By Jack Peat, Editor of The London Economic
London isn’t the birthplace of gin, but it’s the closest thing it has to a home. For London Dry is responsible for finding gin a bedfellow in the shape of tonic, a mix that has become internationally renowned and is, in part, responsible for the spirit’s global rise amongst peers such as whisky and vodka. But despite being a symbolic home, London Dry is rarely made in London these days.
The East End was once home to a number of gin warehouses that used convenient links with the docks to trade gin with the world. William Hogarth’s depiction of London vice, Gin Lane, in 1751 demonstrated the impact gin had on the area as alluring new gin palaces opened up in a craze that span from the wealthy to the poor. Consumption of gin became so vast that an epidemic was caused brought about by cheap, home-made gin that led to social upheaval and constant inebriation. Some of the seedier shops in the area would advertise: “Drunk for one penny, dead drunk for two, clean straw for nothing.” The straw was used to lie on while sleeping off a hangover.
Not much is written about the aftermath of the gin craze, or as it was known ‘Old Tom’, but the Gin Act of 1751 clearly brought about a bit of calm and the distillers, realising gin would cost more to make, were forced to improve the quality of the drink to justify its price. It was around that age that the stalwarts of the gin industry started to pop up, with Alexander Gordon opening his first distillery in 1769 and Charles Tanqueray setting up in the Bloomsbury district of London in 1830. But despite providing a home for gin, it hasn’t been until recently that the prodigal son hath returned to the capital.
“As well as making a good product we’re also about restoring the spirits manufacturing heritage to East London”, Alex Wolpert, founder of The East London Liquor Company, said. Along with a small team of distillers he is championing several sound drinking principles in the Bow Wharf spirit distillery-come evening bar that transcend the basic distilling and drinking of gin. One of which is transparency.
“We have an open door policy. The glass behind that bar opens up to the distillery so visitors can watch our gin and vodka been made while enjoying them. We also bottle on site, so we have control over the entire production line,” Alex says.
A renewed interest in all things artisanal and, in particular, gin, prompted Alex to make a go of it in the East End and the distillery is now shipping to bars around London as well as serving their entire range on-site, which includes a London Dry Gin that I enjoyed with a Fever Tree tonic (the importance of getting the mixer right is a feature unto itself, but here’s an intro) as we were shown around the site. The distillery shipped in state-of-the-art technology from German manufacturer Arnold Holstein that allows the fresh ingredients that are put in to create natural flavours on the way out. The first still is used for gin and vodka production, but the second has an altogether more adventurous task, running its first vats of whisky in the coming months.
At the bar we sampled a range of gins and vodkas neat. The way to tell a good spirit apart from the plonk is by assessing the heat, Alex advised. If the heat adds to the flavour then it’s a good spirit but if it tastes thin and burns, like so many mass produced spirits today, then it’s best to avoid. The entire range – and do excuse my naivety in bunching such a tremendously diverse range of drinks – tastes smooth on the tongue before coming to life on the palate. The creamy butter notes of the vodka and the cardamom and vanilla notes in the gin make the spirits completely accessible and rather enchanting. But the best was still to come.
As we returned to our seats the tremendously skilled bartender brought out a procession of cocktails, starting with a Darjeeling Sour mixed with ELLC Gin and finishing with my pick of the night, although I’d begun to resemble a Hogarth-esque drunkard towards the end, the Martinez. Home-made rhubarb from a Hoxton garden combined with a Batch number 2 gin, sweet vermouth and sage for garnish combined in a martini glass that exuded seasonality. As Alex rightly pointed out at the start of the tasting, it’s about “finding a function for the flavour”, and functionality can be found in abundance throughout the cocktail list.
The East London Liquor Company has got something really good going on in the East End. Tradition, transparency and heritage are there for all to see, but get stuck into their cocktail list to see what they’re really about. “I don’t believe anyone who tells me they don’t like gin,” Alex says. “They just haven’t tasted the gin that’s right for them.” Here you have an accessible range of drinks to suite all manner of tastes. There are good London dry gins that lay in the speedrail and mix well with tonic and then there’s a range of spirits that have clean, crisp characteristics that are well incorporated into a range of cocktails. In an increasingly saturated market, this is a unique USP.
The danger with artisan products is that they can often be hoisted by their own petard, poncey to the point that they’re left to gather dust because no one actually has any use for them and there’s always someone round the corner to out ponce them. Where the real demand lies is in good, local products that can be used, and therein ELLC has excelled.