Distilled History

A Drinking Blog with a History Problem

Archive for the ‘Martini’ Category

August 9th, 2017 by Cameron Collins

My Gin Craze

Martini

Here’s a fun Distilled History tidbit. I briefly mention in it the “About” page on this blog, but the first version of Distilled History didn’t have anything to do with history. Initially, this blog was going to tell people how to drink.

No joke. After brainstorming ideas with an old friend, I came up with an idea to write a St. Louis cocktail blog. The plan was to drive around St. Louis, tell some fun stories, and write blog posts about who was making a Manhattan cocktail correctly (by stirring it) and who wasn’t (by shaking it). But after a few preliminary drafts, I realized something was missing. I love drinking, but history is my true passion. Not to mention, the idea of publicly judging (and quite possibly annoying) a large group of people who have been very good to me (St. Louis bartenders), a cocktail review blog didn’t seem like the best of ideas.

So I mixed history and drinking together. And just like that, Red, Clear, or Beer became Distilled History.

Red, Clear, or Beer

I’m glad I made the switch, but seeing the original logo reminded me that Distilled History has never become the drunk I intended it to be. I’ve had great fun with St. Louis brewery histories, cocktail histories, and other drinking-related posts, but I know more alcohol is needed here. So I’m going to take a break from my favorite city (St. Louis) and focus my efforts on my favorite booze. That special spirit is gin, and the historian (and cocktail snob) Bernard DeVoto sums up my sentiments about the stuff pretty well.

Bernard DeVoto Quote

St. George Gin

Gin is also an ideal topic for this blog because it has a special story behind it. The history of gin includes riots, wars, revolutions, Italian monks, Dutch distillers, English mercenaries, and even a guy nicknamed “the Orange”. There’s an actual era in English history known as “The Gin Craze” in which an entire country took their love for gin WAY too far (and inspired the title of this post). And although many have told gin’s story already, I thought I’d give it a shot. I had fun with it, but what follows is a whirlwind trip. I did my best to hit the major points of gin’s story, but there is much more to it. Gin: A Global History by Lesley Jacobs Solomonson and The Book of Gin by Richard Barnett are both great sources (along with many others) that can fill in the gaping holes I’ve left here.

Before I get to gin itself, I have to provide a little background on gin’s essential ingredient, the juniper berry. Interestingly (and a sign of what’s to come), juniper berries aren’t actually berries. They are seed cones, and people have been adding them to foods and recipes for centuries due to the unique flavor they provide. That’s important to the subject of this post because juniper is what must be present for a distillate to be officially labeled “gin”. That’s right, along with all those gin varieties containing everything from coriander, saffron, rose petals, cinnamon, cucumber, and pine needles, every one of them must also contain juniper if “Gin” is written on the bottle.

Juniper Berries

Juniper wasn’t always just a flavor, though. As Richard Barnett details in his The Book of Gin, juniper has been lauded since ancient times for its medicinal properties. The ancient Greeks used it to cure tapeworm, the Romans rubbed it under togas as a contraceptive, and medieval Europeans placed juniper twigs in masks to help fend off the plague. Barnett also details a significant twist around the year 1050 when a bunch of monks in Salerno, Italy infused juniper in distilled wine. Their intent was to create a medicinal elixir, and the recipe was recorded in a compilation of tonics titled the Compendium Salerta. This may have been the first time juniper and alcohol came together as one, and Barnett notes this “proto-gin” is the earliest recipe for anything that resembles what we call gin today.

Jabir ibn Hayyan

From these Italian monks, we can thank the Dutch and English for gin’s evolution from a juniper-based elixir to what it is today. But before I explain why, I have to mention the process known as distillation. That process, separating components from a liquid through heating and cooling, is how alcohol is separated from fermented materials such as fruit, potatoes, and grain. Unlike beer and wine, which can happen by accident if yeast happens to be floating around, distillation is a necessary step in the production of spirits like gin and whiskey.

