Spirit world

Categories: Features

The East London Liquor Company has revived one of the historic centres of gin production—the East End of London—more than a century after the area’s stills ceased to bubble. Market Life paid a visit to the small but enchanting Bow Wharf distillery to discover the secrets of this most traditional of drinks

Words: Clare Finney
Images: Joseph Fox

“I feel like I shouldn’t like that quite as much as I do,” I confess, hesitatingly, to Ashley Hunka of East London Liquor Company. I’ve just flicked my finger underneath a stream of distilled alcohol and licked it (as per instructed) with unseemly relish—only to be cheerfully told that this slightly warm, clear, sweet-spicy nectar is “about 78 per cent proof”.

Hence my embarrassment. I’m all for a drink or two, but it’s only just gone midday and a proclivity for 78 per cent alcohol is not something I’ll own up to readily, least of all to someone I’ve only known for five minutes. Ashley, however, is delighted. “No no! It’s amazing. You totally should like it,” she grins, and gestures for me to have another quick flick.

What felt to me like a heady experience is a matter of daily routine to Tom, Chris and the rest of the team, working in this tiny distillery in a former glue factory on Bow Wharf. As it distils, they judge the progress of the gin by taste—and by time. What emerges from the still is known, sequentially, as the ‘head’, the ‘heart’ and the ‘tail’, and keeping a careful track of it is absolutely essential.

Unpalatable and downright poisonous
“The heart is the good stuff—the stuff you just tasted—which we want to keep,” explains Ashley. The rest veers between unpalatable and downright poisonous. The head, the first to emerge, is methanol, “the stuff that makes you go blind and tastes like cat litter”, followed by the heart, followed by the tail, which is water and “other things, which you simply don’t want,” says Ashley, “and that’s particularly true of gin, because the process of making it is a little bit like steeping tea.”

I look confused—so Ashley gestures back to the first of the gleaming series of copper vessels and pipes we’re surrounded by. If you remember the world of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory (and I’m sure you do)—well, the East London Liquor Company looks a bit like that.

Except it’s not for kids: “In here there’s a mix of half water, half neutral grain spirit made from British wheat—about 96.4 per cent ABV—mixed with juniper berries and other botanicals: coriander, angelica root, cubeb berries, and cardamom. Hence its brown colour.”

Bubbling liquid
Sure enough, the bubbling liquid showing through the glass is as brown as—well, as a cup of stewed tea, and it’s that harsh flavour which comes through in the tail and which would, were the team not precise, taint the final product.

The mix continues to bubble furiously. Alcohol evaporates at 78C, so it’s at that temperature the British wheat spirit starts rising from the water. Near invisible to the naked eye, this piney, juniper infused vapour wafts up through a wire mesh basket filled with fresh botanicals—in this case, lemon and grapefruit rind, peeled by Chris, today’s distiller, mere moments before entering the still.

“We always use fresh citrus and a vapour infusion,” he explains, “though not everyone does.” Some distilleries put dried peel in the basket; others put the peel in the tank along with juniper berries in what’s called ‘direct infusion’. “All are valid,” Ashley adds, “we just do it this way because we love the bright, fresh yet delicate flavour it brings.”

Copper stills

Strict legal requirements
What happens next is significant. On the still now is East London Liquor Company’s signature London Dry—the first gin they ever produced, and one created to strict legal requirements. “The neutral grain spirit you start with has to be a minimum ABV, and when it comes out here,” Ashley points back to the stream of distilled alcohol we’d tasted, “there are only two things you can add: more alcohol to proof it up and more water to proof it down.” That’s it.

If you add liquorice root or sugar to the liquor, you’re making Old Tom gin; rosewater or cucumber and it is Hendrick’s, or something similar. A London dry gin is, by definition, distilled alcohol, flavoured by infusion alone.

Of course, even within those strictures there is scope for variation, according to the type of botanicals used, as well as their quality (“We are fussy. They have to be well sourced, to a high standard”) and the nature of the infusion, which can be entirely direct, entirely vapour, or, like East London Liquor Company, a mixture of the two.

Distinctly herbaceous
As well as London Dry, the company makes two premium gins: Batch No 1 includes intriguing botanicals such as cassia bark and Darjeeling tea, while Batch No 2’s “distinctly herbaceous” quality comes from a blend of lavender, sage, bay leaf, orris root, thyme and fennel seeds, to name a handful, and works particularly well in the founder of the company’s poison of choice: negroni.

