In her own words, US author Shonna Milliken Humphrey “slings words for cash, compassion, or glory”. The Maine-born writer works full time as director of sponsored programs and research compliance at Maine’s Bates College, but has also penned novels, a memoir and written essays for The Atlantic, Salon and the New York Times. She writes regularly about food for the Maine Sunday Telegram and has just published Gin, part of Bloomsbury’s ‘Object Lessons’ series, a collection of books about the “hidden lives of ordinary things”.
Inside the Cask’s guest contributor Joe Bates caught up with Shonna to find out more about her fascinating new book and quiz her on all things related to gin, an ancient spirit she memorably describes as “delightfully polarising” and “not afraid to get weird”.
Inside the Cask: Shonna, tell us a little bit about your background in journalism and publishing. How did the opportunity arise to write a book about gin?
The short version is that I earned a MFA [Master of Fine Arts degree], spent some years directing the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, then tried consulting/writing creatively for profit and quickly learned I prefer having a day job that’s not creative writing-focused, so I can spend my creative capital on projects I care about. I love that freedom.
Writing a book about gin started with me pitching a book about potatoes (already taken) or dog food (much less widespread interest) while I was (honest) drinking a G&T. I mentioned gin as a postscript in the pitch, along with a funny and quick anecdote, and that prompted the editors to ask me for more. I had written regularly about food and drink for the Maine Sunday Telegram in the past so writing about gin was not a huge professional stretch, but I still laugh at the luck of it all.
Inside the Cask: There are many, many books on gin out there. What makes your book about gin distinctive?
There are! I read so many of them!
One of the excellent aspects of the ‘Object Lessons’ series is that authors are given a great deal of latitude. As I note up front, I am not a gin historian. I do not make gin, nor have I spent a lifetime studying it. Because of that, I like to think my little book does not take itself too seriously.
For a fundamentally simple beverage (neutral spirit + juniper), gin’s social and cultural influence is disproportionately complex, and the trivia is outstanding. I liken it to the ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ game, or if you are more academic, John Muir’s idea that every one of us is hitched to everything in the universe. Once you start seeing gin and its impact, it’s hard to stop seeing it everywhere. That, I think, is what differentiates my book.
I also think this book’s terrific cover design makes it distinct. I’m kind of in love with all the Object Lessons covers. (But seriously, pick anything, and I’d bet you can get to gin within six steps.)
Inside the Cask: When was the first time you tasted gin and how do you like to drink your gin now?
Age 16, at a northern Maine movie theatre where the manager let concession girls shoot guns. I worked there when I was a teenager, and I tell this story in the first chapter. It was cheap gin and grapefruit juice mixed in a paper Pepsi cup.
Now? It seems I am a middle aged cliché, mostly drinking G&T in my backyard.
Inside the Cask: Your book takes a deep dive into the rich and sometimes seedy history of gin. How far does the history of this juniper-flavoured spirit actually go back?
To the very beginning.
Gin starts with a neutral spirit, so the history of gin starts with the history of distillation. Distillation is largely attributed to a woman named Maria the Jewess, around the First Century AD, when she was looking for a path to eternal life in her role as an alchemist.
Once people began to drink the result recreationally, especially before column stills were perfected, they needed something to temper the foul taste. Juniper berries were pungent and handy.
Inside the Cask: Are we right to think gin (or ‘genever’ as it was first known) as really a Dutch invention?
Sort of. The Italians make a case for first inventing juniper-flavoured alcohol, but gin as we know it is largely credited to the Dutch. The Dutch definitely took the genever concept and ran with it.
Genever, though, is more like a whiskey. It’s an entirely distinct and separate beverage. Genever takes several specific stages to create and is distilled from a malt of corn, wheat and rye. Generally speaking, it tastes like a rich, light bourbon with juniper flavour.
For gin, you can add any juniper in any quantity via any method along with any other flavours to any neutral spirit in any number of ways and still call it gin. As genever’s popularity grew, people produced it more cheaply and with simpler ingredients for a quicker product (and profit).
Think of it like this: if genever is a high achieving, straight-laced honour student who plays by the rules, gin is the loud younger cousin skipping classes to go smoke in the parking lot.
