Spirit of the Unexpected: a look inside the 58 Gin distillery

When Mark Marmont arrived in London, he had no experience in the drinks industry and an active dislike of gin. So how did he come to found one of East London’s most beloved distilleries? With luck, talent and a little help from his friends. Learn all about the distiller behind November's 58 Gin.

58 Gin various bottle sizes

When you close your eyes and imagine a distillery, what do you see? Perhaps you imagine a giant copper still standing at the centre of a bustling warehouse, with concrete floors and complex machines. Or is your scene more bucolic: a converted stone barn strewn with botanicals, the doors thrown open let in the crisp autumn air?

For the 58 Gin in November's Gin of the Month box, those reveries couldn’t be further from the truth. Because the origins of this gin – part citrusy, part savoury, a chimera that shines as brightly in a classic cocktail as in a G&T – are as unexpected as the spirit itself.

Forget industrial lockups and converted barns; 58 Gin comes to you from under a railway arch in the East London borough of Hackney. In this amazing space – all white walls and copper plumbing, the whole room rumbling regularly as trains pass overhead – 58 Gin founder Mark Marmont and head of operations Carmen Dunphy craft every single bottle of this beautiful gin by hand.

A fully-functioning gin distillery isn’t what you’d expect to find under a railway arch. But then again, Mark Marmont never did play by the rules.

Destination Unknown

58 Gin Distillery Mark Marmont

At age 30, you never would have picked Mark out as the man most likely to found a world-class gin. For one thing, he hated it.

Like many Australians, he was a rum drinker; the big notes of cardamom and star anise he kept finding in gin after gin, in combination with the rough burn of low-quality alcohol, turned his stomach. And, while he learned to distil rapeseed oil as a trainee at the Department of Agriculture, he’d never worked in the industry.

“I was 30 and didn’t have a passport,” he laughs, standing behind the custom wood countertops in his distillery. “I got sick of hearing everyone else talking about the rest of the world, so I got myself one and got on a plane.”

When he got off of it again, he was in the hustle and bustle of London. There he met his wife, and settled down. They were lucky enough that when a new bar opened just down the road - 69 Colebrook Row, better known in mixology circles as the legendary Bar With No Name - Mark and his wife became regulars.

Mark recalls, “At some point I had tried every rum and whisky cocktail on the menu, but I’d never had a gin cocktail! One of the guys said, ‘Why don’t you try a Martini?’”

That Martini gave Mark a taste for gin, and an intriguing challenge. As he explains, “I wondered if I could make a gin that would work well in classic cocktails, but smoother than anything else I had tasted, and without the big notes of cardamom and star anise that I didn’t like.”

It takes a very special kind of person to go from waxing about an idea at the bar to buying a still. But Mark is just that kind of person.

Moonshine Mark

58 Gin Distillery Mark Marmont

“It started off on the kitchen bench at home, just having a bit of fun,” Mark says. He bought a stunning copper still from Portugal and started experimenting.

From the start, Mark was macerating his botanicals overnight in a base spirit and then distilling in a single shot. Single-shot distillation makes for incredibly smooth and flavourful gins, but – especially in a still so small – is much trickier to get right than blended gins.

“It was just too much,” he laughs. “Too many things going on in such a small still. It was doing my head in! That’s how my still got her name: Dizzy.”

When Mark got a recipe he liked, he’d take it down the road to The Bar With No Name and run it past the staff. They gave him a nickname: Moonshine Mark.

“I started listening to their suggestions and making tweaks,” he says. “I replaced yellow grapefruit with pink grapefruit, which is sweeter, and swapped lime peel for bergamot.  I also added cubeb pepper. The smell of it is amazing – it reminds me of walking through eucalyptus forests back home.”

When he hit upon the perfect recipe – a combination of nine beautiful botanicals, which produced a gin capable of shifting from citrus to savoury as the garnish changed – a year had passed, and an experiment had turned into an obsession.

Due East

58 Gin Logo Branding

Determined to bring his gin to market, Mark called his spirit 58 Gin, after his house number. He also had an idea for the logo.

“I wanted a Prohibition-style tattoo,” he says. So, he turned to one of the finest tattoo artists in London: legendary Mo Coppoletta of The Family Business.

Mark explains, “I thought I could never afford him, but that there was no harm in taking a meeting. After a long discussion, he said, ‘The big guys take care of me, and I take care of the little guys.’ I was blown away.” Mo designed a winged logo, a nod to 58 Gin’s origins in Angel,  a glimmering blue — the colour, Mark says, of a G&T shining in the sun.

Branding squared away, it was time to find a distillery. “I wanted to stay in Angel, where I started,” Mark says. “But it was too expensive. Beyond that, I didn’t want to be working out of an industrial space in the middle of nowhere. I wanted to be part of a community, not just working on my own in a shed somewhere.”

Mark was almost at a loss when he looked at the little railway arch in Hackney Downs Studios, a little hive of creativity behind an East London park. Mark saw the little space at eleven o’clock at night. By the next morning, it was his.

“It was just a shell,” he says. “The painting, the pipework – I did it all myself.”