One aspect of London dry gin that’s not regulated—surprisingly given the name—is its geography. Provided the method is right, ‘London’ dry gin can be made anywhere. It can be made in Plymouth. It can be made in Scotland. It can be made in the Netherlands, where gin first evolved, and in Germany—the country which, for all its beer fame, is in fact responsible for most of the stills now operating in London.

We’re standing in front of one: tall, dimpled and glowing rose gold in the midday sun. “This is an Arnold Holstein, from Baden-Württemberg in Germany. They’ve been using traditional metalworking techniques for generations, and they custom built this one for us because we’re a smaller distillery.”

More than one way to skin a cat
Starting a distillery from scratch, squeezed into a cramped corner of London, meant that the space for larger stills simply wasn’t available. Nor was the money. The founder of the company, Alex Wolpert, tells me one of the main reasons cynics doubted his venture would survive was the start-up cost of a distillery—“but there is more than one way to skin a cat,” he points out.

Working himself to the bone for two years until he could afford to employ staff was the only option. “We’ve only just employed a sales manager. Before that, the person doing everything outside the distilling—organising tastings for bartenders, inviting them on courses, visiting all the different bars and trade markets—was me.”

Each of these beautiful stills contains six copper plates, now rattling away “like lids on a pot of hot water,” Ashley points out. “They conduct heat well, and the copper acts like a magnet for impurities as the vapour is forced around the sides.”

East London Liquor Company whisky barrels

Thames water
It is then condensed—and we’re back where we started: the stream of high proof gin. This needs diluting. “We use Thames water, processed through reverse osmosis to soften the flavour and proof it down.”

That’s it—or at least, it would be were Alex and his head distiller Tom men of average ambition. Not content with their three very different gins, they are currently experimenting with a barrel aged gin programme, “ageing gin in different barrels for different periods, to see how it interacts with the wood and changes with time.”

In the world of gin production, this is a far out concept, but there’s a logic to it. Most wine, cask ale and whiskies are aged in barrels as standard. Even gin, in our seafaring days, could spend weeks at sea if being transported long distances. “They transported it in wood, it being safer than lots of glass bottles, and it would slightly take on the colour and flavour of the wood,” Ashley continues.

Aged in new French oak
Their first one—aged in new French oak for 14 weeks—was “delightful, a simply beautiful shade and flavour. I wish you could have tried it,” Ashley teases, “but you’ll have to trust me on this one. We ran out of it pretty quickly.” The second—well, she can’t tell me, but it will come from one of the various barrels Alex has procured through his contacts in the industry, and its taste will be impossible to predict.

We’re standing in the dim, warm light of the maturation room—a room chock full of barrels of varying colours and sizes as well as apothecary-style jars filled with the botanicals to help naive palates like mine distinguish the tasting notes.

Some of these barrels contain gin, some lie empty, and the rest are filled with East London Liquor Company’s whisky: due Christmas 2018 and the first whisky to be made in London for over a century. “There’s a tradition of London whisky, believe it or not—in the Lee Valley in the early 1900s—so there is heritage. But we’re mainly doing it because whisky is delightful.” Ashley grins again.

Delightful, innovative, and ever so slightly disruptive
It’s a recurring theme here: delightful, innovative and ever so slightly disruptive. Why should whisky be the preserve of Scotland, Ireland and the USA? Why can’t it be made in Bow Church by some Londoners? It is these sorts of questions that, three years ago, Alex started asking. “I thought, why is it, when we go to dinner parties, we take a bottle of wine? London is not wine country. We’re famous for distilling—and it is possible to have good but inexpensive gin.”

A bottle of his London Dry gin will set you back the same as a good bottle of, say, cabernet sauvignon—and, in a nod to bartenders’ frustrations with unwieldy, chunky gin bottles, it is the same shape as wine too, to allow the ‘easy pour’ they all crave.

“We’re small, we’re agile and we can do new and interesting things,” Alex says. There is, around ‘respectable’ spirits like gin and whisky, a cloud of mysticism and deference to ‘heritage’ which Alex is anxious to dispel.

Dictated to by tradition
“We’re not dictated to by tradition. We don’t come from a long line of distillers, and we can’t rely upon ‘heritage’ to sell our spirits. We’ve carte blanche here to take a creative, scientific approach to distilling spirits—and if people like them? Then they will sell.”