The East London Liquor Company's signature dry gin
Londoners love a fad: today it’s man buns, overpriced burgers and cocktails in unlikely drinking vessels; in the first half of the 18th century, it was drinking gin. So much so, the period has been dubbed ‘the Gin Craze’. Vice chamberlain Lord Hervey said at the time: “The whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from morning till night.”
While that sounds, quite frankly, cracking, the availability of cheap spirits and gin in particular led to many of the problems we have come to associate with the poor East End of Georgian England: crime, prostitution, poverty and a remarkably high death rate.
The situation got so bad that the government was forced to take action by 1736, when it introduced the Gin Act, taxing the spirit heavily and introducing a pricy retail license. Reputable sellers went out of business, and dodgy home-made alternatives emerged, containing nasty and sometimes poisonous ingredients.
The Gin Craze
Further reforms were eventually pushed through and, combined with poor harvests and rising food prices, the Gin Craze was over.
Until now, that is. The first distiller to set up shop in east London for more than a century, The East London Liquor Company (ELLC)—whose pop-up outlet can currently be found on Rochester Walk—has brought gin production back to its roots. Geographical location is all it has in common, mind—the ELLC’s signature London Dry Gin couldn’t be further from the paint stripper of the 18th and 19th centuries.
“Our London Dry Gin is made with seven botanicals,” founder Alex Wolpert explains. “Cardamom, angelica root, cubeb berries, two citruses (grapefruit and lemon), coriander seed which lengthens the citrus flavour, and juniper berries, which are quite special. We source the juniper berries from Macedonia, because we want that earthy, resinous flavour. We feel that’s really important.”
All the ELLC gins found at the pop-up bottle shop are distilled on-site in a converted glue factory at Bow Wharf, in hand-crafted copper stills, with 100 per cent British wheat spirit. After six months of fine-tuning, the company now makes three own-brand London dry gins—two of which have already won awards.
So what makes a London dry gin, well, dry? “It is actually EU specified,” says Alex. “You can’t add any flavouring after the liquor’s come off the still, only more water and alcohol, and it has to be a minimum 96 per cent ethanol to start with,” he explains. “London drys don’t have to come from London—although ours do. The name defines the process, rather than the origin or quality.”
The ELLC is committed to transparency, in terms of both sourcing and production. Happily for us, equally important is affordability. “It’s a Londoner’s drink and we want to make it accessible,” Alex continues. “Often you have to pay for quality; we’re trying to invert that. We want to make an amazing liquid, without ripping our customers off.”
So how should we drink our newly found favourite spirit? Stick to the classics, says Alex. “A simple gin and tonic is just great. We have ours with a wedge of lime to complement its existing citrusy flavour. The flavour of the gin shouldn’t be stomped down by something else and with the London dry, you still get that real juniper kick. However you have it, the gin should always shine through.”
Another classic drink is of course the martini, comprising in its truest form simply gin, vermouth and an olive. To shake up this traditional tipple, Leah, the bartender at Rabot Estate, suggests adding cocoa bitters. “Our cocoa bitters are infused with cocoa extract, grapefruit, silver birch and absinthe. It doesn’t taste chocolatey at all,” she explains.
“Mix it up in the same way as a usual martini—I wouldn’t put an olive in it, though!—then simply add a few drops of the bitters. Five is usually more than enough to get that lovely bitterness, and just a hint of cocoa.”