In Depth

Journey through gin at Holborn Dining Room

Kristian Smith recalls the infamous history of the classic drink as he prepares to host a weekly masterclass at London's largest gin bar

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Most people know that for a spirit to be classed as gin it must be made from juniper berries. What's less well known is that they actually aren't a berry at all, they come from a type of pine cone. The special medicinal and culinary qualities of juniper were utilised by the Ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians – it's a mark of the value they placed on it that King Tutankhamen notably had more juniper in his tomb than gold.

The Dutch were the first to standardise a juniper-style drink, Genever, which is the national spirit of Holland and where the term 'Dutch courage' comes from. During the Thirty Years' War of the 17th century, the Dutch and British armies fought together against the French. The story goes that the Dutch army displayed one major contrast to the British – a great deal of additional courage, simply because on their hip they sported a clay flask full of Genever. Needless to say it quickly caught on with the British too.

It was in the 1820s that the first of Britain's 'gin palaces' sprang up in Holborn, the area where both Tanqueray and Gordon's were also founded. Despite a superficial resemblance to modern pubs, the gin palaces operated in a very different way. The interior space was split into small sections and designed without tables and chairs to encourage customers to simply down their shot of gin and go.

Sipsmith is largely responsible for starting the modern-day gin craze, by challenging a 180-year-old law in 2009 that made it technically illegal for gin to be distilled in small batches in a still less than 180 hectolitres in size. Its pioneering effort – Sipsmith's first still had a capacity of just 300 litres – led to many other small distillers springing up, which is why we have such a wide range of gins on the market today. New technologies like computerised stills have enabled us to produce more flavours than ever before.

Surprisingly, we get quite a few people who come to our gin palace believing that they don't like gin, but to this day nobody has left the building believing the same thing! Gin is the only spirit where you can have such a big variety, which is why it is the best spirit in the world. 

Holborn Dining Room is home to the largest gin bar in London, serving 556 gins and 27 different tonics, totalling more than 14,000 different gin and tonic pairings. Starting in October it will host a Gin Masterclass every Saturday, which includes tastings, creating your own cocktail and a gin and tonic served alongside small bites. £60; holborndiningroom.com. Images © Addie Chinn

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