During our recent stay at London's first gin hotel, we learned that Londoners once got their fix of gin from the jaws of a giant wooden cat. We love both gin and cats, and this seems like something which never should have gone out of fashion.
We asked resident Portobello Road Gin expert Jake Burger to give us the low down.
"The tale goes that a fairly devious chap called Captain Dudley Bradstreet, an illicit gin peddler, also had a sideline as an agent for the government informing on illegal gin producers. The nature of his business coupled with the fact that he was probably not the most well-liked man necessitated that he maintained a degree of anonymity, and he came up with an ingenious way of doing this.
In his marvellously titled book, The Life and Uncommon Adventures of Captain Dudley Bradstreet, he explains how, when at a particularly low ebb, he spent his last £13 at the Langdale's Distillery in Holborn, whom it was said produced the finest gin in London at the time; what he did next assured him a footnote in gins history:
I . . . purchased in Moorfields the sign of a cat and had it nailed to a street window. I then caused a leaden pipe, the small end out about an inch, to be placed under the paw of the cat, the end that was within had a funnel to it ... When the liquor was properly disposed, I got a person to inform a few of the mob that gin would be sold by the cat at my window next day, provided they put money in his mouth . . . at last I heard the chink of money and a comfortable voice say, 'Puss, give me two pennyworth of gin!' I instantly put my mouth to the tube and bid them receive it from the pipe under her paw.
"Bradstreet had unwittingly created one of the earliest vending machines - for the distribution of illegal gin. Ingenious. An innovation that was soon copied across the capital. People would stand outside houses, call 'puss' and when the voice within said 'mew' they would know that they could buy bootleg gin inside. Very soon Old Tom became an affectionate nickname for gin."