From Miss Hannigan to "Mother's Ruin," gin-drinking has long been associated with slovenly women. Now, its image is changing. But why—and do we even want it to?by Maeve Marsden / April 10, 2018 / Leave a comment
There’s something about the way Carol Burnett lurches into frame, bottle in hand, halfway through the 1982 film Annie; before you’re told anything about gin-loving tyrant Miss Agatha Hannigan you know her. You just know her. Not to take away from Ms Burnett’s well-documented acting chops or her impeccable comic timing, but like the orphan-makes-good narrative Annie is based on, the trope of the fallen gin-soaked woman is as familiarly Dickensian as they come.
Gin has been inextricably linked to gender for centuries. Mother’s Milk; Madame Genever; Mother’s Ruin—these are just a few of the many epithets showing that the intersection of gin and women is historical, and well, hysterical. I mean, it’s distilled grain base alcohol, juniper and botanicals for heaven’s sake—not créme de feminist. So, how did this little beverage come to be so feminised, and why is it—now gin is experiencing such an upsurge in popularity—that feminisation has fallen by the wayside?
At every hipster bar, and in homes around the world, masculine men-folk can be found quaffing the juniper juice and nattering in high-nerd about the qualities of various botanicals. We’ve come a long way from James Bond’s slavish devotion to a vodka martini so defiantly masculine he not only avoided the much superior gin version, he insisted on it being vigorously shaken—ruinous for a martini—for that extra bit of testosterone.
I don’t mean to make Sean Connery the fall guy here. As a bloke, he could have totally pulled off gin-drinking without too much backlash, even a few decades before its current explosion in popularity. Humphrey Bogart did in Casablanca, Tennessee Williams was partial, and so too was Gatsby. Women gin drinkers, though, were plagued by a stereotype that has been kicking around since the 18th century. Women working outside of the home, women having children out of wedlock and women earning a living as sex workers; the amalgamated moral outrage culminated in a boilerplate ‘fallen woman’, very often pictured gin-in-hand.
Gin first arrived on British shores with William of Orange, and the Dutchman’s timing was impeccable. French Brandy had been the staple liquor of choice in England, but after too many Anglo-French wars to recount, drinking the product of one’s sworn enemy was deemed unpatriotic. To lure the well-to-do from brandy to the newly arrived ‘Madame Genever’ the government fiddled with distilling laws, allowing anyone to distil spirits from grain. Voila! Everyone from Queen Anne to Members of Parliament became committed British gin drinkers.
A bumper British grain crop saw a drop in food prices, and a rise in wages. The great urbanisation of Britain had begun with thousands of people flocking weekly to the capital to live in slums, without potable water. Unfettered grain distilling made gin the cheapest beverage around, and the poor, till now unused to anything stronger than ale, took to it like a fish to water or, well, like an underclass of starving, overworked, underpaid populace to a cheap and highly addictive substance suddenly flooding their communities (here’s looking at you, crack cocaine).
In dramshops all over London, a caustic spirit so undrinkable the addition of turpentine was said to improve its flavour was being consumed at the rate of more than 11 million gallons per year. Gin: cheap, warm, less inclined to pathogens than water and more accessible than a loaf of bread, was the primary form of sustenance in the growing slums, for men, women, and children.
The streets seethed with drunkenness, and inevitably interfered with the means of production—drawing the attention of the upper classes, and in turn, the government.
The temperance movement gained traction, and a campaign to curtail the imbibing of the poor chose to focus on the “ruining” of women, an ideal group with which to stress propriety considering the sensibilities of the time; stories circulated about women selling their children for gin, dropping their babies into the fire in a drunken stupor, feeding their children gin in lieu of milk, and so gin became Mother’s Milk, Mother’s Tears or Mother’s Ruin.
While many of these stories were true, and indeed records show countless arrests and convictions, propaganda employed in attempts to curb the gin craze focused on these cases, not the many men engaging in similarly dangerous and neglectful behaviour.
Eventually, a grain shortage forced a stoppage in distilling and the gin craze ground to a halt, the government found a way to tax gin more profitably, the price rose, and it became a drink of the middle classes. The problems of poverty and class raged on, of course—only without the warm buffering a gallon of gin provided. But the association with gin and women, especially working class women, stayed with us, buoyed by the now famous Hogarth etchings, Beer Street and Gin Lane.
300 years on and we’re experiencing a very different gin craze. You’d be hard pushed to find a pub that doesn’t have a decent range, and it’s knocked back with vigour by men and women alike. Aside from shaking off its is association with poor women, or perhaps because of it, gin has become quite the industry. In 2017 British gin sales topped out at 16 million bottles, worth £413 million. Politically, logistically, this can be attributed to changes in the distilling laws a couple of decades ago, but culturally, we can observe a masculinisation of the spirit, Master Distillers—the vast majority of whom are men—lionised like James Bonds of distillation. When gin was being made at home by the underclasses, it was a women’s drink; now that it’s ‘posh’, the dudes have it. It is now so unburdened by feminity, ‘gin drinker’ is as much an identity as being a fan of a particular football team.
So what will become of my favourite drink in its next incarnation? Or, perhaps more pertinently, what will be the next stereotypically female pursuit to get the gin treatment? Will we see men’s competitive ironing? Here’s hoping. In the meantime, I’m not willing to let gin’s ties with women be forgotten. If you can’t handle me at my Miss Hannigan, you don’t deserve me at my bearded hipster.
Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret about Gin will run in London April 17-21 before continuing its tour. Find out more, and book, here.