Few spirits are as English as gin. In the 18th century, England experienced a period of dangerous consumption known as the Gin Craze. Then, in the mid-1800s, British sailors began mixing it with tonic water, inventing the now ubiquitous gin and tonic. Today, gin is still the most popular spirit in England — outselling even whiskey.
That’s the history of gin that most people know. But there’s another, less-recognized, layer to the story. It starts with sloe, a marble-sized plum-like berry that grows in blackthorn bushes all over England. In the 17th century, these thorny bushes became hedgerows that naturally fenced and protected private property.
One upshot of this sudden proliferation of hedgerows is that an abundance of sloe berries grew among the leaves. The ever crafty British country person, typically a woman who would have been in charge of all domestic matters, took full advantage of the annual sloe harvest — often by soaking the berries in alcohol. Thus, sloe gin was born.
“It was just another way of preserving the fruit,” says David T. Smith, author of How to Make Gin and Forgotten Spirits & Long Lost Liqueurs. “Now a lot of people in the UK have their own recipe for sloe gin, how their mother made it or like grandmother made it. It’s very much a family kind of thing.”
Women typically harvested and preserved the sloe berries and other fruit around their homes for recipes throughout the year. Women also hosted social events where sloe gin and other fruit-infused alcoholic beverages would have been served. If you were to attend a social gathering in England around the late 1700s, there’s a good chance a woman — either the head of household or her housekeeper — had a hand in every element of the cocktail you sipped while socializing with your neighbors.
“Some of the first cocktail ingredients, and some of those recipes for liquors and cordials we now see as essential to a lot of traditional classic cocktails, evolved from women making recipes for the home,” says Nicola Nice, founder of the gin brand Pomp and Whimsy, which aims to recognize the contributions of women in distilling and bartending.
There was a reason that fruit-infused gin cordials — a low ABV, sweetened gin that was sipped neat as often as it was mixed into a cocktail — proliferated during this time: Up until the mid-1800s, gin was often distilled at home and by companies like Plymouth (which was established in 1793) in pot stills. Early distilling methods often resulted in a low-quality, harsh gin. Added sugar and fruit helped smooth out the taste by hiding the gin’s impurities.
Smith explains that the Brits used many different types of fruit, including apples, strawberries, and blackberries, to flavor their spirits, as evidenced by recipe books of the time. The most famous of these is probably Mrs. Breeton’s Book of Household Management, published in 1861, though there were many others, including Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families and Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper.
Isabella Beeton, the editor of Mrs. Breeton’s Book of Household Management, aimed her encyclopedic, nearly 2,000-page manual at the emergent middle class — people with a disposable income and time on their hands because they were no longer spending every free moment working but who still weren’t wealthy enough to have servants that could take over day to day management of the home. It included recipes for vanilla and strawberry liqueurs, cider, and Pimms cups, among other cocktails, that women had not only been serving in their homes and passing down to their daughters for decades, but which were also written down in their own private household manuals.
Beeton’s book solidified the housewife’s status as the “chief entertainers,” as Nice puts it, of the era. Women were mixoglisists in their own right, developing cocktail recipes enjoyed by their immediate social circle. Women remained arbiters of the domestic realm for much of history, but the gin cordial was unfortunately destined to become old-fashioned.
In 1831, Aeneas Coffey popularized the patent still (also called a column still), which uses a process called continuous distillation. The result is a much cleaner, purer spirit that is cheaper to produce, although its use is limited to commercial distilleries. Though sweetened gins were still popular in the mid-to-late 1800s, as evidenced by those household manuals published throughout the 19th century, continuous distillation did signal that eventually cordials would fall out of favor, because the higher quality spirit meant fewer off flavors that had to be masked.
But Smith says that fruit-flavored gin cordials experienced a renaissance in the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. During this period, which included prohibition and the decade after, the cocktail party became an institution of American high society — and that’s where the gin cordial found it’s audience across the pond.
“I think the cocktail party, which emerged in the early part of the 20th century, is really an extension of what [people], especially women, were doing anyway, which was having this kind of ladies’ gathering in the window between afternoon tea and the dinner party,” Nice says. “The earliest published reference to [the cocktail party] was in 1917s, [hosted by] a woman in St. Louis named Clara Bell Walsh. This new phenomenon was a smashing success in society.”
In 1920, just three years after Walsh’s sensational social event, Prohibition hit the United States. The alcohol ban lasted 13 years but didn’t squash the cocktail party. In fact, it only made it more popular. According to Nice, Prohibition pushed drinking from the bars into the home, solidifying the cocktail party as the most popular way to socialize of the era. By the time prohibition ended, the cocktail party had spread from the cities into suburban areas.
Just as in 1800s England when the cheap needed sugar to mask its flavor, Prohibition-era bootleg gin needed to be sweetened. Gin cordials and other fruit-flavored or sweetened cocktails would have almost certainly been served at these gatherings. Today, the cocktail party is still a beloved and widespread tradition — though most people are expected to bring their own bottle of wine.
Because women ruled the kitchen in the era when gin became the go-to spirit in England, they touched every aspect of its production: They were among the first people to infuse home distilled gins with fruit, developed the recipes that were passed down through generations of women and were eventually published by enterprising homemakers, and helped solidify the tradition of serving drinks and food at social gatherings through their duties as hostess that would eventually lead to the cocktail party. Their contributions were confined to the home simply because women of the era were excluded from most professional fields, but it’s safe to say that without their savvy minds and hardworking spirits, the gin cordial simply would have never become a widespread and popular drink that still appears on cocktail menus today.