Cumbrian gin – invented in Kendal

‘Cumbrian gin’ as a search term pulls up some tempting modern offerings. But did you know a Kendal distiller wrote a best-selling book about it in 1725?

Gin is in. According to a feature in the Financial Times in 2017, there were then 233 gin producers in the UK.

These days, there are pubs dedicated to gin, a wealth of variations on sale in shops, and birthday cards and tea towels and aprons with gin-related jokes. 

And today is World Gin Day – so the perfect day for a post on Cumbrian gin… in the 18th Century.

A pictorial health warning!

Today, there is a UK chain of gin pubs called Hogarths. What the 18th satirist would have thought of that, we can only wonder. For in his day, gin was firmly Mother’s Ruin: a bane on society. William Hogarth’s 1751 print Gin Lane is an image of squalor and degradation: ‘“calculated to reform some reigning Vices peculiar to the lower Class of People”. 

A BBC Culture article describes the scene:

“alcoholic mothers pour gin into the mouths of their offspring. The central figure, a crazed, half-naked prostitute with syphilitic sores on her legs, is oblivious of her baby tumbling to its death…’

Hogarth’s moral objections to alcohol only went so far, mind you. His companion print Beer Lane:

‘features healthy, well-fed labourers at leisure, enjoying large, frothing tankards of the national brew’.

Cumbrian gin

The FT article doesn’t explain how/why gin has become fashionable – and respectable. It does contain a Cumbrian connection: a Kendal distiller called George Smith, who “published a small, unassuming-looking handbook called A Compleat Body of Distilling”. (The first edition was published in 1725. It proved so popular, there are further editions in 1731 and 1749).

Smith’s work was intended for medicinal purposes. It includes a recipe for Plague Water, which was basically a bunch of herbs in a malt spirit base. To make it, you had to forage for: rue, rosemary, balm, carduus, scordium, mint, marigolds, dragons, goats-rue, angelica, butterbur, masterwort, peony and scorzonera.

As well as protecting you from the plague, Smith claimed it was a good remedy for colic, gripes, faintings and ill-digestion.

It also had “a peculiar virtue to dispose one to sleep”!

Yes, but what about Cumbrian gin?

George Smith observed that geneva/juniper water (ie gin) ‘has gain’d such universal applause, especially with the common people, that… there is more of it in quantity sold daily… than of beer and ale vended in most public houses’. 

George Smith recommended gin to anyone suffering from flatulence! He also promotes it as a diuretic, because while it ‘adheres to the inner tunick of the inteftines’, it also ‘deterges and cleanses the reins’ (kidneys). Added to that, gin is supposed to cure barrenness, help periods, and ‘be of service’ with jaundice!

His explanation as how it helps barrenness is a worthy one. Can’t help thinking Hogarth’s view of gin had more to do with women gin-drinkers getting pregnant than Smith’s theories about ‘superfluous humidities of the matrix’.

The first part of George Smith’s book is recipes. They include one for Nutmeg Water, said to cure headaches, strengthen the memory, and improve eyesight.

And there is another for Surfeit Water, which includes several handfuls of poppy flowers. Smith tells readers that: ‘…poppy flowers, by their anodyne quality, allay pain and induce pleasant and quiet sleep’.

He also recommends a infusion of scurvy-grass (Cochlearia), limes and lemons, to cure scurvy. He of course didn’t have a clue about vitamin C, but he was on the right track when it came to treating scurvy.

Don’t try this at home

The second part of the book is about setting up a still and using it, including sound advice on ‘the danger of candles etc brought too near a still’. He was aiming mostly at a commercial market: think today’s micro-distilleries, rather than individual members of the public in their garden shed.

The gin craze may have fizzled out by the time Cumbria got its own local newspapers, but people were still getting drunk! And drunkenness was still a major concern for responsible folk. 

More on that another time.

For now: cheers!


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