TIL When the British raised taxes on beer in the 17th century, they inadvertently made gin the cheapest alcoholic beverage in the country. The ensuing widespread consumption of gin led to substantial alcoholism problems in Britain, with the death rate overtaking the birth rate during this period


TIL When the British raised taxes on beer in the 17th century, they inadvertently made gin the cheapest alcoholic beverage in the country. The ensuing widespread consumption of gin led to substantial alcoholism problems in Britain, with the death rate overtaking the birth rate during this period



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21 thoughts on “TIL When the British raised taxes on beer in the 17th century, they inadvertently made gin the cheapest alcoholic beverage in the country. The ensuing widespread consumption of gin led to substantial alcoholism problems in Britain, with the death rate overtaking the birth rate during this period

  1. I knew there had to be some reason that such a foul tasting drink became so popular. I guess it is the historical equivalent of alcoholics drinking rubbing alcohol or mouthwash.

  2. What explains the alcoholism problem now?

    I was taking the piss guys, I’ve gotten a couple serious answers but I was kidding.

  3. Around this time there was a popular engraving artist by the name of William Hogarth who did a series of engravings called “Beer Street and Gin Lane” that on the surface touted the supposed benefits of drinking English ale while denouncing the evils of drinking gin. A closer read of the panels reveals a scathing critique of the societal ills that led to the poverty and destitution driving the gin “epidemic.” He was great at making art that read one way superficially while saying nearly the opposite thing on deeper reading. The rest of his work was great. I wrote a paper on him back in college on “A Harlot’s Progress,” a series of engravings that TL;DR denounce the evils of prostitution while a deeper read critiques the societal inequities that lead to and predatorily perpetuate it. And like a classic embarrassing college student, I compared his work to another, modern artist whose work read one way on the surface while revealing a deeper meaning on closer inspection: Radiohead’s OK Computer (*cringes).

    [Beer Street and Gin Lane](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beer_Street_and_Gin_Lane)

  4. Johann hari talks about this in his book.

    It’s not just that gin is particularly bad, it’s also the rapid industrialisation that pushed farmers working outside in nature into crowded gheto-like cities to working in sweatshop like workplaces for crazy hours and little pay and all the desparation and misery that comes with that.

  5. Gin is the only alcohol I can stand to drink. I think it smells earthy and wonderful. My husband calls me the pine sol guzzler.

  6. At this point, the sugar colonies in the Caribbean were at full tilt, and were under government subsidies. The cane sugar was used 99% for alcohol production (yes, I’m aware gin and vodka are made from grain or potatoes). But at the same time, cane sugar was a main source of human trafficking, slavery, and international commerce. The end result was that liquor production was at a boom in the 1600-1700’s. They were known as “the drinking years” and coincided with the Age of Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions. Samuel Adams was a notoriously drunken old brewer who was at the forefront of the Boston Revolutionary movement. The bar tab for the 1st continental congress would’ve been about $250,000 in today’s dollars.

  7. Part of the governments solution to the problem was to commission the fascinating “Beer Street and Gin Lane” picture.
    It was meant to decry the evils of gin, while enshiring the virtues of beer. It’s weird.

    I’ll link to its Wikipedia page.
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beer_Street_and_Gin_Lane

    Just feast your eyes on the degeneracy in gin lane.

    Drunk, breastfeeding women letting their babies fall to the gutter.

    People squabbling with animals for scraps of food.

    Collapsing buildings.

    People selling their tradesman’s and home makers tools at the pawn shop.

    Homie at the back got a baby impaled on a stick.

    Undertaker is doing good business though.

    Shits wild.

    Then over on Beer St, everything is A-OK.
    Happy, healthy people enjoying beer and fine food.

  8. “Why should she die of influenza when she’d come through diphtheria right enough the year before? Fairly blue with it, she was. They all thought she was dead, but my father, he kept ladling gin down her throat. Then she come to so soon, she bit the bowl off the spoon.”

    -My Fair Lady

  9. I always wondered why gin was the drink associated with Victoria era drunks, like all things it comes down to money

  10. “widows ruin”

    Gin has had something of a renaissance in Britain over the last decade. I suspect its because a lot of new Whiskey distilleries need to cover the first 12 years of costs but im not complaining.

  11. Yes! There are also still old gin distilleries in the basement of many, many pubs in London because it was so easy to make yourself. “Old Tom Gin” has continued to have a bad rap until recently because it was brewed so amateurish.

    Tangential alcohol fact, a similar thing happened in America with whiskey, minus the taxes. As beer became more expensive than whiskey and urbanization caused economic changes and down trends, people starting drinking whiskey instead. The YMCA was, in part, created to battle the epidemic of alcoholism from the whiskey boom.

  12. Britain at that point (not that it doesn’t have any now) had a great deal of poverty, especially in cities like London. Gin was so cheap that people would deliberately get drunk to stave off hunger pains as they could afford gin but not food as the latter was The phrase “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” is from this time (presumably as this was something that had actually happened due to gin consumption).

    Interestingly, the gin served then tastes very different to now – it was very strong, and fiery (as in it tasted like it has chilli peppers in, at least from the recreation I tasted).

    If anyone’s in London (post-lockdown) and interested, I can highly recommend the gin making and history lectures at the Portello distillery near Notting Hill. It’s fascinating and you even get to make your own gin recipe to take away 🙂

  13. The title presents this as a problem caused by the decline in prices, but isn’t this sort of thing more commonly correlated to social problems of some type? Here’s what the [source cited](https://www.politics.co.uk/reference/alcohol-duties) says:

    >At the end of the 17th century, cheap gin began to be consumed in large quantities in Britain, and laws introduced by William III actively encouraged distillation. With gin sometimes being distributed as part of workers’ wages, consumption soon outstripped beer-drinking. Gin was taxed at 2d per gallon, while strong beer was taxed at 4 shillings 9d. The widespread consumption of gin was causing serious health and social problems, particularly in London (most famously depicted in Hogarth’s “Gin Lane”). Research has suggested that gin-drinking was one of the main causes behind the death rate in the capital overtaking the birth rate in this period.

    So what I’m getting from this is that living conditions may have been poor (possibly war years?), so alcohol was introduced as part of wages, then the state may have coordinated gin price reduction in order to further reduce wage costs, which could only have made this practice more common? Can anyone expand or correct on these points? It seems like an interesting phenomenon.

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