The Book of Gin, by Richard Barnett, has everything that the gin drinker needs to know about the history of a drink with (dubious) medical beginnings in alchemists' laboratories, and which has been banned, looked down upon and celebrated in popular culture, from Hogarth to Mad Men. Richard Barnett, whose previous book was a history of medicine and medical care in London, has done his research and gives us a history of gin that also serves as a rich social history of the countries where it has been both enjoyed and condemned.
Though it is unclear exactly where and how gin was created, it seems that alcoholic drinks with juniper oil were being distilled for medical reasons by the Persians in the seventh century AD. The Dutch acquired a taste for "genever" (a juniper flavored grain alcohol) in the 1600s, and soon the popular drink was being denounced by preachers and the press in England, which was the country where the gin craze was the greatest. For many Brits beer was celebrated as it was served at the pub, which was a social place for the working man to relax and discuss issues of the day. Gin, on the other hand, led to poor health, poverty and crime. England tried multiple times to tax or ban gin production (similar to the United States' attempt at prohibition) but eventually found itself unable to control its citizens' desires for the drink. And of course gin has had a profound history in the US as well, with bootlegging and bathtub gin becoming familiar concepts by anyone who has seen a gangster movie.
The book is full of anecdotes and literary references from the people who struggled to either condemn or justify the enjoyment of gin. Many people know that gin and tonics initially became popular as a way to battle malaria. However, you may not know that bitters were initially mixed with gin in order to treat gout while the gin gimlet was a way to deal with scurvy. Also interesting to dry martini drinkers as myself (I prefer the Winston Churchill martini, or a glass of gin with a nod in the direction of the vermouth bottle) is the fact that in the 1930s, when cocktail parties were in vogue, a martini would typically be made of 1 part vermouth to 3 or 4 parts gin. Only in later years did just a touch of vermouth become the standard way to drink a martini.
I will confess that the book is a bit dry in parts (no pun intended) and I found myself skimming as Barnett offered one literary anecdote after another. However, the book's comprehensiveness and willingness to take its subject seriously are what make it a definitive history of a drink with a strong effect on the cultures where it has been enjoyed.