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High spirits

Categories: Features, Product stories

Clare Finney visits East London Liquor Company’s Bow Wharf distillery to get the low-down on their inaugural London Rye Whisky

In 1903, the doors clanged shut for the last time on London’s only remaining whisky distillery, Lea Valley Distillery in East London. For the next 114 years, the capital’s whisky scene lay dormant, with not a single drop of London-made whisky bottled, sniffed or sipped within its perimeter. Then, in 2015, barely two miles up the canal from the spirit’s graveyard, a young distiller fired up a pot still filled with a fermented ‘mash’ of rye and barley. His name was Andy Mooney; the company he worked for, the East London Liquor Company; his ambition, to resurrect east London’s production of rye whisky.

“England doesn’t have a style of whisky. Even 114 years ago when it was being distilled here, it wasn’t something people associated it with. Gin was the drink of choice,” Andy says, as we enter the distillery. Almost immediately the scent of malty, yeasty aromas mixed with the tang of fruit peel (someone’s doing a run of the ELLC’s gin, too) hits me like a tropical wave. “People didn’t have the storage space. They didn’t have the time. They didn’t have the money to invest up front for something they’d have to wait years for a return on—and gin, not requiring the maturation period that whisky does, was cheap,” he continues. Whereas Scotland and Ireland boasted hundreds of years’ worth of infrastructure and inheritance when it came to whisky, in England, it was a risky business. Andy knew that when he embarked on this project: indeed, it’s one of the reasons (other than its being popular and delicious) they distilled gin first.

Gin plays a crucial role in ELLC’s whisky strategy. Their batch gins are an essential source of regular income, and the barrel-aged gin programme proved a valuable testing ground for Andy to experiment with different types of barrels and ageing. “The programme gave me great insight into how barrels interact with the spirit, and how long it takes.” An ex-sherry barrel might impart as much flavour in four months as an ex-wine does in 10, for example. “For the first six months, when I was just playing around, I made loads of mistakes.”

London Rye whisky

The gunpowder plot
His first whisky run was eight months after opening. He’d developed his recipe, sourced his producers of rye and malted barley (all British) and found his barrels: a mix of ex-pedro ximénez sherry, ex bourbon, and new French oak. Using a unique blend of 42 per cent rye and 58 per cent extra pale malted barley, Andy and his team mixed these grains with hot water to extract the soluble sugars. That mixture was then pumped into the fermenter, with added yeast. As the temperature rises, the yeast eats the sugar and converts it to alcohol. “We aim for around six to eight per cent ABV,” explains Andy. “The only difference between this process and that of brewing beer is that we don’t add hops to the mixture.”

The empty barrels are stored outside, stockpiled next to the distillery like the gunpowder plot. They’re “conditioning,” Alex explains. “The rainwater moistens the barrels so they don’t crack when they are filled with spirit, but without removing the flavour”—the lingering remnants of sherry, say, or bordeaux. Whereas brewing is “more like baking, in that you need the ingredients in the exact amount and at an accurate temperature, distilling is like cooking,” he continues expansively. “You can be more creative.” Of course you need training, but in a market already heavy with tradition, it’s innovation and flair that makes its mark.

Each barrel has its own flavour profile: French oak is intense and cinnamon-y, though its effects vary according to its ‘char’ levels—that is, the level to which the distiller chars or burns the inside of the barrels before filling them with whisky. “The bourbon adds caramel flavours, while the sherry adds a little sweetness.” The secret to great whisky lies in blending a mixture of barrels to get a balance between sweet and smoky, malty and fruity, darkness and light.

French oak
The rye whiskey on sale at the Borough Market stall right now was initially matured in new French oak casks of different char levels, then transferred to ex-bourbon for two years before being finished for a month in a sherry cask. Other barrels at Andy’s disposal include new American oak, chestnut, mulberry, acacia, ex- rye, bourbon, cognac, vermouth and a range of different wines. “The funkier the wine that went before, the funkier the flavour,” he grins—although finding ex-wine barrels which haven’t been in contact with sulphur is not always easy. “I’ve a trusted supplier whose barrels are all from organic and natural wines. If he can’t find any, he won’t supply me. Simple as that.”

For the next couple of whisky batches, Andy will play with barrels, ages—even yeasts. “Different yeasts produce different flavours at different temperatures. A yeast that produces banana and caramel at 30 degrees might produce rich cherry and smoky notes at three degrees,” he says excitedly.

The plan, come 2019, is to do whisky ‘vintages’: a quarterly production of whisky using yeasts which are most comfortable with the season at the time of distilling. “The first one will be spring 2019. “I think Londoners are ready for it. People are starting to come on board with drinking these spirits not to get drunk, but to enjoy them.” The long-term goal, he says, is to work with a natural yeast, “based on this building”—much like the natural starter culture Bill Oglethorpe uses for his cheese at Kappacasein or the wild yeast of the Wild Beer Co ales you’ll find at Utobeer.

Heads, hearts and tails
Andy is Irish. For the whisky-initiated, that much is as clear from the ‘cuts’ he takes (where he determines the ‘heads’, ‘hearts’ and ‘tails’ of the whisky) as it is from his accent. The cuts are what is taken during second distillation, after the first distillation separates the alcohol from the fermented liquid and eliminates the residue of the yeast and unfermentable matter.

The first cut is the ‘heads’, which contains a high proportion of methanol and other low boiling point liquids. The next cut is the ‘hearts’—the finest spirit, which is collected to become whisky. The third cut is the ‘tails’, and includes more water vapour and interesting aromatic compounds, as well as some bitter, unpalatable smells and flavours. The trick is in deciding where to draw the line. “Scottish cuts are slightly tighter around the middle. My cuts are more Irish in style, in that they’re larger to take in big, bold flavours—partly because Irish whiskey is triple distilled.”

Norfolk rye, Belgian saison yeast, German stills, an Irish distiller: East London Liquor Company’s inaugural whisky has many parents, but its identity lies in London. The distillery is in an old glue factory overlooking Regent’s Canal, and the clean slate and craft beer-inspired creativity London affords it has played a crucial part in shaping the whisky they now have.

Techno and bass
Head to the off-site ageing room and you’ll find guys rolling the barrels around to the sound of techno or bass music. “It’s a very good idea,” laughs Andy. “Unlike wine, whisky needs to breathe and have contact with the whole cask throughout the ageing process. You can see the barrels vibrating to the music.” As I leave, I can think of only one thing more London than ageing barrels of craft spirits to techno in an ex-glue factory—and that’s the whisky-lovers of the future sipping a natural yeast whisky, matured in, say, acacia, mulberry and ex-orange wine barrels.