Gin And Tonic: Its Military History And The Origins Of Dutch Courage

History Of Gin And Tonic

A brief history of gin and tonic reveals how the origins of the drink are far more significant than a popular party tipple – so much so that Winston Churchill credited the cocktail with not only saving the lives of British soldiers but also contributing to the strength of the Empire.

The history of the drink, widely known as a G&T, is intertwined with the military history of the British Army and the Royal Navy.

There are two halves to the story – one is that of tonic and how it came into being, and the other is that of gin itself and how British soldiers had a part in its development and distribution.

Not only did gin and tonic eventually become a lifesaver, due to its creation as a less bitter method of consuming its key ingredient, quinine, which was used to stave off malaria for British troops in tropical climates dating back to the 1800s, but the spread of gin itself can be attributed to British soldiers discovering the juniper-flavoured Dutch gin Genever in the 17th century, while fighting in the Thirty Years War in the Netherlands.

G&T - military history. BFBS digital 2019

History Of Gin And Tonic Water

Churchill, pontificating over the drink’s role in both protecting British troops from the mosquito-borne infectious disease, malaria, and as a boost to morale, once said:

“The gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the Empire.”

And this is why.

In the early days of the British Raj - the rule of India by the British Crown’s Empire that spanned from 1858 right up until 1947 - malaria had massacred a multitude of British soliders’ and government officials’ lives at an alarming rate.

The parasitic disease threatened to lay waste to the ranks of British troops, and the ambitions of the British Empire along with it.

It was thanks to how a discovery, made about a hundred years’ earlier in the 1700s by Spanish conquistadors, found its way into European hands that gave the Empire a new weapon to fight malaria – and eventually led to the creation of a new tonic beverage - thus one half of the G&T story.

Cinchona Bark Tonic

The indigenous population of Peru had long used the bark of a tree, cinchona, as a form of homeopathic medicine to treat a variety of fever-based illnesses – a discovery that Peru’s new Spanish rulers were quick to pick up on in the 17th century.

It was later discovered that the bark also worked as a treatment for malaria, not only treating the symptoms of the disease but also as a prevention.

The active ingredient was quinine, which, crushed down into a powder, could be administered as a medicine.

The treatment eventually filtered through Europe and into the hands of the Empire, whose administrators fuelled demand for cinchona bark as they realised this was the medicine they needed to supply masses of soldiers with protective doses of quinine in hot, damp climates such as India, where our Imperial interests not only included a military station, but also included trading operations with the British East India Company.

Almost 800 tons of cinchona bark are said to have been imported each year into India by the mid-1800s as the medicinal powder was administered to both British civilians and soldiers as a standard ration.

British Empire in India: Clive

How Quinine Became A Tonic

The powdered bark was very bitter – not something that soldiers readily wanted to consume.

The answer lay in a little experimentation – mixing the powder with other ingredients such as sugar, and some soda, to make the treatment more palatable, resulting in a sweeter, bubblier liquid to help the medicine go down … creating a tonic for the troops.

Higher ranking officers and officials experimented further, adding their own pick-me-up ingredient with a measure of gin – and thus the Gin and Tonic was born.

The Gin Story – How British Soldiers And Sailors Played A Part

A form of juniper-based distilled spirit is documented as far back as the 11th century when it was made by Italian monks, but Dutch genever, thought of as the ‘mother of gin’, is thought to have originated in about the 16th century.

Like many recipes, genever and gin evolved over time, with many variations but a Dutch physician named Franciscus Sylvius is largely credited with the growth of genever as a popular medicinal potion in the 1500s.

Juniper. Shutterstock image. History of gin.

By the time English soldiers arrived in Holland in 1618, the Dutch had already been drinking a potent form of genever, or jenever, a malted grain-based spirit flavoured with juniper berries which at times had been marketed as a treatment for a variety of ailments including stomach pains and gout, to aid circulation, or as a morale boosting pick-me-up.

This is the first part of the gin story, as soldiers fighting in the Thirty Years War and sailors brought genever back to English shores before variants soon began to appear.

Thirty Years War camp. History of gin. Shutterstock/Digital BFBS 2019.

Dutch Courage

We also have military banter to thank for the idiom Dutch Courage – which relates to the history of genever and gin.

There are various popular folk history stories around the phrase.

