Kindred spirits

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Distiller Tom Hills reflects on the second year of East London Liquor Company’s barrel-aged gin programme

Words: Clare Finney

It sounds like the sort of zany, hipster idea you’d find in—well, East London, frankly: artisanal gin, aged in new wooden barrels, and ones which have previously played host to other wines and spirits. On 1st December this year, East London Liquor Company will release the fourth and final installment of the barrel-aging programme: their award-winning London Dry Gin, aged in an ex-sherry cask for 400 days. This is gin like you’ve never had before: dark, golden, laced with the aromas of orange zest, caramel, and seasonal gingerbread spices.

While the decision to deliberately age gin this way is an innovative one, the relationship between wooden barrels and gin actually dates back to the 18th century. “Back then, all gin would have been aged in some way,” says Tom Hills, head distiller at ELLC, “because prior to the invention of glass, it was transported in wooden barrels.” Tom was inspired to revive this approach to gin storage simply by the number of casks they had lying around as a result of their producing whiskey, a spirit which is famously barrel-aged.

Two hundred years ago, gin ageing was more by default than design: the decision to age their award-winning London dry gin deliberately was perfectly in keeping with the experimental, yet at the same time richly historical nature of the company. “It wouldn’t be interesting to us to simply stand still.” 

Vanilla and dried fruit
“We knew from the whiskey we drink and make the sorts of flavours different casks might contribute,” Tom continues. Back in the day, gin would have been plonked in any barrels they could get their hands on. Tom and his co-distiller, Andy, were slightly more discriminate: at least, they were at first, starting with new French oak, which hadn’t contained anything previously yet imbued cosy vanilla and dried fruit notes, like you find in bourbon. Things got increasingly experimental as time went by.

This year saw ex-white wine barrels from Bordeaux lend the gin aromas of sweet hay, allspice and peaches. Then ex-bourbon barrels brought nutty, caramel notes to the gin party. This was followed, in September, by gin aged in ex-rum and ex-rye casks: a blend launched exclusively for Bristol in honour of the company’s popularity with Bristolians, and the city’s historic association with rum.

“The rum barrels come from Guadeloupe, and the ex-rye from our own London rye whiskey maturing room—so there was a meeting of rum, rye and gin in there, which was nice.” Think butterscotch and pink peppercorns, followed by warm spices. Naturally, it sold out within weeks of its launch, as have all the releases in the company’s barrel-ageing programme. “Our releases are limited by the size of the barrel. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

400-day aged gin barrel in cellar

Over-rum the gin
One of the challenges of ageing gin in casks which have previously contained alcohol is judging how much effect they are going to have, and how rapidly. “It’s difficult to work out, so we taste all the barrels every month or so,” Tom explains. Some age rapidly—“particularly new oak, because it’s not had anything in it before”—but some take a great deal longer. “With the Bristol one, for example, there was such a wide range of flavours we didn’t want to overegg the pudding”—that is, over-rum the gin. “We want it to be gin first, then the other notes.”

It’s in their final release for 2017, out just in time for Christmas, that the East London Liquor Company’s instinct for innovation has come into its own.

“It’s a personal favourite,” Tom says, of the gin that for 400 days sat forgotten in an ex-sherry cask in their cellars. “We didn’t expect it to be any good and because the sherry cask is so big, it was a bit of an effort to tip it over and open it to taste.” Indeed, the only reason it really had gin in it in the first place was to stop the empty cask rolling around. “It wasn’t intended as something we were going to release—we were just always shifting this cask around, so we thought we’d chuck some gin in there and see what happened.” Ex-sherry casks are normally used for finishing whisky, after it’s been aged in bourbon. “It’s very unusual to age something exclusively in a barrel that contained sherry.”

You can imagine their surprise, therefore, when they finally came round to opening it and discovered something “amazing,” Tom laughs. “There was this round sweetness to it that was really appealing.” For him, having one that stands out so much is a delight. “It’s the one I am most excited about releasing.”

Enthusiastic tastings
The gin will be available in their Borough Market shop for as long as supplies last. As for 2018? Well, watch this space. “The only real challenge for us will be finding more and more unusual barrels to maintain our creativity—and in having enough left in the casks we have. We’re getting a bit enthusiastic in our tastings!”