The book is full of marvellous period detail, but one thing in particular caught my eye because it involved alcohol was unfamiliar: Oliver’s favorite tipple is gin, mixed with hot water, with sugar.
Gin, to the Victorians, was a low-class drink. It was cheap and nasty and poor people drank it to blunt the awfulness of their lives. Oliver’s drink, despite his pretensions to being a gentleman, would not have been something a real gentleman would have drunk (and Oliver knows it).
I wanted to try it.
Not because it sounds nice, but purely in a spirit of historical enquiry, you understand. Nothing to do with my secretly being a bit of a lush. No.
To get ourselves in the mood, my drinking companion and I scoffed cheap Victorian street food in the form of baked potatoes and sausages. Well-ballasted, we set the scene (a seedy London pub in winter, circa 1846) by sealing the room and turning up the heater. A good fug was essential in a pub at the time; it let the patrons escape the icy streets or the freezing room they shared with twelve other people.
My companion set his hat upon the table in a vulgar manner. We pretended a great stinking Babylon lay outside; horses clopping by, costermongers crying their wares, and the Thames like a broad open sewer only few dozen yards away. And surrounding us, dirty windows, the pub walls painted brown to hide the grime, and men in threadbare coats calling for ale or porter. Or gin.
Gordon’s London dry was what we had in the house. Dry gin was available in 1846, but it was more of a specialty. Oliver’s gin would probably have been sweeter. His might also have been flavoured with turpentine, the taste of which apparently resembles the woody botanical notes of juniper. I had some turps in the garage, but somehow neither of us were keen.
Oliver’s sugar lumps would have been hacked from a cone of sugar, and wouldn’t be the neat white cubes we know today. We used unrefined brown sugar to approximate the taste.
Hot water was easy, though to get the authentic taste of Victorian London water we added a drop of raw sewerage, some rat urine and a soupcon of graveyard ooze*. You see how dedicated I am to giving you historical verisimilitude?
I poured our tots of gin, added hot water (about three parts water to one part gin), and plopped in lumps of brown sugar. We stirred (nothing James Bond about this drink). We drank.
Now, I’m very partial to a gin and tonic with a slice of lemon and the ice-cubes clinking on a summer’s afternoon. I’ve nothing against hot alcoholic drinks in winter. Warm sake? Mulled wine? Irish coffee? Check, check, check.
Hot gin with sugar, though – well, I can see why it’s fallen out of favour. Not because it was vile, which it wasn’t, but because there are nowadays so many more pleasant options.
Our first comments were a cautious ‘it’s not disgusting’ from my drinking companion, and a surprised ‘it tastes of less than I expected’ from me.
We finished our first drinks and had another. It was, actually, fairly inoffensive. It was warming. It was sweet. It tasted a bit ‘ginny’, but the sugar masked the flavor. I discovered I preferred it without the sugar.
If you’d been sorting buttons all day, or pasting labels on blacking jars, or collecting dog turds, or any one of those shitty Victorian jobs – a hot gin and sugar would probably go down just fine.
But do I want some more?
Nah, I’m good, thanks.
Oliver can have mine.
For those who wish to reproduce my experiment with more historical accuracy, you can buy the sugar cones pictured above from http://historicenterprises.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=1264
*For a handy bottle of Welch’s Patented London Water – “tastes just like the real thing!” (contains: water, raw sewerage, rat urine, graveyard ooze, chalk, brick dust, cobwebs, may contain cholera) – please enquire direct to the writer.