A chemistry professor is probably not the first person that would come to one’s mind when recruiting moderators to lead a Socratic seminar on Orwell’s 1984. This invitation from the organizers of One Book, Many Conversations was predicated upon the belief that reading great texts, engaging in open discourse, and practicing democracy are not activities that belong solely to those from academic disciplines labeled “humanities” or “liberal arts,” a perspective that I share. I also hope that by participating in OMBC, I will demonstrate that many scientists do not hold the opinion that STEM fields are superior or more important than the non-STEM. Such value judgments do nothing but detract from our important shared mission as educators: creating the next generation of citizens capable of literacy in a wide variety of fields and able to address the multifaceted challenges of our modern age.

When invited to write this blog post for OMBC, I decided to discuss a chemical frequently mentioned in the novel: gin. Orwell’s choice of gin was likely not due to his knowledge of chemistry but of history, an allusion to England’s infamous Gin Craze of the early 18th century. I was initially struck by his descriptions of Victory Gin, particularly references to the drink being “oily-tasting” and “horrible.” Upon closer reading, I discovered that many items associated with pleasurable consumption and nourishment, including foods such as sugar, coffee, and bread, are replaced with synthetic substitutes or are vastly inferior in quality. A diet that regularly includes fresh vegetables and fruit no longer exists except in memory. A central theme of the book, the disruption of natural human experiences, notably relationships between parents, spouses, and children, extends even to the molecular level of nutrition.

The power of gin is most striking. Oceania is, as Orwell writes, built upon a “creaking camaraderie oiled by gin.” In a nation characterized by frequent product shortages (razors, pots, etc.), “nothing is cheap and plentiful except synthetic gin.” The Party leverages gin for multiple purposes: as a status symbol to delineate between Party members and the proles, as a commodity to barter for the services of prole prostitutes, and as a limitless palliative for its “rehabilitated” enemies who frequent the Chestnut Tree Cafe.

Gin also casts a giant shadow over the life of the novel’s protagonist. In the beginning, Winston fortifies himself with liquid courage prior to writing in his secret notebook for the first time. He characterizes his gin consumption as occurring “at all hours.” The quantity of drink has deadened his sense of taste to the point where he cannot appreciate the wine he is served at O’Brien’s house. Significantly, during Winston’s salad days midway through the novel, he recovers from his gin addiction for a brief period. But in the end his existence is reduced to one of perpetual, state-sanctioned drunkenness. Gin becomes “his life, his death, his resurrection.”

Hopefully this discussion about gin and 1984 has piqued your interest to read about the questions about the chemistry of Victory Gin I generated while reading the book and the answers I was able to find for each one. (Note: all page numbers listed correspond to the Signet Classics edition.)

  • What is gin? Gin is a liquor, typically 80-100 proof (40-50% alcohol by volume), created by infusing ethanol with flavors from botanical ingredients, most commonly juniper berries.

  • Why does Victory Gin have a “sickly oily smell” (page 5) and why is it “oily-tasting” (page 50)? Gin can be classified according to the method used in the flavor-infusion step. The simplest procedure involves adding botanical ingredients directly to ethanol to yield compound gin. The other two varieties involve distillation after the botanical ingredients have been added: simple distillation produces pot-distilled gin, usually amber-colored, while column-distilled gin is obtained from using a fractionating column, an apparatus that allows a succession of simple distillations to occur before the final product, now a colorless liquor, is finally collected. Victory Gin is described as being colorless (page 5) which would suggest that it is a column-distilled gin. However its excessively oily nature would be more consistent with a compound gin. One could hypothesize that The Party may even take short-cuts such as making gin by simply taking ethanol and directly adding the essential oils from botanical ingredients of choice. In this process, not all of the compounds found in the essential oils would necessarily be miscible with ethanol and therefore could impart an oily quality to the gin.

  • What is Chinese rice spirit? Victory Gin is described as being similar to Chinese rice spirit (page 5), a liquor known to contain organic compounds called esters. Esters are molecules in foods that impart aroma. Chinese rice spirit contains primarily ethyl lactate and ethyl acetate.

  • How much gin does Winston drink? There are multiple references to his consumption of teacups (approximately 6 fluid oz) and mugs (8-16 fluid oz) full of gin. At the lunch canteen (page 48), a “large nip of gin,” ~190 mL, nearly a fifth of a liter, could be bought for 10 cents.

  • What is “gin flavored with cloves,” the specialty drink of the Chestnut Tree Cafe (page 76)? Typically gin is made with juniper berries as flavoring but, for some reason, juniper is never mentioned by name in 1984. One could hypothesize that the geographical areas that grow juniper are outside of Oceania. This would also be true of cloves which are currently grown primarily in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Clove oil contains a large amount of eugenol, a phenylpropanoid with anesthetic properties. Interestingly, clove gin would be ideal for hastening an alcoholic to his grave since both excessive alcohol consumption and eugenol cause liver damage.

  • Can one shed tears of gin? Orwell describes one of Winston’s childhood memories involving an old man who “reeked of gin” to such a degree that one could imagine “[tears] welling from his eyes were pure gin” (page 33). In the last paragraph of the book, Winston’s tears at the end of the book are also “gin-scented” (page 297). While I was unable to find any studies examining the presence of alcohol in human tears, ethanol in the sweat of continuous drinkers has been detected and quantified.



Shirley Lin is Professor of Chemistry at the United States Naval Academy, and will be co-moderating a seminar on 1984 for One Book, Many Conversations.