02/02/2017 3:56 AM AEDT | Updated 04/02/2017 5:04 PM AEDT

Mother's Milk or Mothers Ruin? A History Of Gin

Gin was originally a medicine so that means a G&T is good for you, right?

Alison Cosker
In the early 1600s gin was actually a medicine, apparently helpful for stomach ailments.

The history of gin is a complex story that's about a lot more than just alcohol. Gin was first developed in the Netherlands in the early 1600s as a medicine. You could buy it from a pharmacy and, supposedly, it helped with gout, gallstones and a variety of stomach issues.

Quinine, the treatment for malaria, was brought to Europe by Spanish colonialists in Peru. Then, the troops of the British East India Company started combining their quinine ration with gin and sugar to mask the bitter taste of the medicine.

A sketch of a gin shop from Charles Dickens' book Sketches by Boz

Its mass popularity began when British soldiers were given gin during the Thirty Years War (the war in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648) to calm their nerves. Gin was imported from the Netherlands to the UK and, because it was very cheap, it quickly became one of the most popular drinks in the 1690s and beyond.

But it wasn't long before politicians argued that excessive gin drinking encouraged laziness and criminal behaviour. UK Parliament then passed the infamous Gin Act in 1729, increasing the tax on gin and making it difficult for every-day people to afford. This resulted in widespread riots in London that only died down when the government agreed to reduce the tax.

The aftermath of the gin riots saw more 'respectable' companies taking on the business of distilling and selling gin and it morphed into a more prestigious drink, rather than being only the choice of the working class.

Vintage engraving of showing a scene from William Hogarth's Beer Street and Gin Lane. The sketch shows the evils of the consumption of gin as a contrast to the merits of drinking beer.

From the 1800s, gin was referred to a 'Mother's Milk' but it was eventually called 'Mother's Ruin', relating to the prohibition era of the 1700s.

The story of gin so fascinated performer Maeve Marsden that, along with Libby Wood, they composed a cabaret show 'Mother's Ruin: A Cabaret About Gin,' Marsden and Wood spent many months researching the history of gin.

"Gin was originally brought to England as 'genever', a combination of juniper and malt wine. The English replaced the wine with grain based spirits and the powers that be relaxed the laws about who could make gin as a way of boosting grain production, as well as restricting brandy importation from France," Marsden said.

"In London, the 'Gin Craze' led to loads of deaths from alcohol poisoning or alcohol related mishaps. By the mid-1700s the Government was trying to deal with the problem by bringing in a number of Gin Acts to crack down on makers, sellers and drinkers of gin. The part of this story that really intrigued us was the role of women in the Gin Craze and the way women were used in propaganda against gin."

"This idea that gin is 'Mother's Ruin' or that it did more harm to women is curious, because it isn't based in fact. So, we started our research there and built the show on this question of why women were demonised more than men at that time."

Mothers Ruin
Maeve Marsden and Libby Wood in the sell-out show Mother's Ruin: A Cabaret about Gin.

Marsden, who comes from a long line of Irish pub owners, was horrified to learn that until the 1960s, Australian women couldn't legally drink in bars unless they were with a man.

"I always presumed drinking in Australia was a gender neutral pastime. But, during our research, we found all these amazing stories of women who had chained themselves to bars to protest when they weren't served a drink," Marsden said.

"We tell the tale of one such protest, at Brisbane's Regatta Hotel, in the show. Wonderfully, a woman came up to us at Sydney Festival and told us she'd been part of a protest at the Civic Hotel in Canberra in the late 1960s!"

Mother's Ruin sold out its seasons at the Adelaide and Melbourne Cabaret Festivals, and Tassie's Festival of Voices, along with the Sydney Festival. It's currently in WA; Bunbury, Geraldton and Perth Fringe World, before heading to Adelaide Fringe and Tasmania's Ten Days On the Island. For more details check out the Mothers Ruin website.

Mothers Ruin
Maeve Marsden and Libby Wood appear in the hit Mother's Ruin: A Cabaret about Gin.