The result is a truly unique distillery, clean, warm and stuffed to the gills with stills. Rather than buy a massive still, which he couldn’t have afforded anyway, Mark has since upgraded his existing kit, bringing in three 60-litre stills and one 100-litre still from Portugal.

“These stills are so different to the big CARL and Holstein stills,” Mark muses. “They’re all hand-made, so they’re all different. Things can go wrong, but I know how they work, and I know how to fix them.”

His space sorted, Mark looked into upgrading the team. He was joined by Brad Price, a young Aussie who came on board as assistant distiller but has since returned to Australia, and Carmen Dunphy, whose role as Head of Operations just scratches the surface of her centrality to the day-to-day business of making, bottling and shipping 58 Gin.

Ending up in Hackney Downs Studios may have been an accident, but it was a supremely happy one. Instantly, Mark and Carmen were plugged into a network of 400 creative people in one of London’s closest-knit boroughs.

“Everyone brings something to the table,” he says of his neighbours. “And I’ve got 400 people to sell gin to!”

But to sell gin, Mark first has to make it.

All in the Family

58 Gin Distillery interior

Six, sometimes seven, days a week, you can find Mark and Carmen in their little distillery by Hackney Downs.

As Carmen explains, “We do literally everything ourselves. We joke that we don’t do anything the easy way. It’s not fast, it’s not easy, but it’s true to the traditional roots.”

The day starts around six in the morning, when Mark and Carmen arrive and turn on their stills. Their botanicals have already been macerating overnight in the finest British wheat spirit. It takes twelve hours for Vera, the biggest still, to finish her work. But that’s just a rough guide.

“We know when our cut points are, and listen out for them,” Carmen says. “But every still has its own personality. It would be nice if they were super predictable, but it depends on the weather outside; it depends on if your still is having a good day or a bad day. You turn them all on at the same time, and one will run really fast and another one won’t.”

Because each of Mark’s 10 stills has its own personality, it was only fitting that each should have its own name: Vera, Shirley, Eliza, Selina, Lu, Dizzy, Kate, Amy, Alice and Harriet.

“They’re all family names,” Mark explains. “Because I’m not having children, I’ve got my gin daughters.” 

It’s not tools down for Mark and Carmen while the ladies do their work. They spend the days bottling, labelling, sealing their gin with wax – it’s all done by hand in their studio-turned-distillery. Finished pallets get stacked right in the middle of the space, until Mark hops into a rented forklift and loads them directly onto a truck. In fact, he got his license just to complete the task.

Carmen says, “The first time we did five pallets – which is as much as we did in the whole of last year – we had it all sitting on a truck and we looked at each other went, ‘Wow!’ It’s a pretty amazing feeling.”

Sloe and Steady

58 Gin distillery various bottles

58 Gin orders may be keeping Mark and Carmen plenty busy, but that hasn’t stopped them from branching out.

Mark says, “That’s the part I really enjoy: thinking about different botanicals and what we can do with them. Carmen has to keep me under control!”

But that can be a challenge, considering that they’re so surrounded by inspiration. At Hackney Downs Studios, they swap seasonal fruit with a handmade soda company, Square Root, just a few steps away; when they need help building a booth for a market, or a haircut, or help refining their labels, they just ask a neighbour – many of whom will work for gin!

John the Poacher, an urban forager who rustles up ingredients for East London’s finest restaurants, is a great inspiration for new ideas.

Mark says, “John the Poacher came in one day with a whole bunch of broken husks and nibs of chocolate from a local chocolate company, Land Chocolate, and asked what we could do with them. I was chewing on them and they were so bitter – I thought, what if I can infuse it into a Negroni?”

The result is the gorgeously bitter 58 Gin Chocolate Gin Negroni. Blended to perfection, this irresistible cocktail is pre-bottled and ready to enjoy with ice and an orange wheel.

John the Poacher also provided the raw materials for another incredible creation: 58 Gin’s revolutionary Sloe Gin, which will hit the market in June. The sloes are distilled with the gin, meaning that this sloe gin – as jammy and unctuous as ever – is clear and 43 proof, with an unlimited shelf life.

But all of these new additions won’t detract from the glory of 58 Gin’s flagship spirit, Carmen says.

She notes, “We don’t want to release a bunch of things just to make noise; we want to make products we can stand by, and that we know a lot of love and craft went in to.”

It hasn’t always been easy – “We’ve had our tears and meltdowns,” Mark laughs, “but we dust each other off and go again!” – but, whether it’s overhearing a customer ordering a 58 Gin Martini in famous London gin joint Duke’s or walking into a bar in Australia to see it on the top shelf, Carmen and Mark are starting to see more signs that their hard work is paying off.

“We know what we can do now,” Carmen says of her 58 Gin’s crazy year. “We’re just on the cusp of something pretty amazing.”

Mark agrees. “When I first started it was just myself in here,” he says. “Now we’re on the next step – 2018 it’s going to be an interesting year!”

Whatever the next twelve months hold, the future for Mark and Carmen is looking as gorgeous as a 58 Gin and Tonic.