Once upon a time, gin rivalled beer as England’s most popular drink.
During the 18th century, despite being derided as the scourge of English society, its popularity soared and by the 1830s, London – at the time, the biggest city in the world – was awash with gin parlours.
But gin’s flavour soon fell out of favour, and for the latter half of the 20th century “mother’s ruin” became old hat.
Gin, like sherry, became the drink of a bygone age, still favoured by the older generation but shunned by the new wave.
Over the last decade, though, the tide has turned.
Tied in with a cocktail revolution, gin is once more on the up with predictions that gin sales could soon overtake vodka.
In Birmingham, the gin revival was given a massive boost in 2009 with the opening of a dedicated gin parlour at the Jekyll and Hyde.
The new bar, part of Birmingham’s Bitters’n’Twisted chain (which includes The Victoria, Bodega and The Rose Villa Tavern), was launched in Steelhouse Lane, in what was previously The Queen’s Head pub, bringing a modern purple exterior to the city’s historic legal and financial quarter.
Carl Hawkins, who was general manager of the bar, says: “When we opened I was looking for an angle – something to make the place different.
“The bar is in the heart of the financial and legal district of Birmingham and at the time the credit crunch was in full force so I wanted something quintessentially British that would appeal to both men and women working in those sectors. Gin was a unique point of difference and was very diverse in terms of who it could appeal to.
“And the upstairs space in the bar had an old-world Victoriana feel to it so we hoped it would win some national recognition for the city, which it has.”
They started with a small selection of 30 gins in May 2009 and over five years steadily increased the supply, now stocking more than 90.
“We were at the forefront of the gin revival,” says Carl, “and that’s a really nice thing to be able to say.
“We found people started to seek us out, travelling from around the country to visit the gin parlour because none of the other key cities were doing gin like we were at that time.”
But others soon followed.
London has enjoyed a gin revival with specialist parlours springing up across the city and standard bars extending their selections.
And in Oxford, The Feathers Hotel now holds the Guinness World Record for stocking the most gins at 200.
“Most cities now have a gin parlour,” says Carl, “but we were the first to really make a feature of it.” He adds: “I think there’s a big movement now around going back to the origins of cocktails, with bars like the Lost and Found emerging out of this Victoriana revival. Before the late nineties, there were a limited amount of cocktail bars, and the focus was on entertainment-driven places like TGI Fridays.
“But since then bartending culture has gone through a rebirth. Bartenders are now going back to check the origins of these spirits that emerged in the 1800s, wanting to reflect how drinks would have tasted back then. Bartenders at the time had a much smaller portfolio to work with and had to create their own syrups and cordials, becoming a cottage industry.”
With the rise of specialist cocktail bars, in 2005 the Birmingham Association of Bartenders was born, bringing drinks ambassadors to the city. Carl, who is now Birmingham’s ambassador for the locally distilled Langley’s No.8 gin, spent five years at the Jekyll and Hyde before leaving this year to work on plans for a new bar in the Jewellery Quarter.
He says: “Birmingham has a massive reputation when it comes to the culinary side of things but with drinks it’s been seen as lagging behind Manchester and Leeds.
“Actually there’s a really good underground culture of bartenders here who are committed to raising the standards and profile of drinks in Birmingham, stressing that it’s about quality, not quantity.”
As the gin revival has brought new bars, it’s also sparking new gins, with the last five years seeing a dramatic surge in the number of craft gin producers. In the three years leading up to 2011, just five new micro distilleries came into being. But five more were launched in 2012 alone, and last year a further 11 sprang up, with 15 more expected to join the race by this Christmas.
In Birmingham, Langley’s No.8 is the new kid on the block, starting production last year at Langley’s distillery, one of the UK’s largest, on the western edge of the city.
Langley’s Gin will be backing the Pride of Birmingham awards at the Town Hall on September 26 and are creating a special Pride of Birmingham gin cocktail to mark the occasion. This weekend it hopes to reach a new audience at the first Birmingham Gin Festival, with 1,000 visitors expected over two days at Digbeth’s canalside venue, The Bond. The festival is the brainchild of Jym and Marie Harris, of Keighley, near Bradford. Jym was converted to the tipple after walking into a bar in Newcastle and trying a flight of five gins with different tailored garnishes.
“Before that I had only ever drunk Gordon’s and Bombay Sapphire,” he says.
“It really peaked my interest and I then went to a couple of gin-tasting events, expecting to find gins I’d never found before but they didn’t have anything I couldn’t buy from the supermarket. I was a bit disappointed and then started talking to my wife about starting a gin festival to do it ourselves.”
Running the Exchange music venue in Keighley, Jym now stocks 50 different gins behind the bar.
He and Marie started the Gin Festival concept last year and are now taking it around the country. He says: “Birmingham is very well placed for gin drinkers.
Langley’s distillery is one of the biggest producers in the UK and if you have a great distillery like that on your doorstep making fantastic products you’ll inspire other people to go out and start making gins too. Gin is becoming more and more mainstream.
“It helps that there are people round the country helping to spread the message that you don’t have to go into your local pub and ask for a standard gin and tonic with ice and a slice.”