Distillation (as we know it today) got its start in the 8th or 9th century when alchemists like Jabir ibn Hayyan were trying to figure out how to turn cheap metal into gold. Slowly (with help from inventions like movable type), the distillation how-to manual worked its way to other parts of the world. By the mid-16th century, stills could be found all over Europe, mostly producing healing concoctions referred to as “aqua vitae” (Latin for “water of life”). But distillation, a process rooted in healing for hundreds of years, began to change when it arrived in Europe’s Low Countries.

That’s where the Dutch, a people with a hearty grain surplus and plenty of flavor creativity, embraced a new trend of recreational drinking. Intent on making elixers that tasted better, Dutch distillers began adding herbs, botanicals, and sweeteners to hide harsh tastes produced by unrefined distillation methods. It worked better than expected, and gradually national-scale industry emerged. By the mid-1600’s drinking spirits for the taste (and the intoxication that went along with it) was all the rage. The signature product was jenever, a juniper-based spirit that is maltier and sweeter than what many know as “gin”. Jenever is also known as “Dutch gin”, “Holland gin”, or even just “Hollands” (it’s also often spelled with a “g”). Today, jenever is the national liquor of the Netherlands and Belgium and remains the most popular spirit in that part of the world.

Schiedam

We should all raise our glasses to the Dutch for getting the juniper-based spirit trend going, but the next major players in the story, the English, should get a toast as well. Dutch jenever made its way to England as early as the 1500’s, but it could barely compete in a country filled with pubs serving pints of ale. But according to most gin historians, two major historical events helped England get into the gin game. As a result, jenever would evolve into distinctly English spirit with a shortened name.

William of Orange

The first was the 30 Years War (1618-1648), a conflict in which the Dutch Republic fought to win its independence from Spain. England sent an army to help the Dutch, and in the hours before going into battle, English soldiers steadied their nerves by drinking cups of jenever supplied by their Dutch allies. This is the origin of the term “Dutch Courage”, and when the Spanish were defeated, a large number of English soldiers returned home with a taste for something new.

The second event was 1688’s Glorious Revolution. That’s when the Dutch Republic’s William of Orange arrived in England to overthrow the unpopular King James II. Parliament invited William and his wife Mary to take the throne, and they became co-monarchs in 1689. Taking a page from their Dutch playbook, William and Mary encouraged grain production to get the English economy going again. One way they did that was to make it easy (really easy) to distill grain-based spirits. The industry was unregulated and untaxed, and suddenly anyone in England who wanted to make or sell gin could do so.

Still 630's Volstead's Folly

This all sounds pretty great to a present-day gin drinker, but the results were catastrophic. While some distillers adhered to high standards carried over from the Dutch, a new type of gin maker emerged. Using cheap ingredients and near-toxic levels of alcohol, libations known as “scorch-gut” and “mother’s ruin” became common in England’s major cities. Many didn’t even bother with juniper, using poisons such as turpentine and sulfuric acid to hide the taste. This gin industry was also directed entirely towards the urban poor, often manufactured in seedy back-alley gin shops and sold for pennies in grimy drinking dens. Crammed into the dirty back-alleys of cities like London and Bristol, the masses didn’t hesitate in drinking as much of it as they could. Cheaper than ale, gin helped people fend off pangs of hunger and forget about a life of impoverishment. This period, or event, or whatever stretch of Hell it was, is famously known as England’s “Gin Craze”.

The term “Gin Craze” may be a fun title for a 21st-century blog post, but it was anything but in 18th century England. In less than fifty years, consumption of distilled spirits in England’s major cities quadrupled. Debauchery ruled, with crime, murder, and suicide rates spiking while birth rates plummeted. For the first time in history, women drank to excess in public, and it wasn’t uncommon to find drunk children alongside them. In what could be the most notorious example of gin’s treacherous influence, in 1734 a woman named Judith Defour strangled her own daughter and left her body in a ditch. When forced to explain her crime, she reported she needed to sell the child’s clothes so she could afford another serving of gin.

William Hogarth's Gin Lane

It didn’t take long for many to realize that things were of control. As consumption of spirits increased, so did public outrage. Moralists, politicians, and pretty much anyone with a box to stand on started shouting about the impending collapse of society. Perhaps the most famous example of anti-gin propaganda came in the form of two prints published by William Hogarth in 1750. In “Gin Lane” Hogarth depicts a scene of London debauchery and chaos. Among other images, a baby tumbles from a drunken mother’s lap, a man is seen chewing on a bone along with a dog, and people in the distance are lifted into coffins. On the flip side, “Beer Street” shows London as a happy, productive place. Artists paint, portly people smile with mugs of ale, and everyone productively goes about their day.