Another flawed analogy would how cheap crack bought on a street corner evolved from expensive cocaine lined up on a Studio 54 table. Like crack, gin became its own thing with a lesser reputation.
Inside the Cask: Does your book dwell on the dark side of gin and the Gin Craze in England in the 18th Century which saw the spirit blamed for rising crime rates, poor health and even madness?
‘Dwell’ is such a loaded word. I don’t think I dwell, but I do write about it, yes. Mostly because the central debate is equally relevant now: is vice a cause or an effect? Do you drink to escape your problems? Or do you have problems because you drink to escape? Do people currently use opiates to numb themselves from miseries—or are those miseries caused by opiate use? It’s a good debate to have.
Deregulation is one of the least sexy words I know, but that’s what happened. In the simplest and most embarrassingly reductive explanation, a Dutch-born Protestant married his British cousin, and several years into their marriage, they overthrew her father, the Catholic king—with the help of some wealthy businessmen. This is important because until this point, beer was cheap and spirits were expensive. Production was tightly controlled and heavily taxed. When the Dutch guy became king, he opened distilling up to his pals, and suddenly it was a free for all.
Remember that gin requires no aging and no specific recipe, so almost overnight, gin was cheap and available everywhere. Businessmen loved it, because it was a new revenue. Farmers loved it, because it was another use for their grain. Tavern owners loved it because it brought patrons. The general population loved it because it was a cheap, efficient escape from the daily grind. Criminals loved it because it was easy to forge. Gin was sweetened to temper the taste, and that sweetness made it even more attractive. Given the polluted water supply, families were feeding their children gin as a way of life.
For context, 18th Century people tended to crowd into cities while looking for opportunities to advance their fortunes, so there was a crowded population of very poor and working class people competing for limited, low wage jobs in a polluted city. On the other side, there was a class of wealth and nobility and luxury who flocked to the cities for education and entertainment.
Personally, I think poverty, politics, and the wealth gap had more to do with the Gin Craze than gin alone.
Inside the Cask: How did the famous London Dry Style of gin become established?
London Dry is a way of making gin, not necessarily a flavour–even though that strong juniper flavour is closely associated with London Dry gin. My understanding is that London Dry gin dates to the invention of the Coffey still and was meant to set a standard for production–sort of a “Hey, our spirits are so clean tasting, we can make a consistent product without the need to disguise or adjust the flavour at the end.”
Purists would probably argue that the sharp tang of London Dry gins is meant to reflect that same logic of “nothing but liquor and juniper here!”
That’s my understanding of how London Dry got started. From there, it just became a familiar standard for what gin should taste like.
Inside the Cask: How did gin lose its downbeat image and become more gentrified?
James Bond? Ryan Reynolds?
I’m only partially kidding. I think gin’s popularity goes in phases, and people love discovery. Younger people might shun parental style as out-dated and boring, but welcome style from grandparents as vintage and retro. It’s kind of the way of things. I’m not sure I’d ever want to wear acid-washed jeans or a spiral perm again, but I do envy my grandmother’s dresses and hair clips in old photos.
Gin is wildly popular now, particularly with the Contemporary or New American styles, which often have very little juniper in the flavour profile, and that means one gin can taste very different from another.
I think that broad flavour approach expanded gin’s stodgy image because it allowed for interpretation and art. And any time there is art and interpretation, it just raises the cool factor.
Inside the Cask: Your book also covers the role of gin in fiction and film. What memorable examples spring to mind?
Oh, so much! One example I like to cite is The Great Gatsby. Without gin, Jay Gatsby and Myrtle Wilson would likely still be alive. It was the choice to get drunk on those gin rickeys in the apartment on that hot day that drove the plot to its fatal conclusion.
Another is the Victory Gin in 1984. The sad effect there is that the gin, meant to control the masses by dulling the senses, also removes all pleasure from the experience. For gin enthusiasts, this is a psychological horror.
I also think a lot of people might know the Casablanca line: “of all the gin joints in all the world,” but maybe not realize that the only gin consumed in the film is when Yvonne arrives with her Nazi boyfriend and is served a French 75 cocktail. Humphrey Bogart’s character drinks Champagne, bourbon, and brandy-—never gin. Still, it’s the gin line people remember.
