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Richard Barnett gin lectures at the Observatory Room

Ori-gins: Historian gives talk on the strange story of gin

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Call it a spirited discussion.

A pair of lectures at the Observatory Room in Gowanus on April 10 and 11 will delve into the origins of gin. And naturally, there will be some hands-on study of the subject in question, with plenty of gin-based cocktails to go around.

“It’ll be a festive environment,” said Joanna Ebenstein creative director at the Morbid Anatomy Library, which is hosting the events. “But you’ll also learn a lot.”

The talks will be given by the Morbid Anatomy Library’s visiting scholar in residence Richard Barnett, who penned a book about the history of the clear liquor entitled “The Book of Gin” in 2011.

The early form of gin came about in eighth-century Bagdad, when alchemists were using the distillation process to produce medicine, and stumbled upon a clear liquid that looks like water but burns and evaporates, Barnett said. These Arabic alchemists knew their discovery was powerful, but had trouble explaining exactly how.

“They thought of it as concentrated life in a bottle,” said Barnett.

A number of cultures used the new booze as a medicine for centuries, treating all manner of illness. But by the 1500s, the Dutch were infusing the spirits with an herb widely thought to hold medicinal properties — juniper. They called the drink jenever.

“It was the coming together of two substances that were thought to be very powerful,” said Barnett. “Remarkable techniques come together in a glass of gin.”

Barnett’s first lecture will focus on these early roots, while his second lecture will skip forward a few hundred year to the “gin craze” of the 1700s in England — an epidemic famously illustrated by the William Hogarth print “Gin Lane,” which depicts a scene of squalor and despair including a drunken woman letting her baby fall to its death.

The explosion of gin’s popularity followed a drastic easing of the laws that regulated manufacturing of the firewater. When the destructive social consequences of the spirit’s cheap and pervasive availability became obvious, the government enacted laws to make production more expensive, which ultimately drove gin underground.

If the thought of spending an evening learning about history leaves a bad taste in your mouth, don’t worry, said Ebenstein — Barnett has a knack for distilling facts and historical events down into an easily digestible tonic, she said.

“A lot of academics might know very interesting things, but they might not be good at communicating these ideas,” said Ebenstein of the scholar, who will be running lectures at the Morbid Anatomy Library for the whole month of April. “But Richard is really good at taking the jargon out and finding the stories. He can really speak to a popular audience.”

The cocktails at the lectures will be provided by Hendrick’s gin, but Barnett said he prefers the spirit in one of its most simple forms — a classic martini with a twist. “It doesn’t get much better than that,” he said.

“Quintessence Of A Mystery: The Birth Of Gin” at the Observatory Room [543 Union St. between Bond and Nevins streets in Gowanus, www.observatoryroom.org] April 10 at 8 pm. $8; “Dutch Courage And Mothers’ Ruin: The Gin Craze Lecture and Party” at the Observatory Room. April 11 at 8 pm. $12.

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260-8310. E-mail him at mperlman@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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