THE GIN CRAZE, GIN LANE & OLD TOM GIN

WRITTEN BY REBECCA WELLWORTH & ALEX FLEISCHER

AN EXAMPLE OF AN OLD TOM PUSS AND MEW GIN DISPENSER AT THE BEEFEATER GIN DISTILLERY, LONDON.

You wouldn’t be alone if Old Tom-style gin doesn’t ring any bells, but the long-forgotten recipe is coming back in a big way, with a fascinating history and namesake. Born of the Gin Craze in the 18th century and synonymous with the era of “Gin Lane”, Old Tom is a remnant of gin’s dark and drastic rise in popularity. 

In the late 1600s, the British government encouraged distilling grain-based spirits (known as gin) as a popular and cheaper alternative to French-imported brandy. Gin production and consumption became rife due to ease of affordability and absence of licencing. With the quality going largely unchecked, the product was often spiked with turpentine, posing significant risks to the drinker. Two decades later, the same leaders flipped their public opinions and warned the gin crisis may be as prevalent and detrimental as the opium trade. 

While the government’s various attempts at restricting the gin trade forced the scene underground, Old Tom Gin became a popular loophole to limitations on service. Wooden signs shaped like a black cat, colloquially an old Tom, sat vigilant outside some pubs. Transactions were made with drinkers calling ‘Puss’ and paying through a slot in the cat’s mouth. Below was a tube where the bartender – replying ‘Mew’ from inside – would administer a shot of gin. 

At this time, in 1751, artist William Hogarth released two prints titled Beer Street and Gin Lane. The pair were designed to play off each other and reveal the ugly side of illegal, poor-quality gin consumption, and advocate the merits of beer. 

BEER STREET AND GIN LANE, WILLIAM HOGARTH 1751. HOGARTH’S ILLUSTRATION OF THE EVILS OF GIN-DRINKING WAS PUBLISHED AS A PAIR WITH ‘BEER STREET’, AS PART OF A SHOCK CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE UNCONTROLLED PRODUCTION AND SALE OF CHEAP GIN. IT CULMINATED IN THE GIN ACT OF 1751, THROUGH WHICH THE NUMBER OF GIN SHOPS WAS GREATLY REDUCED. 

Gin Lane is a woeful and depressing scene of harrowing proportions; featuring child neglect, starvation, despair, death, and decay. The undeniable focus, a gin-addled mother led into destitution by her habit, as her baby plunges into empty space over the railing. Gin-crazed people befalling harm to infants and children was of key concern for those supporting action, branding gin as “mother’s ruin.” 

Hogarth’s propaganda no doubt had a huge influence in supporting the Gin Act of the mid 1700s. In fact, in the space of one year gin produced in England fell by 12.7 million litres! Most importantly, the quality increased drastically as backdoor distilleries moved back to profitable farming. 

Although Old Tom gin fell out of favour with the rise of London Dry Gin, the style has resurfaced as recently as 2007, with bartenders keen to faithfully recreate craft cocktails with the original ingredients. The flavour of an Old Tom is slightly drier than a Dutch Jenever, but much sweeter than London Dry; it’s sometimes called “the missing link” in the evolution of gins. Next time you want to change up your cocktails, we suggest you give this ol’ Tom a go! 

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