This Day in Hammered History

Hogarth, William; Gin Lane; Credit line: (c) (c) Royal Academy of Arts /

January 11 1788 in Hammered History

William Thomas Brande is born and ruins everyone’s good time

Georgian society (1714 – 1837) is well-noted for its relationship to alcohol. The upper classes spent their days drinking spirits and wine, and probably wondering how they’d ended up in an era so clad in tights. Laborers and artisans drank beer or cider, and even kids and servants drank small (lower alcohol) beer.

Huge alcohol intake was part of daily life. Men boasted of how many bottles of wine and beer they could drink. Dinner parties and social events of the upper crust resembled Led Zeppelin’s hotel parties. The joys of alcohol were reason enough to drink, but the poor water quality in England also played a part. The water was full of contaminants which led to cholera, typhus, and dysentery. So while drinking massive quantities of alcohol led to the gout, drinking water led to shitting yourself to death. Most people chose gout.

Hard alcohol such as brandy, rum, and gin were all staples of English daily drinking. Rum was given as a daily ration to sailors. Brandy was made from any fruit that happen to fall in any garden on the island. But they both took a back seat to gin. “Gin madness” had swept across England in the 1700s. Gin was often part of city workers’ wages and was used as a medication against stomach ailments, gallstones, and being an asshole. By the early 1800s England had been dehydrated and shitfaced for a good two hundred years.    

But Georgian society saw attitudes to alcohol change. Hard daily drinking was judged as bad rather than just how people lived. Constant drunkenness, especially among the lower classes, was looked down upon as something morally inferior and which “debauched their minds.” In particular, the drinking of spirits (read: gin) got a bad rap. Taxes were levied to keep gin and other spirits out of the hands of the poor. William Hogarth’s 1751 painting “Gin Lane” depicted the vile effects of alcohol in much the way Reefer Madness would alarmingly warn (and excite) people about marijuana a couple hundred years later. It depicts a street scene replete with people high on gin, babies falling off buildings, a gruesome hanging suicide, violence, evictions, aggressive mobs, and, for some reason, a bear. Imagine post Superbowl carnage in the losing city, but add a bear.   

Hard alcohol was seen as poison, while beer, cider, wine, and ale were considered wholesome. This attitude to beer and other wholesome alcohols is exemplified in Hogarth’s companion piece to “Gin Lane” called “Beer Street” which shows a utopian, peaceful street of happy, mellow, chubby people painting things and chatting. There are 100% fewer dangling corpses and bears than in Gin Lane. Most of the Beer Street people look as if they are dreamily wondering when England will get around to opening up a takeout fish n’ chip shop.

Hard alcohol might have come to be considered evil, but Brits could drink wine, ale and cider all day long in a state of guilt free content. Everything was fine.  

That is, until William Thomas Brande went and ruined it all with stupid chemistry. William Thomas Brande was the first chemist to measure the alcohol content in fermented drinks such as wine, ale, and cider. Up until then, chemists had only been able to measure alcohol in distilled drinks such as gin and brandy. Due to his research, he was able to demonstrate that alcohol already existed from the start in these fermented drinks rather than being a byproduct of the distillation process. By showing this, it blew the misconception that spirits were toxic and wine and beer were wholesome. And all at once, every beer and wine drinker in England said “hm…I got a bad feeling about this.” And then they almost certainly drank until they fell asleep on the ground.  

They were right, too. Brande’s discovery was taken up by Evangelical Christians and the Temperance Movement. Up until Brande’s discovery, advocates of alcohol abstinence had only gone after “poisonous” spirits while leaving alone “wholesome” beer, ale, wine, and cider. Now, though, it was open season on them as well. The temperance Movement used his findings to justify teetotalism.  

Brande started in medicine before he realized at an early age that chemistry was his calling. His studies in Hanover were interrupted by the invading French army. To escape he spent a month on a Dutch merchant vessel (wonder if he got a rum ration) before getting back to London. He made his discovery on alcohol when he was 23. His obituary praises him as an extremely affable man and a most pleasant conversation. Ten years after his discovery on alcohol, he would isolate the element lithium, which has long been used in bipolar disorder, other mental issues, and cluster headaches. So, I guess he made up for complicating the lives of drinkers for 130 years.    

What to drink to celebrate Brande’s birth? You have options. First, you could drink his namesake – Brande – as those in Georgian society may have, with brandy from any kind of fruit imaginable. Apples. Pears. Cherries. Name it and then drink it.

From there, you need to decide if you are on Beer Street or Gin Alley. If it’s Beer Street for you, then go with an IPA. IPAs became popular in the late 1700s when trying to figure out how to provide beer to the eastern British Empire. They were developed because they not only survived the long six-month journey to India but were found to even improve with age.

If it’s Gin Alley then you can do it on ice or if you’re a sociopath, then hit it straight and warm. Evidence suggests that mixing gin with ginger syrup was a cocktail in the early 1800s, so you could bastardize that by making a gin and ginger ale. And if you do, let me know how that was after you sober up and take some Tylenol.   

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