William Hogarth's Beer Street

Hogarth’s (and other) efforts eventually paid off.  Parliament took its first step in 1729 with the first of eight “Gin Acts”. The first few attempts at regulation didn’t go over very well (people rioted) but Parliament continued to tweak the rules by imposing taxes on gin, restricting where gin could be sold, and even rewarding informants who reported gin-related crimes. After the final gin act was implemented in 1751, the gin craze flickered out. New regulations put the back-alley distillers out of business, and the pint of ale slowly regained its place as the preferred English method of getting a buzz.Gordon's Gin

But the taste for gin never left, and a handful of reputable distillers came to prominence by producing high-quality gins. Many of them are still around today, including Gordon’s (established in 1769), Plymouth (established in 1793), and Tanqueray (established in 1830). Gin sellers also helped improve gin’s reputation by opening classier, upscale bars known as “gin palaces”. These venues, which became popular in the 1830’s, offered a safe, well-lit (often sparkly), and sophisticated venue for one to enjoy a glass of gin.

Improvements to the distillation process also helped. The invention of the column still (also known as the Coffey still) in the mid-1800’s enabled distillers to efficiently (and continually) produce a spirit with more alcohol and subtler flavors. As a result, a style of gin unique to the English emerged. Less reliant on sweeteners and bold flavors commonly found in Dutch jenever (which is made in a pot still), “London dry” gin has since grown to become the most popular style of gin in the world.

The Drink
Martini at the Gin Room

With the Dutch and English settled into their own corners of the gin world, it’s time to bring this post to a close. There’s much more to the story (so much that it makes my head hurt), but what comes next is just too much to get into. It includes other gin varieties (such as Old Tom gin), gin’s path to America, gin during Prohibition, and the stories behind all of the wonderful gin cocktails. I’ll get to those stories in due time, it’s time to get back to St. Louis history (and ordering a much-needed) gin-based drink.

Where to get my drink to celebrate gin was a no-brainer. Few places are as dear to my heart as The Gin Room, located at 3200 South Grand in St. Louis. It’s a gin-lover’s paradise, with shelves packed with countless styles and variations of gin reaching all the way to the ceiling. I also love the place for the events that are always happening there, including gin tastings, tonic workshops, and random gin celebrations.

Best of all, the people at the Gin Room (led by my pal and owner Natasha Bahrami) know their gin. One of the few places where I get overwhelmed by the cocktail menu (a rarity), I always end up with a great recommendation at the Gin Room. The result of my latest visit was no exception, when I was served a Fillier’s martini to close out this celebration of my favorite spirit.

I’ll be back to the Gin Room (I’m even house-hunting near it), so the days ahead are sure to be filled with aqua vitae. My own gin craze will continue for years go come.

The Gin Room
September 18th, 2013 by Cameron Collins

Homer G. Phillips and His Hospital

Homer G. Phillips

One of my favorite moments that I’ve experienced during the time I’ve spent writing this blog happened just last week. With a new topic in mind, I visited the Central Library in downtown St. Louis. Heading up to the (magnificent) “St. Louis Room”, I asked a librarian to help me locate a file that contained an article about Homer G. Phillips Hospital. She seemed amused by the question, and asked me in response “Okay, well… there’s more than just one. Would you like to see all of them?” Naively, I responded “Sure, why not?”

A few minutes later, I found myself sitting at a table overflowing with dozens of large manila envelopes stuffed with newspaper clippings, articles, photographs, and book excerpts. It became almost comical as she kept piling more stuff in front of me. To add the chaos of the moment, I opened the first envelope and promptly dumped the entire contents on the floor. Sigh.

It was overwhelming at first, but I quickly realized that I had an opportunity to study history in a unique way. Instead of focusing on books, research papers, and journals, I could learn about a topic through hundreds of small, faded, and brittle newspaper reports in their original form. That was a first for me.

