Object lesson No.3

21st January 2000 at 00:00
Historians insist that William of Orange derived his title from a Roman town in French Provence, but others prefer to believe that the man who ruled Britain from 1689 to 1702 liked a little citrus in his gin.

Invited over from the Netherlands to topple the Popish James II, William brought with him his armies and his country's favourite tipple. He forgot the aspirin, which was a shame as he was responsible for giving his new citizens an extremely bad hangover. And in a move that today would have him hauled up before the European Union's lawyers, William banned French brandy and encouraged Britons to drink Dutch "genever". They didn't like to say no.

By the 1720s, the majority of the population was permanently sozzled on this grain spirit flavoured with juniper berries. William didn't tax it and nobody needed a licence to sell it. Barbers, grocers, tobacconists, shoemakers and even barrow-boys hawked the source of "Dutch courage". It was said that you could be "drunk for a penny and dead drunk for tuppence", and for 10 years in London the death rate was higher than the birth rate.

Varios efforts were made to restrain this nation of drunkards. In 1736, an attempt to tax gin drove a London mob to hold a funeral for Madame Genever. She proved immortal, however, even if she had to be drunk under pseudonyms such as Cuckold's Comfort, Ladies Delight and even King Theodore of Corsica.

By the 1800s, the British in India had discovered that gin went well with tonic. The army drank it for medicinal reasons as the fizzy water contained quinine and protected them against malaria. The navy chose to mix its gin with lime to ward off scurvy. Back home, Queen Victoria presided over the age of the gin palace, those garish, brightly lit drinking halls that enabled gin to hold its own against the new-fangled ale house. And way before Delia Smith had the country flavouring its posh nosh with juniper berries, Mrs Beeton was adding a splash of the hard stuff to her recipes in her awesomely respectable Book of Household Management.

So next time you pour yourself a King Theodore of Corsica, drink a toast to that other monarch, but leave the orange out of mine.

Stephanie Northen


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