The Sipsmith Blog

Inside London’s Historic Gin Shops

in Articles September 25, 2015
Gin shops

From “Mother’s Ruin” in the 18th century to today’s craft distilling renaissance, gin in the UK has certainly undergone a transformation. But what happened in between? Read on to learn more about the historic gin shops that helped transform the spirit’s reputation.

Thanks to William Hogarth’s infamous prints, we associate 18th century London with quite a bit of indulgence. But less is known about the period after the Gin Craze. At one time in London, there was one gin distillery for every four houses, and gin was plentiful enough to be sold for a penny a piece; but following a series of reforms, gin moved out of the bathtub…and into the gin shops. From a bottom-shelf tipple that was sometimes laced with turpentine or lethal when distilled incorrectly, gin began to transform into something quite a bit more highbrow. Not to mention palatable.

Witness, then, the birth of London’s first gin shops. Also known as dram shops, these 18th century outfits often began as chemists’ shops, given that herbaceous, juniper-rich gin once had medicinal associations. The first of these petite gin shops weren’t especially cosy, and gin sold was either taken away or sipped by the dram standing up.

But the early 19th century saw these humble gin shops evolve into their next phase: the large, ornate, Victorian gin palace. These drinking establishments were warm refuges with ostentatious looks, where many different varieties of gin were kept in enormous tanks behind long wooden bars, sometimes served alongside biscuits, cakes, and other sweets. Gin palaces attracted imbibers of all backgrounds: from elegantly outfitted gentlemen to members of London’s working classes, the appeal of the gin palace was nigh on universal.



fifty pound act

At one time in London, there was one gin distillery for every four houses…

Victorian gin shops were even immortalised by Charles Dickens. In Sketches by Boz, he describes their tempting appeal: “All is light and brilliancy. The hum of many voices issues from that splendid gin-shop which forms the commencement of the two streets opposite; and the gay building with the fantastically ornamented parapet, the illuminated clock, the plate-glass windows surrounded by stucco rosettes, and its profusion of gas-lights in richly-gilt burners, is perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and dirt we have just left. The interior is even gayer than the exterior.”

The gin palace maintained its popularity well through the Victorian age, and gin’s status was enormously elevated from the Gin Craze days: stories abound of society ladies sipping their gin in teacups, while members of the Royal Navy received their regular gin rations. Though there aren’t any working gin palaces left in London today, they played an essential part in ushering in today’s gin culture.

The gin palace maintained its popularity well through the Victorian age, and gin’s status was enormously elevated from the Gin Craze days

Intrigued – and wishing you could have a first-hand experience at a historic gin shop? We won’t reveal the secret just yet, but we do have something rather special planned for London Cocktail Week – held from 5th to 11th October 2015 – that will commemorate the glorious era of London gin shops. Do check back, as we’ll be telling all shortly…

Feature images © Wikimedia Commons; Wellcome Trust via Wikimedia

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