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Why was bathtub gin dangerous?

Before we dive into the murky world of bathtub gin, not literally, of course, we should take the time to differentiate between bathtub gin and Bathtub Gin. One is a dodgy, potentially dangerous product made by gangsters during Prohibition in America, and the other is an award-winning brand of gin made with cold compounding. Clear? 

Furthermore, Bathtub gin is often erroneously linked to the Gin Craze that swept London in the 18th century, immortalised in Hogarth’s print ‘Gin Lane.’ A combination of factors: good harvests meaning that there were large quantities of grain available, deregulation of the distilling industry and tax on French brandy, resulted in a tsunami of gin hitting the capital. 

Hogarth’s Gin Lane, no bathtub gin here

Gin was now made by a myriad amateur distillers rather than by the Worshipful Company of Distillers. It was the first time in history that large quantities of spirits had been cheaply available. After 1694 a glass of gin cost less than beer. Gin consumption rocketed from half a million gallons in 1688 to 19 million in 1742. Much of this gin would have been extremely dangerous, badly-distilled, and often flavoured with turpentine rather than juniper. But it wasn’t known as bathtub gin.  

So, what is bathtub gin?

To find out we have to delve a little into 20th century American history. In October 1919, Congress voted in the Volstead act prohibiting the sale and manufacture of alcohol in America. The following year the National Prohibition Act came into force. Overnight the country’s brewing, distilling, and wine industries were, with a few exceptions for medicinal purposes, closed down. Legal alcohol production would not resume on any scale until 1933.

So naturally patriotic Americans all stopped drinking, right? No, in fact they turned to illegal sources of alcohol. At a stroke of a pen, America’s alcohol supplies had been transferred into the hands of criminals. At one point it was estimated that there were over 32, 000 speakeasies in New York City alone. 

Mine’s a Dry Martini, easy on the sulphuric acid

What would have been served in these joints? The well-off could get hold of real J&B Scotch whisky or Mumm Cordon Rouge Champagne smuggled in from Canada or Bermuda but for most it meant turning to less salubrious booze. This might consist, if you were lucky, of industrial ethanol diluted and flavoured with various things. ‘Gin’ might contain juniper berries or it might be perked up with sulphuric acid. Mmm, tangy? ‘Bourbon’ or ‘rum’ would probably be the same spirit coloured and flavoured with sugar and spices. Again if you were lucky.

Why was bathtub gin dangerous?

If you were unlucky you might be given home-distilled spirits containing toxic compounds such as methanol or tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate. The latter featured in a hell broth known as Jamaican ginger or Jake for short. The lethal ingredient could kill you or leave you crippled. Partial paralysis led to people walking strangely- the Jake walk it was known. There’s a sub-genre of songs about Jake including Jake Leg Blues – worth looking up on Youtube: ‘I can’t eat/ I can’t talk/ been drinkin’ mean Jake/ Lord, now I can’t walk’ 

Bathtub Gin not to be confused with bathtub gin

Was bathtub gin actually made in a bathtub?

Sadly most weren’t literally made in a bathtub. Any large container would do. The term ‘bathtub gin’ suggests an amateurish domestic approach to alcohol production. 

You wouldn’t want to drink your sulphuric acid-tinged bathtub gin in a Dry Martini so during Prohibition cocktails became sweeter and fruitier to disguise the taste of the bad liquor. Al Capone’s favourite cocktail was a Southside, a mixture of gin, lemon, sugar and mint. Another popular 1920s cocktail was the Bronx made with orange juice, sweet vermouth and gin.

So that’s bathtub gin. Happily we can buy delicious professionally-made spirits instead… like Bathtub Gin. 


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