During London’s Gin Craze in the 1700s the city was rife with distilleries, a trend that, despite Acts of Parliament to quell the consumption of gin specifically, continued for decades. Many of these distilleries and their beer brewery cousins were concentrated in East London which during the era contained primarily the poorer classes more prone to over-consumption. Considering the high concentration of highly-concentrated alcoholic beverages produced during the time, it’s somewhat surprising that for the past century East London has been totally bereft of distilleries… until recently.
The East London Liquor Company is the first spirits producer to open its doors in the East End north of the river Thames in over 100 years, a long time coming. But then, many aspects of the new distillery have required a patient length.
The first considerable waiting period for Alex Wolpert came to be because of the difficulties inherent in London property market; neither individuals nor companies ever have an easy time finding the space that suits them in the crowded city of eight million and ELLC’s location quest was no different. It was only in January of 2014, after one-and-a-half years of searching, that Alex fall upon the space that currently houses his company’s stills and signed the lease papers.
ELLC’s second scourge of a strung-out spell arrived with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs bureaucracy, a synonym simultaneously suitable for paperwork, prolonged processes and extreme exasperation. HMRC suggests that its applicants wait until all of the paperwork is through before signing a lease and buying distilling equipment. But, of course, in Kafkaesque logic, the completion of that paperwork requires those items.
After months of dealing with the taxpayers’ protectorate, the distillery’s two stills arrived in May of this year to a locale virtually unrecognizable to those who knew the space before ELLC’s tenancy. At one point in its history, the Bow Wharf complex had been a glue factory, a fact that Alex & Co. reference with the upside down horse on the label of their London Dry Gin and Vodka. Just before ELLC arrived, publicans inhabited the space making for a fitting conversion to a full-working distillery bar.
A STILL WITH NO NAME
The team spent those months in the run up to the stills’ arrival gutting the place; tearing down the existing bar, stripping the walls to their original brick, and transforming the cellar into one suitable to store barrels of spirits. In lieu of the old ambience, they created a rustic feel worthy of any hipster dream complete with long bar worthy of Old West saloons, iron-framed wood furniture and a glass-enclosed room for the stills so that their guests can get to know the mother of the drinks they’re sipping.
The stills, unlike their wheat spirits’ Mancunian origin, hail from Germany - Bavaria to be precise - and the Arnold Holstein factory, just like those of Jamie Baxter’s Burleigh’s Gin. The 450-litre gin and vodka still contains a 6-plate rectification column that, with a massive amount of copper surface, concentrates and purifies the grain spirit before its vapor passes through the final filter at the top of the still’s neck, the dephlegmator, which allows any remaining impurities to escape as vapor as the pure alcohol content recondenses. This is the tool that allows the 45% ABV Batch 1 and 47% ABV Batch 2 to retain their smooth character despite their high alcohol content, a fact that Tom admits can fool cautious sippers into sipping too much.
Both the gin and vodka still and their 650-litre whisky sister have not yet been named. With time, each develops their own qualities which will make the characteristics of the spirits they generate. The team is partially waiting to determine what those characters are before naming the stills and partially waiting until they simply come across names that they like.
During the lengthy wait for HMRC to come through, Alex decided to add another leg to the already lengthy journey - a trip to California, by some measures the home of the recent craft distilling boom. His space was already being gutted and his stills ordered. But Alex took a 10-day March trip to visit likeminded establishments in the Golden State to learn how they ran their operations and developed their products. He was particularly influenced by the St. George Spirits distillery on Alameda Island in San Francisco Bay and Lost Spirits near Monterey, a distillery that ELLC now represents in the UK, importing and selling their bottles.
In addition to visiting distilleries, he stopped in to over twenty bars to chat with the barmen and learn about their love of local libations, sentiments he also sees developing in London as local distilleries emerge and bars work more closely with them to create new cocktails. ELLC receives a regular flow of bartenders at its distillery that come to taste the spirits and talk shop with the crew. The open door policy has already helped convince thirty bars in the British capital to stock ELLC products which the crew bottles on site.
A slew of local residents also visit ELLC and it is becoming known in the neighbourhood as the only place for quality cocktails as the distillery does not only distill drinks, it also serves them at its bar and sells them in its bottle shop situated in an adjacent building.
The bar not only attracts customers but also adds flair to the distillation process as Jamie and Mikey experiment at the bar and share their findings with Head Distiller Tom. Tom thinks they’re already at the point where they could come up with a cocktail idea and create a concept spirit to suit the concoction’s desired flavours. In fact, the team is always experimenting, making new syrups and bitters, playing with new botanicals and using their bar guests as cocktail lab rats.
We suggest you submit yourself to ELLC’s laboratory for an evening. Clear your head of secrets, your palette of impurities, and enjoy a drink a long time in the making.