Additionally, I knew very little about Homer G. Phillips before that day in the library. A friend suggested the topic, but I confessed that I didn’t know anything other than where the building stood. After I stuffed everything back into place, I let it all sink in for a few minutes. I felt as if I had just read about the rise and fall of a national figure. It was somewhat of a profound feeling. I found myself frustrated by how little I knew about it before that day.

Newspaper Clippings

In 1920, St. Louis had a black population of about 70,000 people. A segregated city, access to medical and hospital care for the city’s black population was severely limited. Only one medical center, with 177 beds and located far from black population centers, was available to provide medical services. An attorney named Homer G. Phillips made it his dream to correct that problem. Already well-known for his community leadership and opposition to segregation, Phillips led the effort to get a new hospital built to serve St. Louis’s black population.

His efforts centered on an eighty-three million dollar bond issue introduced in 1923. Along with providing funds for a municipal opera house and soldier’s memorial, the bond designated one million dollars for the purpose of building a state-of-the art hospital for blacks.

The Dedication of Homer G. Phillips Hospital

The bond faced intense opposition, but it passed due to the efforts of Homer Phillips and several other community leaders. However, the debate would continue for years. Attempts to begin construction halted when opponents argued the bond didn’t actually specify a separate structure. In response, a “colored annex” connected to the existing City Hospital #1 located in south city was considered. Opponents also continued to argue the additional $60,000 a year needed to operate a separate medical facility was too much of a burden for St. Louis taxpayers.

Accosted by 2 Men and Shot

Finally, nearly ten years after the bond originally passed, the city’s Board of Aldermen green lit construction of a state-of-the-art hospital for blacks. The decision also dictated the hospital be built on a six-acre site in The Ville, a predominately black neighborhood in North St. Louis. On September 15, 1932, ground was finally broken. The facility came to be as the “Homer G. Phillips Hospital for Colored”, named in honor of the man who tirelessly fought for its creation.

Tragically, Homer Phillips wouldn’t live to see his dream come true. On June 18, 1931, two men approached him at the corner of Delmar Boulevard and Aubert Avenue as Phillips was waiting for a trolley. One of the men suddenly struck Phillips, pulled out a gun, and fired several times. Homer Phillips died instantly from gunshot wounds to the head and back. He was fifty-one years old. Newspaper reports immediately speculated the killers were hired assassins. Despite eyewitness testimony, the two men accused of the murder were acquitted. To this day, the murder of Homer Phillips is unsolved and considered an open case.

Homer Phillips undoubtedly had no shortage of enemies during a time when many believed segregation to be just and necessary. He first made a name for himself in 1916, when he led opposition to a proposed law that made the segregation of St. Louis neighborhoods mandatory. He also co-founded the Citizen’s Liberty League, a group that worked to oppose Jim Crow laws, the Ku Klux Klan, and mob violence in the form of lynching. The League worked to remove job restrictions for blacks, improve the quality of life, and improve access to medical care.

Aerial View of Phillips Hospital Construction

Ultimately, those efforts led to the special day of February 22, 1937 when Homer G. Phillips Hospital was dedicated. Parades, speeches, and a crowd of over 4,000 people gathered to celebrate the grand opening. The mayor of St. Louis at the time, Bernard Dickmann (a strong supporter of Phillips) called the event “one of the happiest moments in my administration”.

Designed by architect Albert A. Osburg, Homer G. Phillips hospital was built at a final cost of 3.16 million dollars. It consisted of a main central administration building with four radiant wings. It contained 685 patient beds and required 800 employees to keep it running. Along with an additional service building, a separate nurse’s home was constructed to provide dormitories for 147 nurses and 24 interns. Homer G. Phillips would instantly become the largest, best equipped, and most technically advanced hospital in the world committed solely to the medical care of a city’s black population.

Medical Training at Homer G. Phillips Hospital

By 1941, it became the philosophy of the hospital to become a premier training ground for black medical professionals. Just seven years after it opened, the hospital was training one-third of the graduates from the two black medical schools in the country. Within twenty years, the hospital could claim the distinction of having trained the largest number of black doctors and nurses in the world. In addition to providing a fully accredited training program for black interns, residents, and nurses, Phillips had established schools for x-ray technicians, laboratory technicians, and medical record librarians. Douglas Connor, in his book A Black Physician’s Story, describes a remarkable scene during his time spent as an intern at Homer Phillips.