One was that English soldiers seized on the notion that foreign soldiers were said to have downed tots of genever before a battle – sipping from their hipflasks as they marched to war.

Gossip, banter and hearsay is thought to have fuelled a disparaging slur that cowardly enemy soldiers had to drink copious amounts of the stuff before they were brave enough to fight … hence ‘Dutch Courage’.

Or perhaps the ‘Dutch Courage’ idiom could have simply come from English soldiers themselves picking up on the practice of having a shot of genever before battle, for its calming effects and for warming up the body in cold weather.

Another version suggests that soldiers generally on all sides picked up on the drink’s bravery inducing effects – a courage boosting pick-me-up.

Military history of gin. Shutterstock image. Digital BFBS 2019.

What Is the Difference Between Genever And Gin?

Similarities still exist between genever and gin – juniper based with citrus peels and spices, but where genever is made from malted grains, rye, barley or corn, gin can be distilled from any raw material.

Various factors influenced the development of gin in Britain in the 1600s after its original form was brought back by soldiers and sailors.

William of Orange, who was Dutch, took to the throne in Britain in 1689 to rule with his wife Mary II. In a trade war with France, he not only relaxed legislation on the distillation of spirits but also imposed tax duty on French imported spirits like brandy.

The result was an explosion of experimentation, trying new methods of distillation and ingredients, and the relaxed rules also allowed the use of English grain in distillation, including low-quality barley that had been rejected by the beer brewing industry.

Between 1695 and 1735, hundreds of small gin-distillery operations set up as a result – sparking a problematic drinking epidemic among the poor, known as the Gin Craze, as cheap, freely-available gin variants flooded the market.

However, it wasn’t until the 1800s that technology spurred on the development of gin.

New inventions and methods, especially following the invention of the column still in about 1826, created higher proof spirits, that could not only be made more quickly for less cost, but also introduced repeat distillation methods – which eventually led to something along the lines of the gin we know today, including the London dry-style gin.

Historic Royal Navy. Gin story. Shutterstock Image. Digital BFBS 2019.

Gin And The Royal Navy

The British Navy helped spread gin worldwide as British influence dominated the globe. 

Not only that but, again, a need for medicinal treatments for military personnel led to officers turning to whatever they could find as a treatment - this time for scurvy.

Gin was already thought of as a treatment for some ailments but by adding lemon juice to the citrus ingredients, the drink was considered a tonic to prevent the illness brought on by a lack of vitamin C - a high risk factor for sailors at sea for great lengths of time.

By the 18th century, every naval vessel was required by law to carry a certain quantity of the spirit.

That included "lime or lemon juice and other anti-scorbutics to be provided and kept on board certain ships".

In the 18th century, it was believed to be the cure for various illnesses, and a legislation was passed requiring every vessel to take on board a certain quantity of this spirit.

All newly commissioned ships received a 'Gin Commissioning Kit' -  a wooden box containing two bottles of 'Navy Strength' gin and glassware - in a practice that lasted for almost two hundred years.

The tradition has long been abandoned but there is still a special relationship between the Royal Navy and gin.

What Is Navy Strength Gin?

Navy Strength gin is typically stronger (57% ABV) than the original mixture (41.2% ABV). 

Prior to 1816, there was no way to measure the strength of a spirit.

The Royal Navy Supply Offices, known as 'Pussers’, needed to find a way to check that they were receiving what was ordered.

They started to add grains of their gunpowder to their gin to test its alcoholic strength.

By heating the mixture using the sun's rays and a magnifying glass, they would find out whether the mixture was or wasn't 'proof'. 

If the gunpowder failed to light, it was diluted gin. 

Only if the gin was at least 114 proof (or as we know it today, 57% ABV), the gunpowder would still light.

The gin became famous as 'Navy Strength', and the technique would protect the Navy from being overcharged for watered gin and made sure that all ships were safe.




Anyone concerned about their own drinking, or who wants to support family and friends who are drinking, can call the confidential National Drinkline. 

Drinkaware strategic partnerships with the Ministry of Defence and other organisations work to reduce harm from alcohol misuse and to promote healthier lifestyles within the Armed Forces.

For help or support, anyone can call the confidential National Drinkline phoneline 0300 1231110 – Mon – Fri 9am – 8pm, weekends 11am – 4pm.

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