe gin bottle, but it wasn’t tempered and cracked when I added the boiling water to sterilize it. I cut my hand pretty badly, so please be careful here!
**Don't worry if your gin isn't totally clear. As you can see in the top image, mine had a hint of color from the botanicals, which is totally normal in cold compounded gin!