Doctor's Account

By 1945, Phillips ranked in the top five largest general hospitals in the country, but it faced problems known to every medical institution. Especially in the early years, the hospital suffered from a reputation of being consistently underfunded and understaffed. Employees often complained of low pay and long hours. However, the hospital always remained an enormous source of pride for the community.

The year 1955 brought a major change to St. Louis and the hospital. By order of the mayor, the practice of segregation came to end at city hospitals. Homer Phillips Hospital suddenly became a place that treated patients based on where they lived and not by the color of their skin. Sadly, this step forward for humanity may have likely initiated the hospital’s eventual closing. With a falling city population and eroding tax base, the debate started all over again. Many began to question the need to publicly fund two separate medical facilities. Soon after, reports surfaced of plans to consolidate medical services in St. Louis. In the late 1960’s, the first steps towards consolidation happened when the psychiatric and neurological departments at Phillips moved south to City Hospital #1.

Medical Training at Homer G. Phillips

For the next fifteen years, supporters of the two city hospitals debated which one should remain open. Despite two independent audits recommending City Hospital #1 should close, few outside of the black community supported that plan. Support eroded further when Washington University and St. Louis University ceased making staff available to Phillips. The two major medical schools in St. Louis claimed City Hospital #1 was more convenient and offered salaries that were more competitive.

Despite vocal objections and dozens of large-scale public protests, the end for Homer Phillips Hospital sadly became a reality. On August 17, 1979, the city ordered all patients and departments transferred to City Hospital #1. Until the facility closed entirely in 1985, Phillips operated only as an outpatient and emergency care facility.

Homer G. Phillips HospitalDespite its closing, the memory of Homer G. Phillips and its significance remains an important chapter in St. Louis history. I’m glad to learn I’m not the only one that thinks so. In 1980, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen designated the building a city landmark. In 1982, the Department of the Interior added it to the National Register of Historic Places. While the building’s purpose has since changed, it still stands impressively in The Ville. Following a multi-million dollar renovation completed in 2003, Homer G. Phillips Hospital now thrives as a senior living facility.

Homer G. Phillips Hospital Today

The Drink

The Corner of Aubert Avenue & Delmar Boulevard

In the past, I've claimed to be able to associate a drink to any history topic. But I have to admit, this one was tough. I had no idea how to tie a drink to a hospital. First of all, there aren’t many cocktails named after a hospital setting. I briefly considered a Bloody Mary, but that seemed tacky and well, somewhat disgusting. Through Google, I found a drink named the “See You at the Hospital”, which must be named for where it would put me if I had more than one. I then tried physical locations. I found the empty lot where Homer Phillips lived on Aubert Avenue. A few blocks away, I found the corner where he was shot and killed. Both locations offered nothing. I drove around the hospital a few times for a bar, but I nothing looked promising. Lastly, I found no record of what Homer Phillips himself drank. I had no idea if he drank beer, wine, or maybe he didn’t drink at all. I simply couldn’t determine where to get a drink.

A Toast to Homer G. Phillips

Then it hit me. If I can’t find a drink associated to Homer, I’ll bring my own drink to Homer. After his murder, Homer G. Phillips was laid to rest in St. Peters Cemetery in Normandy. So, I decided to mix up a thermos of martini and hop in the car. Most of my Distilled History topics don't focus on a single individual. With this idea, not only would I be able to pay my respects to a great man, I could even toast him while I did so.

St. Peters is a beautiful cemetery located just west of the city. While I visited, I stopped to visit the grave of the legendary James “Cool Papa” Bell, who is also buried there. I drove around and took it all in until I found Mr. Phillips' grave. As I studied his marker, I learned his wife Ida was an artist and followed him to the grave just three years after his death. It was nice to see them both with honored with an impressive tombstone.

Then I sat down, poured myself a drink, and thought again about that day in the library when I learned all about the man.

Finally, I lifted my glass and toasted Homer Phillips and the important place he helped build.

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