Vir-gin on the ridiculous

This time last year I spent two months living in the Belgian city of Ghent. One of Ghent’s great traditional institutions is the Dreupelkot, a tiny bar overhanging a canal.

The Dreupelkot is presided over by an elderly man who’s so grumpy that he makes Victor Meldrew look like Matt Baker. He calculates what you owe him by scribbling in pencil on a brown paper bag and then ringing it up on a till that is straight out of Wallace and Gromit.

Aside from the curmudgeonly owner, the thing that makes the Dreupelkot famous is that it sells 150 different types of gin.

Belgium – or at least Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern half of the country – has some claim to being the birthplace of gin, which the Flemish call genever (the Dutch word for juniper – the aromatic plant with which gin is traditionally flavoured – is jineverbes).

People from the Netherlands disagree and assert that gin was in fact first distilled in Leyden, by a professor of medicine who thought it might work as a cure for liver disease (These scientists, honestly, what are they like?)

What is certain is that gin came to England from the Low Countries in the 17th Century, brought back by soldiers who’d been fighting there in the Thirty Years War and got used to taking a few slugs to get “Dutch courage”.

Up until that point – if contemporary English writers are to be believed – our nation was a place of peacefulness and sobriety, with the only sound disturbing Saturday nights being the gentle snoring of the righteous.

All that changed with the arrival of the new spirit (sometimes called Holland). Gin became so ferociously popular that, in 1729, the government, fearing it would lead to the collapse of the country, outlawed its production.

The new law failed to contain the gin menace – it just lead to illegal and often lethal stuff flooding the market – and was soon repealed. But over the centuries that followed gin never quite lost its reputation as the most disreputable of all spirits Even the Belgians took against it. In 1880, the Brussels government passed a law forbidding the sale of gin in cafes after genever got the blame for a fall in industrial production).

I first visited the Dreupelkot back in the early 1990s. Back then, to be presented with such a variety of gin was a great novelty for the British visitor. That situation has changed dramatically in the past few years, however.

The time when the choice of gins on offer in most pubs rarely went beyond Gordon’s or Beefeater are long gone. Go into any decent bar and ask for a gin and tonic and the list of options you are offered seems to make ordering one more complex than filling in your tax return.

Not that it deters anyone. Last year it’s estimated the British consumed 1.12 billion gin and tonics – a literally staggering number.

Teesside is playing its part in things. The micro-distillery Lickerish Tooth started up making gin in Skelton a few years back (though they’ve moved to Egton recently) – I particularly enjoy their Ginger Ninja, and not just because I have a sneaky feeling it’s named after former Boro striker Andy Campbell.

A new distillery in Stockton is about to launch Steel River gin, and in Darlington the delightful Number Twenty2 brewpub now has a tiny distillery producing Wilkinson-English gin (they also do a very nice spiced rum).

Mason’s in Bedale, the Yorkshire Dales Distillery in Richmond and the Durham Distillery are not so far away either.

These days you no longer have to go to Ghent to find 150 different types of gin. In fact, the way things are going, there’ll soon be 150 varieties produced within 50 miles of Middlesbrough town hall.