The British first learned of gin from the Dutch during the Thirty Years’ War, when the allies were fighting much of Catholic Europe. The Dutch called their juniper-berry-soaked malt spirit genever. British troops noticed that whenever Dutch soldiers had a sip before a battle, they were braver, earning the drink the nickname Dutch courage. After the war, the British began distilling their own style of gin, which would become what we call London dry gin. Britain began exporting this spirit as more of its citizens moved to North America. By the 1800s, gin was as popular as brandy and whiskey in the U.S.
For over 200 years, gin was popular in America, including during Prohibition, when folks looking to get a little loose started making gin in their bathtubs. This is also when classic gin cocktails like the Bee’s Knees, Southsides, and Gin Fizzes were created.
How vodka became America’s favorite spirit
Vodka’s rise to the top of the spirits market happened due to a combination of population shifts, luck, and smart marketing.
“Marketing really was the driving force behind a lot of vodkas,” says McLain Hedges, owner of Yacht Club in Denver. “A lot of people started to look at gin as something their grandmother drank. It was for an older generation, whereas vodka really fucking jumped on board with marketing and attached themselves to celebrities and pop culture.”
There were demographic reasons, too, says Martim Smith-Mattsson, brand manager for Ford’s Gin, who estimates new immigrants made vodka in the US as early as the 1930s. “But by the 1960s and into the 1970s, that’s really when vodka kind of starts [taking over] the scene.”
In the ’60s, vodkas like Smirnoff and Absolut began using pop culture icons like Zsa Zsa Gabor, Sean Connery, and Andy Warhol to help promote their brands. In Gabor’s iconic 1967 Smirnoff ad, she’s draped in diamonds. A flowy white dress hangs off of her shoulders. Her hair is in a sexy updo and her body is angled towards a glass with clear liquid in it. The campaign notes that vodka is the best spirit to use in drinks like Bloody Marys, Martinis, and on the rocks. It finishes with the promise of it also leaving zero scent behind after the drinker is done imbibing. “Always ask for Smirnoff vodka, it leaves you breathless,” the ad declares.