The Holy Spirit
Riddle’s drinks afficionado tries to scratch the surface of London’s booming gin renaissance. Hogarth would be proud….
Article by Ian Buxton, Photography by Andy Barnham
Ever wondered what ‘London Gin’ means? Until recently, the answer would have been ‘not a lot’. Unlike Plymouth Gin, which is a legally-protected term permitting distillation only in that fair city, London Gin simply denotes a style – and one which can be made anywhere.
Historically, gin came from Holland and became London’s favourite in the 18th-century when gin distillation took hold of much of the city. Writing about this period, Lord Hervey declared: “Drunkenness of the common people was universal, the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from morning till night.” William Hogarth in his 1751 engraving ‘Gin Lane’ portrays a scene of idleness, vice and misery, leading to madness and death. As students of history will know, binge drinking is nothing new!
But, eventually, gin cleaned up its act, became respectable and, frankly, a little boring. It turned into the Nigel Farage of drinks, consumed by Jaguar driving, Pringle sweater wearing golfers and Rotary Club members. Driven by industry consolidation, by the 1960s, almost all the manufacture of gin had moved out of the city. It seemed that a great heritage had been lost, gin itself was in an inexorable spiral of decline and London gin didn’t really mean a great deal. Frankly, this was how gin lost its way, became dull, staid and boring and surrendered to vodka and light rum. When in 1992 the UK version of the brand leader Gordon’s dropped its strength to 37.5% abv you really did feel they had run up the white flag; chucked in the towel and given up the ghost.
For the classic London gin to drop to the level of some anaemic super-market own-label really was disappointing. Gordon’s may as well have told us to BOGOF. If they didn’t care, why should we.
But today, gin is pretty much the hippest thing around down Hoxton way – it is, in fact, the Cara Delevingne of drinks (disclaimer: I have no idea what the divine Cara drinks; we move in different circles and for all I know she’s tucked up in bed well before the Ten O’Clock News with a tasty glass of organic green tea – the point, as I’m sure you’ve gathered, is that gin is hot.)
Now the revival may have started with Bombay (made until very recently in glamorous Warrington) and Hendricks (which hails from a something about the size of a decent garage on a huge industrial distilling complex on Scotland’s west coast) but today the really exciting brands are back home, being crafted in London on a scale that Hogarth himself would recognise.
But while smaller producers are fighting back with distinctive London gins, often on a boutique scale let’s not forget the sole producer of any brand significance remaining in London who kept the flag flying during the darkest of days. That’s Beefeater, distilled to this very day in Kennington where you can visit their rather excellent ‘Home of Gin’ for a museum-quality tour that ends with a most un-museum-like G&T. There’s an opportunity too to buy a distillery exclusive special bottling called Beefeater London Garden (40% ABV, £22.50) which combines flowering herb lemon verbena and aromatic thyme with the signature citrus notes of Beefeater.
Beefeater’s Master Distiller Desmond Payne, something of a father figure in gin and an inspiration to a new generation of distillers has form with limited editions, having created the premium Beefeater 24 and then the playful Beefeater Summer and Winter Editions, which went over very well with the cocktail crowd. But what about the new boys that I mentioned?
They include Sipsmiths; Old Tom from Jensen, which attempts to recreate a sweeter style of spirit popular in the 19th century; and Sacred Gin, which is – almost unbelievably – distilled by hand in Highgate. Then we have the City of London Distillery making their excellent COLD Gin (40% ABV, £32.50) in a pub just off Fleet Street and Darren Rook’s London Distillery Company in Battersea. Their Dodd’s Gin first ran off the still in early 2013. Not satisfied with that they now plan to be the first whisky distillery in London since Lea Valley in Stratford closed in the early 1900s.
Dodd’s Gin is produced in small batches using organic botanicals including juniper, angelica, fresh lime peel, bay laurel, cardamom, red raspberry leaf and London honey using both pot and vacuum distillation. Hand bottled and labelled, Dodd’s Gin is non-chill filtered and bottled at (49.9% ABV, £35 for a 50cl bottle).
Ian Hart and Hilary Whitney run Sacred Spirits in Highgate, using a highly unusual cold distillation process, which aims to preserve more of the taste of the botanicals, resulting in a taste that’s surprisingly fresh and quite true to the base ingredients. As a result their Sacred Gin (and vodka) can be sipped neat, though most will be used in cocktails.
At around £30-33, Sacred Gin has already collected a number of awards and attracted the attention of cutting-edge cocktail maestros. Sacred is produced using 12 different botanicals including juniper (the staple ingredient of all gin), cardamom, nutmeg, and Boswellia Sacra (aka Hougary Frankincense) from which the brand name is derived. Sacred Spirits also offer enthusiasts the opportunity to create your own personalised gin by selling bottles of individual distillates. You then mix to your own recipe for the ultimate, but probably unrepeatable, martini.
Sipsmiths is the creation of three enthusiasts who started by making just a few hundred bottles at a time in a custom-designed pot still which, entirely co-incidentally, was housed in the Hammersmith building formerly the offices and tasting room of the late and great Michael Jackson (a noted drinks writer, not the singer). Here they produces an interpretation of the classic London Dry style that nods to its heritage and emerges as a particularly dry gin with a wonderful burst of juniper and a zesty, citrus freshness. As Sipsmiths have emerged as a flag-carrier for the craft sector so they have expanded their range and output but still only produce in a year what an operation such as Beefeater may make in a day or so.
Finally, there’s just room to mention the East London Liquor Company, based (as the name would suggest) in Bow – in an old glue factory, in fact. That may not sound so enticing, but the distillery is well worth a visit. Like the chaps at COLD you can sip a G&T or a classic cocktail at the distillery’s own bar while observing the gleaming copper stills through a glass wall and nibbling their tasty bar food.
(With thanks to Nightingale)