Coca Cola. Sriracha. Pimm’s. Products consumed by cultures in all corners of the world, brand markings immediately recognizable to the eyes of all and tastes common on the tongue, maintain an impenetrable obscurity despite their familiarity: their secret recipes. Locked up tighter than a Swiss Bank box digitally encrypted with God’s fingerprint, secret recipes give these brands their competitive advantage and differentiation. No other cola is Coca Cola, spicy sauce Sriracha, nor summer cup Pimm’s.
Similarly, in a booming craft spirits industry ripe with competitors, different distillers use different recipes and processes to create different tasting spirits, thus establishing their differentiation from the rest of the market. Some of these distillers maintain a cache of mystique by keeping their methods quiet, hoping to keep customers guessing and trying to figure out the secret.
But at the East London Liquor Company, Founder and Owner Alex Wolpert will be the first to tell you that he and his team hold no secrets. “There’s a certain amount of snobbery in the drinks industry,” explained Wolpert. “We’re here to debunk this. Everything that goes in our spirits is there for everyone to see. What we really want is for people to understand and to enjoy.”
So Alex and his team set out to do just that. Make spirits for people to enjoy.
They started with a London Dry, a standard offering for any gin distiller. As a complement to the standard, Alex wanted to distill a premium gin. He gave Master Distiller Jamie Baxter - the man behind the Craft Gin Club’s November Gin of the Month, Burleigh’s - two combinations of contrasting botanicals with which to play around. The first, Alex considered a sort of colonial-style gin for its inclusion of Darjeeling tea. The second, an inspiration from English herb gardens. Baxter toyed with the recipes in one of his small stills made for experimental purposes at the 45 West Distillery in Leicestershire, sessions that resulted in two very different, yet both very fine, gins. So Alex and Co. decided that two premium products would work: Batch 1 and Batch 2.
The Beginning of the Batches
The gins start, like all, as a neutral grain spirit. ELLC chose a wheat spirit made near Manchester for two primary reasons:
- the smoothness on the mouth evoked by distilled wheat, very important for the gin but crucial for the distillery’s vodka which, having no other flavours apart from the redistilled wheat spirit, requires a pleasant texture on the tongue.
- the boys of ELLC sought to work with a locally sourced spirit. The original idea was to go organic, but the best organic base spirit they found came from Italy and was harsher on the tastebuds than the Mancunian wheat on which they ultimately landed.
With quality comes cost and the team briefly debated using a cheaper spirit from a different crop such as beetroot whose high sugar content can make for pleasant spirits. But as they sought to distill quality gin, they had to start with quality spirit. And of course, the gin must be distilled in a quality manner. That’s where “craft” comes in.
Head Distiller, Tom Hill, explained that mass-produced gins have had to modify their distillation methods over time in order to keep up with the high demand their creative marketing has helped to generate. What comes out of their stills, according to Tom, is more like a “gin concentrate”, a result of a two-step process that sees a high volume of botanicals infused with a spirit of low alcohol content to create a strong-scented liquid that is then mixed with the neutral grain spirit and bottled. ELLC, like all craft distillers, adopted the original one-step process that sees all of the neutral grain spirit pass through the stills and infused with the botanicals.
For ELLC’s botanicals, the manner in which they are distilled depends on what type of botanical they are. The wheat spirit absorbs flavours from the botanicals either from the plants seeping directly in the liquid in the still or by its heated alcohol evaporating for its vapor to pass through a bucket of botanicals at the top of the still. Through experimentation, Tom and Jamie Baxter discovered that they preferred citrus botanicals such as the pink grapefruit peel in Batch 1 and the lemon peel in Batch 2 steamed in the bucket. This method carries fewer of the harsh notes that one might get when biting into a citrus rind. Other botanicals such as bayleaf can be very bitter, a bitterness avoided with the evaporation method which draws out its desirable flavours.
The key ingredient to Batch 1 and the one that gives the gin its colonial qualities is Darjeeling tea, a nod to the importance of the tea trade in the Docklands, not too far south down Regent’s Canal which passes by the distillery at Victoria Park. Darjeeling brings a long finish and a dryness which is characteristic of the gin, a dryness that is not overbearing thanks to the counter-flavour of the cassia bark, a “Chinese cinnamon” that eliminates any bite left over from other botanicals such as the peppery cubeb seed and gives a subtle sweet note.
All in all, the ELLC achieved what they set out to accomplish with their line of three gins; they had an idea of what they wanted in their heads and through experimentation landed on the odors, tastes and textures they had imagined.
But they won’t stop there. Head Distiller Tom plans on adding a gin to the portfolio next year. As gin usually results from a mixture of botanicals from all over the world, Tom would like to create a gin that focuses on herbs and plants from just one region. He’s just not yet sure which region!
All of this experimentation makes the East London Liquor Company a distiller to follow. Just as the team has done with its first Batches, they’re sure to do again with their sequels, sequels that they definitely will not keep a secret.