First, let me clear up a few things.
This isn't medical advice. I'm not a doctor; not even close. I was pre-med in college, but that hardly qualifies me for fuck-all.
This is not a definitive history on gin, on mixology, or on pretty much anything else. What I'm saying here, as far as I can tell, or as much as I've manipulated it to be so, is the truth. (I've left a trail of citations at the end if you are so inclined to check.) But, again, that doesn't mean you should heed any of this as any form of advice. Just read, drink your gin, and carry on with your happy life as usual.
Now, I have to warn you. This blog entry has COVID. That is to say, it's a pandemic-related piece, mentioning the pandemic, referencing the pandemic, even going back to the last pandemic a hundred years ago. If you've had enough of COVID shit—yeah, tell me about it—then don't read any further. Just open Instagram, drink your gin, and go on with your happy life as usual.
So here I am in Bangkok. A life full of traveling sans the traveling. Itchy masks, moisture-depleting hand sanitizer, pointless temperature checks (if I now have a fever, you were screwed when I was crammed with you into a shopping queue or an elevator a week ago).
At the time I am writing this, I just had to close the (hidden) door to my cocktail bar here for the third time due to city-wide COVID restrictions. This pandemic has proven to be the worst thing for business in the three decades I've been in this industry. Fortunately, though, I am clearly courting Lady Luck on this, as I have witnessed many colleagues, friends, and acquaintances around the globe shutter up their bars for good. (This is without mention of the enormous importance of those that have lost their lives.) I know things could be way, way worse for me, and I'm confident we will ride this out.
Certainly those in the bar business are far from alone in being adversely affected economically by the pandemic. And for everyone waiting this storm out like I am, I have one bit of advice: drink gin. I don't mean that in a drink-away-your-problems kind of way (although that may not entirely be outside the scope of my meaning; there's definitely a place in today's world for self-medication). Historically, gin has been the medicine on the back bar, and has pulled many an individual through many a collective calamity.
Look to the last global pandemic—the now all-too-frequently-sited "Spanish Flu" of 1918—and you will see the markings of gin throughout its battle. Alcohol in general (not just gin) was one of the top preventative measures. On October 11, 1918, at the height of the pandemic, a Public Health Service doctor in Baltimore, USA, sent an urgent note to the Surgeon General at the time. "Sir," he wrote, "a strong and growing belief exists in the minds of the public in this city ... that alcoholic drinks act as a preventative of influenza." This belief, he continued, “is now so strong among the laity that alcoholic drinks are being purchased and consumed in enormous quantities for the purpose of preventing influenza.” Oh, the horror!
Whiskey, with its high proof, was frequently ordered at the bar of 1918, but it was gin that was most often recommended by "health professionals." It was advised in Nova Scotia, the Canadian province, to drink "14 straight gins in quick succession as a cure for Spanish flu.” Clearly, the Canadians knew what they were talking about; there's not much in this world that such a remedy won't cure.
The juniper berry, the prominent botanical in gin, was made into oil and vaporized as what was found to be an effective means of preventing air-borne infection. I have to admit I had a hard time believing there could be any truth to this, but I discovered that the accuracy of this claim was later supported by research done in 2010. My essential oil humidifier is on and running as I write. For double the protection, a glass of gin on the rocks can be sipped during the aromatherapy session.
Jerry Thomas, who is known as the father of mixology, wrote the first major book to categorize and explain alcoholic mixed drinks. Although he predated the 1918 pandemic by several decades, he had one specific serving recommendation that held strong for bartenders presented with a guest faced with the imminent threat of infection. "... you simply put a piece of ice in a tumbler," he wrote in his bar guide, "and hand it to your customer with the bottle ....” Although specifically referring to brandy at the time, I'd bet my bottom dollar that had he been alive today, Thomas would have certainly referenced gin instead.
Gin has acted as a savior also far outside times of life-threatening transmissible infections. We've reached for distilled botanicals in wartimes as well. As German anti-fascist writer and pacifist Arnold Zweig said, it was possible for a man to fight a war “without women, without ammunition, even without strongpoints, but ... not at all without alcohol.”
