History of Gin ~ Our Nations Spirit
We may think of gin as a quintessentially English drink, but our favourite spirit actually has its roots on the Continent – as a Dutch drink, called genever. For most of history it was beer and later, brandy that the English swilled. But then, in 1688 during the centuries-long conflict between Catholics and Protestants, a young Dutch prince and his English wife snatched the English crown in a bloodless revolution.
That king was William of Orange, a protestant who deposed his father in law King James, a Catholic. Thus ushering in a Protestant revival and a new disdain towards Catholic France. In a patriotic fervour, the English ditched their preferred French brandy and began to quaff the favourite spirit of their new king and Gin has remained the national spirit ever since. Taxes on French brandy went way up while taxes on gin were abolished, as were most licensing restrictions. Anyone in the country could distil gin – and distil they did. For many Gin was actually considered cleaner than water.
The Gin Craze
Over the next decades, the streets of London, from the famous Drury Lane to the Seven Dials of Covent Garden, drowned in gin. Profitable to distil, cheap to buy and at times quite toxic to drink, the gin of the 18th century bears little resemblance to the spirit we love today. It was an instant hit with all strata of society, but it was when the destitute – crammed into slums, freezing and starving, with little hope for the future – wholeheartedly embraced the spirit that the ‘Gin Craze’ was truly born.
The social historian Thomas Fielding wrote in 1751, “The drunkenness I here intend is by this poison called Gin, the principal sustenance (if it may be so called) of more than a hundred thousand people in this Metropolis.”
As the papers howled about social disintegration, the artist Hogarth finished his famous print ‘Gin Lane’ and the middle classes fretted over the loosening morals of the working class so the government leapt into action. A series of laws passed in the early to mid 1700s, culminating in the Gin Act of 1751 introduced high taxes on gin and shut down the majority of distillation.
George Bishop ~ A Maidstone Pioneer
George Bishop, a native of Maidstone was a young man when the final Gin Act was introduced. A keen businessman and distinguished distiller he chose to excel his knowledge and in 1774 travelled to Holland to acquire the art of distilling the celebrated Schiedam gin. On his return to England he was determined to set up the industry in his home town and produce a spirit of the highest quality. Not put off by the changing laws he personally lobbied government, arguing that the spirit should be produced in a controlled and regulated manner, and that a quality UK product would prevent smuggling. So effective was his persuasion that an Act of parliament decreed George Bishop could distill Maidstone geneva (gin)and not pay certain duties.
Maidstone ~ Contributing to the Nations Rich Distilling Heritage
By 1785 George Bishop had built a new distillery, an impressive building which dominated the Maidstone skyline. George also served as mayor in 1778 and 1787, and together with his family contributed richly to the community of Maidstone. In the years that followed Maidstone Gin would become important on both the national and international stages.
The Distillery at Maidstone gained significant notoriety. By 1803 it was renowned for producing one of the finest Gins of all Europe, referred to as Maidstone Gin or Maidstone geneva. The caricature above, published by James Gillray of London, depicts Napoleon and his wife Josephine, sitting at a table with members of their court, enjoying the spoils of England after the “invasion”. The caricature is a satirical spin of a famous painting and shows the hand of God casting judgement as those depicted carve up all the best that England had to offer - the Bank of England, St James’ Palace, the Tower of London and as can be seen various bottles lie strewn around, one depicting “Maidstone”, recognising the significance of the spirit as one which was enjoyed by even the French and Napoleon himself.
Maidstone Spirits ~ A National Treasure
The great popularity of Maidstone gin was because of its extra strength and quality. It was 83 proof, or 47.5% abv. The demand for the spirit was so large that in a short space of time it became a principle article of sale in nearly every town and village in the country. At the height of production, the distillery was producing 5000 gallons each week. The distillery also sold brandy, rum and other distilled liquors. Upon the death of George Bishop in 1793 the distillery passed to his relatives, and due to their mis-management the distillery was sold in 1818 and closed shortly afterwards. It was later in the mid 1850’s that Maidstone's strong connection to spirit making would continue and Thomas Grant set up a new distillery in Maidstone on Hart Street. At the time he produced a hand bill outlining the new distillery and making a case for the historical importance of Maidstone Gin.
“….so highly was the gin esteemed, and the loss felt, that hundreds of spirit merchants, for many years after, professed to have a remnant; and even to this date (1857) there are as most can testify, numerous old public houses in London with MAIDSTONE GIN in large characters above their doors. In 1838 the father of the present proprietor began to distil this gin at Dover, and the celebrity it has again obtained since that period, has induced the proprietor to erect a new distillery at Maidstone, with all the improvements of modern times, including steam power. And to ensure its being genuine the corks are branded with “Maidstone Distillery”….”
This Maidstone distillery went on to produce other fine spirits including the renowned "Morello Cherry Brandy" acclaimed as the "Nations Liqueur" and favoured by Queen Victoria herself. The distillery also operated various cellars and warehouses and produced other spirits including liqueurs and even Whisky! The sale of spirits by the Maidstone distillery was discontinued about 1982, thus terminating the production of spirits for which Maidstone was famous for two hundred years.
Today we aim to re-claim this legacy for Maidstone, a new Distillery rooted in the heart of the community, committed to taste, quality and contributing positively in our local area.