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Charity shop find sheds light on gin history

A notebook dating from 1865, found in a charity shop in Stockport, contains among other items, many booze-related recipes, including one on how to make gin “as prepared in Holland”.

(Photo: St Ann’s Hospice)

The book, entitled ‘W Tatton’s Receipt Book‘, was found by staff from the St Ann’s Hospice shop in Stockport in Greater Manchester. It contains handwritten notes listing monetary transactions and also a list of recipes, instructions and tips on a wide range of subjects.

On pages 86 to 88, the book includes instructions on how to make gin ‘as prepared in Holland’. This appears to have been copied from an earlier text – the earliest reference to it that I can find is in a book published in 1813 in London by Peter Jonas, entitled A Key to the Distillery (pp11-15). However, due to the irregular use of referencing and footnotes in this period, it is possible that the instructions have appeared in an earlier work.

The fact that these instructions, and the observations contained within them, are not contemporary to the date of the book (1865) is noteworthy.

Firstly, it explains why the author describes a process that was used prior to the invention of the column or Coffey still in 1830.1

After this time, distilleries were able to employ fractional distillation which increased the alcohol content in the resulting liquid produced (from around 21% abv to 96% abv), created fewer impurities and also increased the volume of the spirit produced as multiple distillations were not longer necessary.

(Photo: St Ann’s Hospice)

Secondly, it shows that outdated information regarding the production of gin was being circulated; in this case, the author of the notebook was replicating information written over 50 years ago. This, in turn, infers that consumers were not necessarily aware that the methods used to produce and distill spirits had changed.

Thirdly, it explains the comments on turpentine, listed below. Although there is a mention of turpentine being added to gin as late as 1913 in Webster’s dictionary, its use is most commonly associated with the Gin Craze era (c1720-1751) and the production of cheap gin in London.

It is interesting, however, that the author claims that turpentine was used in gin made in Holland. Historians such as Thea Bennett, Olivia Williams, Lesley Solmonson et al have said that turpentine was sometimes used in Britain to replicate the flavours of juniper used in gin or genever made in the Netherlands. Turpentine, like juniper, shares the chemical compound pinene and is thus able to be distilled.

In his The Complete Distiller (1757), Ambrose Cooper told his readers that the “common sort” of gin was “not made from juniper berries, at it ought to be, but from the oil of turpentine”. The implication in all of these texts is that the British were copying a juniper-flavoured spirit that originated in the Netherlands, but doing so by cutting corners and finding cheaper ingredients. The texts also infer that it was the Brits, and not the Dutch, that first used turpentine as a more accessible and affordable alternative to juniper.

Returning to the notebook in question, on page 86, the book first presents the copied passage on how the base alcoholic wash (in effect a type of beer) was produced.

Before the invention of the column still (c.1830), gin was made by creating a wash in a pot still and distilling it multiple times to reduce the impurities. The rectification of the base alcohol would produce a liquid with around 21% alcohol by volume which could then be increased. As well as being the original method used to produce the neutral base spirit used to make gin, this technique is still employed to make malt whisky.

The book first notes the composition of the grist, or grain that has been separated from its chaff. Being composed of “10 quarters of malt and three-quarters of rye-meal” or more often “10 quarters of rye and 3 quarters of malt meal” it states that the malt “is ground considerably finer than malt distillers’ barley grist”.

In then describes the mashing process in which “10 quarters are first mashed with the least quantity of cold water it is possible to blend it with”. Once these ingredients have been “uniformly incorporated,” then “as much boiling water is added as forms it into a thin batter.”

This batter is then transferred into “1 or 2 or more casks or gyle-tuns [a type of fermentation vessel]”. The original author notes that the quantity of yeast used is “much less” than is used “by our [presumably British] distillers”.

(Photo: St Ann’s Hospice)

On the third day, “the Dutch distillers add the malt or rye” but not “before it comes to the temperature of the fermenting wash; at the same time adding as much yeast as at first”. It is revealed that the “principal secret is the management of the mashing part of the business” both in terms of thoroughly mixing the malt with the cold water, then adding enough boiling water to keep it sufficiently diluted for the final addition of meal. The wash should be “dilute enough for distilling, without endangering its burning to the bottom” of the vessel.

Finally, the book also copies the passage detailing the rectification process, noting the differences in the types of gin hailing from Rotterdam, Schiedam and Weesoppe. According to the description, Rotterdam is described as producing the best gin, while an inferior kind is made using less juniper berries and with the addition of sweet fennel seeds and ‘Strasbourg turpentine’.

Strasbourg turpentine is described as being of a “yellowish brown-colour” and having “a very fragrant agreeable smell” being “least acrid of the turpentine”. Turpentine is in fact an irritant and if ingested in certain forms, can prove toxic.

Juniper berries are noted as being much less expensive in Holland and as such “they must have other reasons than mere cheapness for being so much more sparing of their consumption than our own distillers.”

Other booze-related items listed within the book are recipes for parsnip wine (p68), elder wine black or white (p72), raisin wine (p93) and Indian Syrup (p106.)

The book also gives tips on how to care for moustaches, how to make imperishable putty and how to make ‘tooth powder for bad breath.’

The charity shop is now appealing to anyone for further information on the history of the book to come forward with details.

Nicola Rust, manager of the Stockport shop, said: “This notebook is a delightful insight into what life was like at the time of writing, and we already feel like we know a lot about W Tatton thanks to the pieces he has penned.”

“We’re desperate to find out who he might be, and to fill in any gaps before this book goes on sale, so would love anyone who might be able to help us track down information on the author to get in touch.”

“It’s such a pleasure to be able to read this notebook and to get a glimpse of what life was like in the 1860s.  We’re really hoping someone can help us to solve the mystery of its provenance.”


Aeneas Coffey took out a patent for his still in 1830. There were others in use before this date, for example the stills created by Sir Anthony Perrier and Robert Stein, however, the Coffey still, as it later became known, was the most successful.

2 See here.

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