What’s gin got to do with the price of corn?

by Jeremy Cherfas on January 10, 2013

Just caught up with a fascinating NPR interview with Richard Barnett, author of The Book of Gin. What struck me particularly was a section on the origins of the gin boom in England. Barnett tied it to The Glorious Revolution, and William of Orange coming to the throne. William needed to keep the land-owning aristos sweet. One way to do that was to keep the price of grain high, and one way to do that was to deregulate distilling. That, as Barnett explained, opened up a new market for grain, which kept grain prices high, even as it made gin cheaper and cheaper.

So the aristos were presumably happy enough to keep supporting King Billy, and there NPR left it to wander down Gin Lane and beyond.

But the story sounds an awful lot like the contemporary story of mandated maize biofuel. That too opens up a new market that keeps prices high, and, some say, is keeping food prices high too.

So here’s my question: did the demand for grain for distilling have any impact on food prices in the 18th century?

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Marc January 10, 2013 at 1:52 pm

I think I’ve got this one figured out. Though we think of gin as made from juniper berries, those are actually merely used for flavoring an alcohol of “agricultural origins” (as per Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gin) in the process of making gin. So what we think of as that gin flavor really is a neutral alcohol made from grain that has been flavored with juniper berries.

But then, if grain is used to make gin, the price of gin is a function of the price of grain, and vice versa. So as you rightly intuited, Jeremy, the deregulation of the gin industry meant that anyone could make gin, which means that the demand for grain increased substantially, which increased the price of grain — much like the ethanol mandate.

Whether that had a significant, causal impact on food prices in the 18th century, we will probably never know given the paucity of good data to test that hypothesis.

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Jeremy Cherfas January 10, 2013 at 3:16 pm

I get that demand from distilling kept grain prices high, and this in the wake of rather good harvests. I read that at some point one in four houses in London had a still of some sort, many of them cranking out toxic waste. But I guess we’ll never know whether the higher price of grain made any difference to the food economy of the poor — who were anyway probably too sozzled to care.

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Ulrich January 10, 2013 at 6:21 pm

Interesting question… Historical statistics (however good they are) at least suggest that prices started to rise right after the deregulation of distilling wp.me/p2OHgc-2s. But right, we really don’t know why this happened, whether because of higher use of grains in gin or some other factors…

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Jeremy Cherfas January 11, 2013 at 9:43 am

Thanks for that — and for pointing me to the Global Price and History Group; what a great resource. Unfortunately, when I went looking for bread prices, they data don’t start until 1818. Flour is better. I’ll take a look at that.

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