As early as the 1500s, during the Eighty Years' War between the Spanish and the Dutch, gin's great-uncle genever played a pertinent role in getting soldiers through the atrocities of international conflict, then spawning the still-used term "Dutch courage," referring to the use of alcohol to booster one's confidence. The Netherlands was later assisted in the 1600s (yes, the war really did last 80 years) by British troops, who were certainly responsible for bringing the drink to the United Kingdom, beginning the English obsession with the spirit that soon would lose but all trace of hereditary similarities to Uncle Genever. From here on out, what with all the meddling the British Royal Army did with its neighbors, gin was included as mandatory in all future acts of war in Europe. The French Revolutionary Wars, The Napoleonic War, The War of 1812, The Crimean War, The Indian Rebellion, World War I, and World War II are a small portion of the conflicts whose troops were fueled by gin.
The French 75 is a quintessential example of a great gin cocktail, and was conceived smack dab in the middle of the First World War. A Parisian invention named after the first modern quick-firing artillery gun, it is a deadly mix of gin, lemon, sugar, and Champagne (the Calvados it was originally made with is now almost always left out). "I had my first of these in a dugout in Argonne [the second deadliest battle in U.S. history]," said American author Irvin S. Cobb. "I couldn't tell whether a shell or the drink had hit me." Cobb later had a World War II cargo ship named after him, most likely for the heroic quantities of gin he consumed in the First World War.
Gin, of course, was also brought to the frontlines of the Second World War. It was so incredibly relied upon by the Allied Forces that when the Germans bombed the home of the British Navy, Plymouth, which was also where their gin supply was distilled, one soldier was recorded to have said, "Well, Hitler just lost the war," obviously referring to the destruction of the gin and not to the ruined military headquarters. To attack the home of their navy was unacceptable, but attacking the home of their navy and the home of their gin was outright deplorable and required some serious retribution. You could likely surmise yourself that this was the tipping point that prompted Churchill to coerce Truman into dropping the Bomb.
I feel obliged to mention here also the major role gin had in combatting malnutrition. As to which I had previously alluded, the British, and most other countries in tow, were (and are now more than ever) absolutely obsessed with gin. Long stretches on the sea kept navy men from fresh sources of vitamin C for extended periods, resulting in (as you may be aware) frequent cases of scurvy, which is a disease arising solely from the lack of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) in one's diet. The gimlet (a cocktail with gin and lime) and GNTs with a squeeze of lime juice were a few quick and painless cures containing vitamin C from citrus. It's unlikely a coincidence that they both also contain gin.
And you've probably heard of the anti-malarial properties of the gin and tonic. If not, the story goes something like this. European sailors embarking on trips to South Asia and other exotic locals in the 1700s frequently met their demise with an invisible onerous foe: malaria. Quinine, isolated from the bark of the cinchona tree, was recognized in the later part of the century by Scottish physician George Cleghorn to combat malaria. A tonic of quinine, aptly called tonic water, was developed for just this purpose. Shortly afterwards, in the early 1800s, British sailors, having difficulty with the severely high level of bitterness in the tincture, added gin to make it go down so much easier. I don't know about you but I certainly don't find tonic water to be at all unpalatable; in fact, many brands are downright delicious. It turns out that today's tonic water is a mere shadow of its original ancestral origin. In fact, in order to consume enough quinine to benefit from its anti-malaria properties, you would have to down well over 100 present-day gin and tonics, at which point the purpose of such a cure would be entirely lost.
Oh, and I haven't even yet touched upon the martini, which managed to, pretty much single-handedly, get the United States and the rest of the world through Hollywood scandals, threats of communist invasions, and, ironically but true, alcohol prohibition. If you haven't already, definitely read the last Iron Balls blog post for Carson Quinn's exceptional write-up on the different variations of the martini that are available. Fall into that rabbit hole and, frankly, there's not much left in life to want for.
So, yes, not to fear. Whether you've gotten the vaccine yet or not, gin will get us through this. Again. Go ahead and, without worry, drink your gin and carry on with your happy life.
About the author
Joseph Boroski is a world-traveling cocktail evangelist who runs a bar consulting business and is the owner of the no-menu craft cocktail bar J.Boroski, originally opened in Bangkok, and now also in Hong Kong and Shanghai. He contributed his knowledge and expertise to the original production of Iron Balls gin. While not traveling for work, he and his family spend their time between Thailand and America. He produces the industry podcast Ask The Bartender, available on Apple Podcasts and most podcast players, and he can be found on Instagram at @josephboroski.
- Jerry Thomas' Bartenders Guide: How to Mix Drinks: A Bon Vivant's Companion (1862, Jerry Thomas)
- Malaria: Parasite Biology, Pathogenesis and Protection (1998, ed Sherman)