Posts filed under In Review

In Review: The Much Lamented Death of Madam Geneva

Gin is not dead. Hope I didn't spoil the plot or anything, but I had some last night and it was quite tasty. Very herby. And junipery. In fact, you could argue that, with the recent births of a number of high quality US gins and the global relaunch of Bols Genever, that gin has never been in better health. But I'm not one for arguing, and anyway, of course it has. Patrick Dillon's book is concerned with the period of time known as the Gin Craze, the mania that accompanied London's fixation with cheap spirits in the 18th Century. In 1743, the stills of the capital produced 2.2 gallons of the stuff for every man, woman and child in the city, which still wasn't enough for Judith Defour, who left her child naked in a field while selling her clothes in order to buy more gin. Such excess couldn't be tolerated and Dillon tells of the attempts to bring Madam Geneva to heel.

Of course, not all of those attempts were intended as a moral cleanser. The First Gin Act of 1729 is weighed against Robert Walpole's search for "enough cash to buy off a king" while the Act that actually worked was not one of prohibition, but one that would allow the Government to incrementally raise the revenue it gained from spirit production. Dillon provides a useful chronicle of how societies deal with new drugs: first there is wild consumption set against staunch moral outrage, followed by prohibition and widespread lawlessness, and finally, the intervention of central government once a potential revenue stream is identified. This is how drugs move from illicit through illegal into acceptability.

Dillon gives his tales of debauchery and heavy-handed sermonising a wonderful sense of place in the growing metropolis. Even with its splintered boroughs and conflicting laws, London itself almost seems a character in a cast that includes Daniel Defoe, Dick Turpin and the lawman Thomas De Veil amongst a milieu of prime ministers, kings and ambitious clergymen.

The Much Lamented Death of Madam Geneva is a fantastic book, accessible yet packed with detail. For anyone interested in the history of spirits, it shows how the industry has moved from Hogarth's Gin Lane to something looking a lot nearer Beer Street.

Gin: The Much Lamented Death of Madam Geneva ( The Much Lamented Death of Madam Geneva (Andrew Lownie Literary Agency)

Posted on January 2, 2009 and filed under In Review.

In review: Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba

Here's what I know about Cuban independence. It turns out you can write entire books on what I don't know about the history of Cuba. Helpfully, Tom Gjelten has done just that and he's even made particularly relevant to the likes of me by looking at the subject through the lens of the Bacardi family.

I hadn't really associated Bacardi with Cuba in the past. When they started printing "Casa fundada en Cuba, 1862" on their UK bottles a couple of years ago, I was one of the knowing bartenders who would turn the bottle over and point out the words "Product of the Bahamas" on the back label. Of course, I was aware that Bacardi had been founded in Cuba and had fled when Castro nationalized their facilities on the island in 1960, but I'd never thought of it as being particularly tied to any one country. My experience of Bacardi was as a global product from a multi-national corporation. But from small acorns, y'know.

The impressive thing about Gjelten's book is the way he emphasizes those Cuban roots at every stage of the story. There are points when the company seems to represent everything Cuba could be and yet, by the end, the Bacardi company I'm familiar is as far away from the old idea of a free Cuba as the Castro regime. The Bacardis turn out to be the perfect guides to Cuban history, from Facundo Bacardi's struggle to establish a life for his family during the Spanish colonial period to Emilio Bacardi Moreau guiding both his company and hometown through revolution and regime change. There are cameos from Theodore Roosevelt, Ernest Hemmingway, Che Guevara, and there's always the long shadows cast by Cuba's homegrown dictators, Batista and Castro.

It's not a book about bartending. It often seems like the fact that the Bacardis made rum is incidental to the drama, which is, I guess, true. Ultimately, it's a book about people and the trouble that comes when you get enough of them together to form a family, to form a company, or to form a nation.

Posted on November 27, 2008 and filed under In Review.