Kind of Blue Bottle Gin: how did blue become our favourite colour?

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Below is an excerpt from the October 2015 edition of GINNED! Magazine about Blue Bottle Gin from Guernsey. Every month, Craft Gin Club Members receive a bottle of amazing small-batch gins and gin complements accompanied by GINNED! Magazine which is full of information about the gin, the distillery and loads of fascinating features.

Looking at your bottle of Blue Bottle Gin, you’re likely to quickly recognise the beauty in its artwork, the perfect right angles of its edges, and of course, it’s bright blue hue. Others amongst your fellow humans, however, might see things a little differently. They would probably admire the artistic details of the label and the chiseled corners of the glass. But they would miss the characteristic of the bottle that you find most obvious: they would not recognise the colour of the bottle as blue. 

Within the 10,000 or so years of human existence, it’s only very recently that we have begun to see blue as a colour. A number of languages have no specific word for the colour. Cultures still exist that do not distinguish its tones, evident to our Western eyes. Even the realisation that we don’t universally realise blue is a very recent phenomenon, a realisation that started with the Victoiran-era British Prime Minister, William Gladstone. 

A Blue Biography

In 1858, Gladstone published a work based on his obsession with Homer’s Iliad and Odyessy called Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age, a book recognised primarily for its study of Homer’s use of colour. The Ancient Greek poet describes the sea and oxen as the colour of wine whilst “faces pale with fear,” olive-wood clubs and even honey were described as “green”. Colour in both tomes is predominantly black - with nearly 120 mentions - and white with a bit over 100 uses. Red comes a distant third cited as an illustrative term a mere 13 times where both green and yellow see fewer than 10 mentions apiece. 

And blue? Despite vivid descriptions of sea and sky, Homer never mentions the colour blue.

The omission led Gladstone to believe the Greeks colour blind, seeing mostly black and white with the occasional splash of red. But ten years after the publication of Gladstone’s work, a German philologist, Lazarus Geiger, took the four-time PM’s work to the next level. Geiger delved into ancient texts from Iceland to China as well as the Old Testament and the Koran. In none of them did he find any mention of the colour blue.

What Geiger did find, however, was an indication of the evolution of man’s perception of the world. As we humans tend to interpret our reality by what is around us, as a species, our understanding of colour grew the same way: you will find very little naturally occurring blue in the world. There are no blue animals and blue plants are hybrids of human creation. Reds, blacks, browns, and whites can all be found from tree bark to rocks to the earth. But blue, not so much.

“What about blue sky?” you might ask. As it turns out, for much of human history, our eyes have not interpreted the sky as the colour blue. For instance, in all their talk of the heavens, not once do the aforementioned ancient Hebrew and Muslim texts describe the skies as blue. 

From 2006 to 2007, Israeli linguist and research fellow at the University of Manchester, Guy Deutscher, conducted an experiment concerning the sky’s colour with his daughter, Alma. When Alma was very young, Deutscher never mentioned that the sky was blue or related the two terms. As her vocabulary grew, she never joined the two terms together. The linguist then began asking his nearly 2-year old daughter specifically what colour the sky was. Alma’s first answer was “white.” Deutscher wrote of the results, “It took another month until she first called the sky “blue’,” showing that our association of the two are a cultural interpretation rather than a natural one, again clarifying the lack of blue in ancient texts.

But homo sapiens’ ancient visual history is not completely devoid of blue. More than two thousand years before Homer wrote his masterpieces, the Ancient Egyptians prized the colour blue as witnessed by their artwork, including the tombs of King Tut. It is known that the blue semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli, which was first mined as early as 7000 B.C. in the only region from where it is known to come, Afghanistan, was sought after by the Egyptians. Their contact with the stone led the civilisation to create the world’s first synthetic pigment, Egyptian Blue, which they made from a mixture of silica, lime, copper and alkali. 

Most interestingly, however, the Egyptians’ use of the colour drove them to create a word for it, seemingly the first word developed to specifically describe the colour. Geiger traced the evolution of the names of colours through all of the civilisations that he studied and found that virtually all language evolved with black being the first colour mentioned, then white, red, yellow and/or green, and finally, blue. 

Tangled up in lapis lazuli

A lapis lazuli stone

A lapis lazuli stone

So, when did the Western cultures we’re familiar with today begin using blue more commonly? Marc Walton, a scientist at Northwestern University’s-Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in Arts, has traced the beginnings of the regular use of lapis lazuli back to around 600 A.D. in Afghanistan where it was mined. For centuries, the Romans knew of its use by the Egyptians as well as their recipe for Egyptian Blue, but with the empire’s slow decline, the recipe was lost. It wasn’t, according to Walton, until around the 10th century that lapis lazuli appears frequently in Europe, specifically by Venetian traders bringing it back home. These merchants of Venice called the colour “ultramarine” which translates to “over the seas.”

Today, the seeming ubiquity of blue - a majority of Westerners proclaim it their favourite colour - still does not mean that it is recognised by all societies. The Himba tribe in Namibia has no word for the colour blue and makes no distinction between blue and green. 

To test their perception of what we Blue Bottle Gin drinkers recognise in the colour of the bottle, Professor of Psychology at the University of London’s Goldsmith’s College visited the tribe with a test. He showed them two screens each with eleven squares. On the first screen, one of the squares was a Western blue whilst all the rest were the same colour green. On the second, one square was a slightly different shade of green from the rest. Tribe members failed to pick out the blue square as different whereas they easily detected the vaguely distinct green square. 

So is your bottle of Blue Bottle Gin actually green? It appears in some cultures that it certainly would be perceived as such. We could discuss the matter until we’re blue in the face. But for now, we’d rather pour ourselves a G&T from a Guernsey bottle we see as a beautiful blue

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