In the London of Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria, the Thames was a thoroughfare for all the gastronomic wonders the British Empire had to offer – and its banks home to the innovative companies making use of them. More than 100 years later, one tonic company is reinventing this rich heritage for a new generation of gin drinkers.
What was London like at Christmas in the year 1896? In some ways, very different to now – Big Ben had only been standing for 30 years and Tower Bridge was just three years old. To get between them you could take a horse-drawn omnibus and perhaps trot past the looming workhouse that dominated Paddington.
But some things were just the same. The capital had undergone a railroad boom earlier in the century, paving the way for commuters to make daily treks from the suburbs to the office. And the city – as ever – was awash with the excited energy of innovation and entrepreneurship. Digging through dusty archives, Ounal Bailey, co-founder of WiseHead Productions, stumbled across a story that seemed ready for resurrection: The London Essence Company.
Founded in 1896, a group of Victorian gentleman made their name distilling quality ingredients into the finest essence. It was a precision-oriented undertaking with incredible results: all the fantastic flavour and scent of any given ingredient in liquid form.
“Back then they would supply confectioners, Kirsch makers, even some gin distillers,” Ounal explains. “All sorts of industries needed these fine essences in their products. I felt that expertise and precision was so interesting. I wanted to take that skill and reinvent it for today.”
In its modern incarnation, The London Essence Co. is all about skilfully distilled drinks. Every single tonic and mixer in their range is naturally light – less than 20 calories per 200ml – and is built around a spectacular distilled essence. The current range of four drinks includes a classic London tonic, a light ginger ale, a grapefruit and rosemary tonic and a bitter orange and elderflower tonic. Across the range, each and every flavour is calibrated perfectly.
Ounal says, “We work with a master distiller, and her job is to make sure that we get the absolute perfect balance of flavours. In the grapefruit and rosemary flavour, for example, it would be really easy to go too heavy on the rosemary. But we actually pulled it back a little, to always allow the spirit to come through.”
Ounal also borrowed the famous taste buds of Nick Strangeway, bartender extraordinaire. They worked closely together during the development process. Ounal explains, “We wanted to make sure we were doing something that an expert of his calibre would be happy to experiment with, to create a range of amazing cocktails.”
The London Essence Company’s mixers are just as exciting for the kitchen mixologist. While each flavour has one classic pairing – the London tonic works particularly well with a London Dry Gin, for example, and is wonderful with AK’s Gin and orange peel – Ounal also discovered a few off-beat pairings during her research. Who could imagine, for example, that an aged rum would be so delicious with the classic London tonic water?
Ounal says, “I’ve realised that by pairing things that you might not normally, you can discover a whole new world of pleasure and broaden the profile of the types of spirits you’re open to drinking.”
So why not try an unusual combination of your own? After all, you’ll be imbibing a tonic less ordinary.
London essence is available at Harvey Nichols or online here.