On the flip side, in an equally iconic film, It’s a Wonderful Life, viewers will likely remember lines about how angels get wings when bells ring or how despite having no money, George Bailey is the richest man in town. Viewers might not immediately remember how often gin is mentioned by the characters.
Inside the Cask: What role did gin play in the Roaring 20s and the emerging cocktail culture of the time?
People drank it. A lot of it.
Gin was cheap and quick to produce, so it was a popular bootleg choice during American Prohibition. Mixed drinks were easier to pass off as legal, too. Authors like Fitzgerald were both writing about gin cocktails and living lives fuelled by them. Glassware evolved to become more elegant. The cone shape of a Martini glass apparently evolved to steady a toothpick in a way that a Champagne goblet could not. When viewers watch liquor portrayed on film, it’s almost always a Martini glass—and those glasses meant gin.
All of these things—gin on film, in popular literature, and served to fashionable people at fashionable parties—popularized cocktails in the 1920s.
That said, it’s important to remember that cocktails really started 100 years prior in the early and mid-1800s. Bartenders were a respected profession, and recipe books and bar guides were published to help standardize beverages. The availability of commercial ice and refrigeration is important to the evolution of cocktail culture, too.
Inside the Cask: What does your book make of the craft gin boom we are experiencing here in the UK and other markets like Spain? Aren’t some of the more outlandish craft gins more like flavoured vodkas than gins?
I think so, yes. Remember that gin is, at its core, technically-speaking, a flavoured vodka. It’s any neutral spirit with juniper in it. Vodka qualifies.
It’s another aspect of what makes gin so delightfully polarizing. During my research, I met very few people who walked a middle ground with gin. There was either love or revulsion, and this polarization did not stop at lovers vs. haters. The polarization intensified among the lovers–to include the gin makers.
Some were the London Dry type of purists who believed (strongly) that gin should taste juniper forward and juniper only. Others took a more relaxed approach, wanting to expand gin’s reach with more flavours to appeal to wider scope of palates. I can argue it both ways.
Inside the Cask: Is it fair to say craft gin hasn’t quite caught on in the States as it has elsewhere? What American gins are making waves Stateside?
I don’t think so. Just looking at US sales numbers and the sheer volume of new brands, I think gin is pretty popular here. Again, I’m not a manufacturer, but the number of crafts gin imports to the US is staggering.
The number of US-based craft gin brands is staggering, too. I just did a quick internet search and found 10 craft gin manufacturers and 50 craft gin products just from my small home state of Maine.
Regarding American gins making waves, actor Ryan Reynolds just sold his Aviation gin company for a reported $610 million. (He’s technically Canadian though.)
I’m no influencer, but my preference is usually local: Maine Craft Distilling’s Alchemy gin, Maine Distilleries’ Cold River gin, and New England Distilling’s Ingenium gin. There’s also something to be said for the British standbys: Bombay, Gordon’s and Tanqueray. They are legends for a reason.
There are some lovely Irish gins, too: Bertha’s Revenge and Dublin City gin among them. French gins, also, were a nice surprise: G’vine Nouaison, as well as the gins at the Distillerie de Paris.
Honestly, I don’t get too fussy about my gin. If I’m out, I usually ask for Hendrick’s.
Inside the Cask: Lastly, can you surprise us with something unexpected, strange or funny you learnt about gin in writing this book?
Oh wow. There’s lots.
The earliest vending machines were in the shape of a cat and dispensed gin. Gin was often served not just warm, but hot. There are way more gin-flavoured products than juniper-flavoured products, even though juniper is the flavour of gin.
Gin has been used as a murder defence. In fact, a trawl through old court records yields a ton of gin-fuelled crimes, too. (Consider the woman who played hooky from her job as a maid, did some day gin drinking with new friends, and invited them back to her boss’s house for an afternoon foursome—only to be discovered in bed and later charged.)
Gin appears in more musical genres than any other spirit—punk, country, blues, glam rock, disco, rap, novelty songs—every genre is represented by gin. A Tom Collins got its name from a particularly mean joke to play on your friends—and it inspired a popular novelty song.
I could go on and on. Gin isn’t afraid to get weird, and that’s what I love about it.