The South African Series

Gin and Gender: The Sexist History of My New Favorite Drink

I have recently discovered South African craft gin and it has quickly become my go-to drink. 

As an African, Christian and granddaughter of whom I have been told were two raging alcoholics, I wouldn’t say I have a “difficult” relationship with spirits and brew, but I would admit that it’s complicated. 

First, I don’t believe that Thelma and Sam Davis, born in 1925 and 1923 were alcoholics per se, (though I do faintly recall one special Christmas where my grandfather emerged completely naked from the backroom full of unbridled cheer and had to be wrestled back into the darkness by his son and son-in-law) but I know that they were fond of their drink. One had been through a World War and both were from rural Southern America – barely 50 years post Emancipation – where life was harsh and unforgiving for Black Americans in general. In his memoir Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, American Slave, Frederick Douglas recounts how liquor “was the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection.” White slaveholders would systematically and strategically ply their plantation captives with strong spirit – especially at Christmastime – creating a sense of temporary escapism. Known as the ‘Tot System’ the same tactics were (and in some cases reportedly still are) used in rural South Africa, where white farmer owners subsidized or substituted the pay of impoverished field workers with spirit alcohol.  

As a West African, gin plays an important cultural role. It is customary to take a bottle of Schnapps  – accorded high value as an imported item – as a gesture of respect should one be granted an audience with chiefs and elders. Traditional healers will oftentimes require gin as part of their payment for services.

Though the Bible does not explicitly ban the drinking of alcohol (and I can already feel someone prepared to quote Ephesians 5:18 in my WhatsApp messages) both the Charismatic and Black Church has been effective in demonizing the consumption of alcohol, even when it’s used in something as innocuous as simmering spaghetti sauce.  

All of these factors present themselves for consideration every time I pour myself a glass of distilled deliciousness…but none of them matter by the time I’ve reached the bottom. That is not to say that these factors are unimportant; quite the contrary. The person is political, and there is nothing more political than our food. Misty Harris, my good friend and fellow writer once poignantly said, “Control the food supply and you control the people.” As such, I often think about where my food comes from, why the water in George South is safer to drink than it is in Thembalethu just 5 KM away, and now what is the origin behind my adult beverage of choice? 

What I discovered was astounding…and troubling. 

At this point I want to introduce you to Inverroche. Founded by Lorna Scott six years ago, Inverroche is South Africa’s pioneer in craft gin. It is woman owned and majority women operated. (The importance of this factoid will become apparent shortly.) How did I discover this world-class brand? My beauty therapist enthusiastically recommended it as she was ripping my pubes out by the roots with hot wax. 


Photo credit: Inverroche

South Africa’s craft gin culture is relatively young, less than a decade old. A Dutch physician named Franciscus Sylvius is thought to be the ‘inventor’ of gin having started prescribing a juniper-based distilled spirit for medicinal purposes in 1550. Gin rose in popularity in 1689 England after the country found itself politically at odds with France. In a climate where drinking luxury goods made in France was deemed unpatriotic, King William III of Orange championed the creation of spirits that could be produced cheaply with readily available local raw materials. The low cost drink, popular among princes and paupers alike, was also marketed as a way for the poor to escape the bleak conditions of London urban life. 

Gin is a “woman’s drink”

The stereotypes and gendering of our foods is fascinating. Steaks are for men, salads for women. Men drink beer and if a woman (read: a lady) must, it should be in the form of a shandy. Women and children eat strawberries, and so on. Beer became a “man’s” drink because the alehouses of Olde England were strictly patriarchal and often prohibited female patronage. Gin, on the other hand, was readily available and was sold on street corners, grocery stores, apothecaries…places that women frequented on a regular basis. In addition to being readily accessible, women did not have as many barriers to entry into this market as retailers and soon many women (especially single and widowed) found financial independence selling and distributing gin. 

Image source: Ladies Delight

This terrified the powers that be, as they feared that women would abandon their “natural station” as caretakers, homemakers and baby making machines. Mercantilism was the economic system of the day, and the Empire needed a labor supply that surpassed demand in order for the system to succeed. Parliament soon enacted a series of draconian acts that criminalized the sale of gin and targeted women for prosecution. Writes researcher Emily Anne Adams:

The Gin Act was ruthless in its attempt to undercut the distilled spirits trade, and it rewarded informers for submitting prosecutable offenses against poor and disadvantaged retailers. According to a study conducted by Jessica Warner, less than 20 percent (472 out of 2,377) of retailers of gin in London were women, yet they accounted for close to 70 percent (641 out of 925) of the defendants in gin prosecution cases.  Additionally, out of the 641 women who were charged for illegally hawking gin, 628 of them were single or widowed. This was not the result of mere coincidence, but instead a consequence of gender dynamics in eighteenth-century London.       

The media was complicit – if not instrumental – in painting women who both sold and consumed gin, and eventually alcohol of any sort, as immoral, sexually loose, negligent mothers, contemptible and the worst scourge on society. Basically, they did to London’s 18th century inner city poor what the Conservative movement has done to today’s dwellers of America’s inner cities. This paper provides a fascinating and detailed history.

Today, gin is consumed and enjoyed by both sexes, though sexist stereotypes persist. While the drink is marketed heavily towards a female audience, as this article points out, gender in today’s society has become more fluid. Gin is becoming increasingly popular among young consumers as well as across the gender spectrum. Plus there are types to suit every taste, style and preference. This gender diversity and fluidity will further drive demand for multiple varieties. 

Something that is great news for brands like Inverroche, which has an impressive range of original and unique gins on offer, all using florals and botanicals native to South Africa. 

After trying some other local brands, I fell in love with Inverroche because it was the smoothest and most flavorful of all that I’d tasted. Discovering that it is woman owned and operated (literally as of last night as I was researching for this article) has only made me a more proud consumer. And so this weekend when I sit back to cocktails and K-Dramas, I will recline and relish every sip in defiance of Ye Olde Patriarchy.