Londoner’s thirst for city-distilled spirits is on the rise… again
–Published in Square Meal, Autumn 2013–
In the residential streets of London’s boroughs, a quiet revolution has been gripping the capital once more. Strange-looking copper equipment is being carried into garages, warehouses and homes, only to be exchanged for shiny bottles clinking their way back out.
Yes, craft distillers are popping up across the city, and everyone wants a piece of the action, be it by setting up their own distillery, visiting one for a tour, or by buying a bottle of something that has been made just down the road.
This year alone has seen the opening of The London Distillery Company (TLDC), the city’s first whisky distillery for over 100 years; the City of London Distillery (COLD), a bar with a gleaming copper still behind a glass wall; and Butler’s Gin, which was originally distilled on a boat in Hackney Wick. And that’s before we even discuss those founding fathers of the city’s micro-distilling scene, Sacred and Sipsmith.
But this isn’t the first time that the city has been home to myriad distilleries. In fact, at one time there were 1,700 in the city alone…
Among many of the images stitched into the identity of our fair capital, there is one monochrome print that stands out amongst the brightly coloured graphic designs of the underground and the energetic photography of the swinging sixties.
This print, by the artist William Hogarth, harks back to a time of drunkenness and loose morals, and is called, simply, Gin Lane. At its centre there sits a mother, half-naked, about to drop her baby on its head. The city streets are running with gin, Hogarth is saying, and it is eating away at the lower classes.
But what was the cause of such a scene? Blame the Dutch. When an English army was sent to central Europe to fight for the protestants in the Thirty Years War in the 16th century, ‘the Dutch soldiers introduced them to something called genever – a juniper-flavoured spirit that they would drink before going into battle, giving them “Dutch courage”,’ explains Edward McPartlan, gin instructor at the Ginstitute, a distillery and gin museum above the Portobello Star pub in Notting Hill.
These soldiers brought the spirit back to England, but it wasn’t until 1680 – when another Dutchman came galloping into Britain’s drinking history – that the gin craze really began to take hold. William of Orange seized the crown of England, and promptly imposed a ban on French imports, including French brandy. To counter this, home distillation was encouraged (and completely unregulated), leading to the rise of gin’s popularity, with one in four homes containing some sort of distilling equipment.
‘Gin was ordered in quarter-pint serves, was 50% abv and was drunk neat,’ says McPartlan. The party – and such prodigal drinking – couldn’t go on, however, and two separate acts in the 1750s clamped down on distillation, leading to the disappearance of all but the big companies who could afford the new taxes.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, London’s distilling scene gradually became a slumbering giant – the last distillery that opened (before the current craft scene took hold) was Beefeater in 1876.
Fast-forward to 2009, and something extraordinary happens. HMRC receives applications for not one, but two microdistilleries in London: Sipsmith in Hammersmith, and Sacred in Highgate. There was a problem, however. HMRC didn’t know how to deal with them.
‘It had been that long since they granted the licence to Beefeater that no one knew what to do,’ laughs James Grundy, sales director at Sipsmith, whose spirits are produced in an unassuming garage building.
After much to-ing and fro-ing, the licences were dispatched, and the two craft distilleries were in business.
Ian Hart of Sacred – who cold distills his gins, vodka and vermouths using his laboratory set up in his living room – remembers how difficult it was in the early days. ‘Back in 2009 when we and Sipsmith started, people had only really heard about Gordon’s, Beefeater, Tanqueray… the idea that there was a two-man band operating out of their house was very unusual, and it was a real uphill struggle to start with. But it’s a lot easier now, because there’s a lot more enthusiasm for new artisan gins.’
The UK has come a long way since 2009 – HMRC are now prepared and willing to work with new craft distillers to help get them set up with the required licences, and this step change has had a positive effect.
‘There was a wave of craft distillers starting up in America, and that really inspired what happened in the UK – the first wave was Chase [in Herefordshire], Sipsmith and Sacred,’ says Jamie Baxter, master distiller at COLD, who used to be the distiller at Chase. ‘We’re part of the second wave that’s coming through at the moment, and the third wave is just about to start.’
A third wave already? Apparently so; it appears that so many people are inspired by what’s going on that they want a piece of the action. ‘Quite a lot of people have been contacting us, wanting to come down and have a look, because they’re keen to set up their own distillery,’ admits Andrew MacLeod Smith, distiller at TLDC, while Baxter says that he gets ‘a phone call or a visit literally every day’.
In fact, everyone agrees that lots of people are currently knocking on distillery doors. But, as Grundy says, ‘Nine out of 10 people contacting us are interested amateurs rather than people who work in the drinks industry. I think what people have got to bear in mind is this: it’s a hugely exciting time for the drinks industry. But actually setting up a spirits brand, getting it established, is tough. It’s really tough, it’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week.’
Tough or not, it is, he says, a hugely exciting time for the distilling scene in this city. And while we might not revert to the gin-soaked nation of 300 years ago, it’s a lovely thought that our distilling heritage is returning home to roost.
Head to the source
Tours around some of the city’s distilleries are proving popular – pop along to one to see what all the fuss is about
The Hammersmith distillery opens its garage doors every Wednesday evening to introduce Prudence, their gleaming copper pot still, to visitors. Price includes a welcome G&T, talk and tasting through the Sipsmith range.
Head up the stairs of Notting Hill’s Portobello Star into London’s second smallest museum, which has been decked out like a gin palace. Learn an in-depth history of gin while enjoying G&Ts before heading to the still room to learn about botanicals and blend your own gin, which you get to take home along with a bottle of Portobello Road gin, which was formulated here. Expensive, but plenty of bang for your buck.
The London Distillery Company
Head to this impressive former Victorian dairy to be given a fascinating tour around both their whisky- and gin-making facilities. They also offer private bookings and can organise bespoke sessions for visitors who have something specific in mind.
City of London Distillery
COLD operates an open door policy, with distillery tours run on the hour from midday until 3pm on Monday to Thursday. Gin masterclasses are also run in the evenings, with an explanation of the distilling process, and then a tasting of four gins around a particular theme. Both include a G&T.
Price: Tours are £10, gin masterclasses £35
A taste of the city
Want to show some support to our homemade products? Why not try these…
City of London Dry Gin
A creamy gin with a velvet mouthfeel. Green grass and lemon flavours lead, with the juniper coming through in the middle and a smattering of white pepper and a strong streak of pink grapefruit on the finish. Good in: G&Ts
£32.50, Fortnum & Mason
From TLDC, this gin is very juniper-forward, with a zippy, lifted almost menthol/eucalyptus finish that can be attributed to the black cardamom used as one of the botanicals. Good in: Martinis
£37.50, Fortnum & Mason
Sipsmith Barley Vodka
Made from English barley and unfiltered, this vodka has a slightly sweet, creamy palate with a touch of viscosity to it. Some heat comes through mid-palate before more icing sugar notes on the end. Good in: Bloody Marys
Sacred Rosehip Cup
A new offering from Sacred, this is distiller Ian Hart’s English alternative to Campari. Lively red fruit – rosehip and raspberry compote with gentian and an icing sugar note – leads onto a slightly drying, long, bitter finish. A fruitier offering than Campari. Good in: Negronis
£TBC, Fortnum & Mason, Gerry’s