Christopher Hirst visits darkest Clapham to discover the secrets of premium gins…
It is appropriate that Thames Distillers, a major player in the recent revival of London gin, is located not in the Victorian garret you might expect, but in a suburb. You will find the company, which makes gins for over 50 clients including Marks & Spencer, in a small industrial estate discreetly squeezed behind the terraces of Clapham: a quintessentially metropolitan setting for the great London spirit.
Fully aware of the 25 per cent growth in the UK gin market over the past two years, Marks & Spencer made its way to the door of Thames Distillers last summer. ‘We already had a premium gin but the market had moved on,’ explained Jenny Rea, M&S Drinks Product Developer. ‘We needed something distinctively different with wide customer appeal, particularly to the younger end of the market.’ Their gin supplier had to work fast for the Christmas onslaught, known as ‘the Golden Quarter’ in the retail trade.
Unlike their baby boomer parents, who tended to favour the blank canvas of vodka, younger drinkers prefer the assertive flavour of gin to supercharge their cocktails. As a leading gin brand declared on its label, ‘The heart of a good cocktail.’ And ‘distinctively different’ was important.
Jenny approached Thames Distillers with two products in mind, one spicy, the other imbued with citric zest. Charles Maxwell, the company’s Master Distiller, went to work with his palette of 50-odd botanicals (gin flavourings). ‘The only rule about London gin is that juniper must be the most dominant botanical,’ he explained. ‘After that, you can do what you like. It’s the real fun part of the job.’
Though he must have told the story countless times, Charles still outlines the history of gin with unfeigned enthusiasm. ‘It was brought back from Holland in the mid-17th century by English mercenaries after the 30 Years War (hence Dutch Courage). In those days, botanicals disguised defects in neutral spirit. It was often not all that neutral. Most spirits were forms of medicine. Juniper was quite a good emetic. The English got a taste for gin but in the 18th century, things got a bit out of hand perhaps.’ The disastrous effects of gin were famously depicted by Hogarth in his print Gin Lane, though as Charles pointed out, ‘He had been hired by the brewers.’
Small by industry standards, the two stainless steel pot stills of Thames Distillers – known as Tom Thumb and Thumbelina – each hold 500 litres. The swan necks of their condensing tubes are reminiscent of medieval alembics. Near the stills, a wall-chart lists botanicals including such recondite flavours as galangal, tonka beans and cassia.
The final formulation of botanicals in M&S Spice Gin is as fragrant and exotic as an apothecary’s cupboard: juniper, coriander, angelica, jasmine, ginger, rosemary, fennel, lemon balm and savoury. Zest Gin is infused with juniper, coriander, angelica, liquorice, cassia and fresh Seville orange peel. Most gins use dried peel but fresh peel (transported frozen from Spain) delivers a palate-cleansing freshness.
After being macerated with the botanicals overnight, 500 litres of neutral spirit at 80 per cent ABV are heated in the still using a hot-water jacket to a modest 76°C. ‘You don’t want to scald the botanicals,’ said Charles. After the feints have been removed (these are the ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ of the distillate that lack the requisite finesse), each batch is reduced to 205 litres of finished distillate. Heavy in concentrated botanicals, this makes 14,000 bottles of gin when mixed with concentrated alcohol and water to produce a fairly hefty 41.4 per cent ABV. ‘We just use mains water,’ said Charles. ‘There’s nothing better – though it is de-ionised to prevent the stills furring up like your kettle at home.’
Retailing at £26 per bottle, the results are practically a cocktail in themselves. But which of the two gins will go down best? The answer came as a surprise to M&S. ‘I thought Zest would be more popular than Spice,’ said Jenny. ‘But in taste tests, Spice came out ahead.’ If you’re making G&T, she suggests ice-cubes frozen with a little spring of rosemary inside will suit the Spice, or ice-cubes with fresh orange peel for the Zest.
With ice and a shaker, it’s easy to use London’s own spirit in slightly more complex cocktails. Add lemon juice and Cointreau to the Zest Gin for a White Lady. Honey syrup for a Bee’s Knees. Just a few molecules of dry vermouth will convert the Spice Gin into a memorable Dry Martini.
London Distilled Dry Gin, No 01 Zest and No 02 Spice, £27/£10 70cl/20cl, marksandspencer.com
To make a gorgeously Christmassy, pale pink gin and raspberry Cosmonaut cocktail, see Christopher Hirst’s recipe at breadandoysters.com/magazine/shaken-sometimes-stirred/
Eight of the best small gin distillers
Distilled by owner Tarquin Ledbetter (who also makes pastis) in north Cornwall. Complex nose of juniper, resin and coriander, plus hand picked Devon violets and fresh orange zest, £29.50/70cl.
Launched in 2001. Clean floral and refreshing, have it with cucumber instead of a slice of lemon, £27/70cl.
Portobello Road gin
Traditional London dry style gin, 42%, made in Notting Hill, £25/70cl.
Hand-crafted made in small batches at the Balmenach distillery on Speyside. Botanicals include rowan berries, heather, dandelion and apple, £25.99/70cl.
Rock Rose gin
Another Scottish gin, made by vapour-infusing botanicals in the neck of the still. Rose root, sea buckthorn and rowan berries. Smart ceramic bottle, £33.95/70cl.
Haymans 1850 Reserve
Rested in wood for four weeks, hints of pepper and coriander, £21.67/70cl.
Distilled over 100 times in a process that takes two years from orchard to bottle. Notes of Juniper, apple and elderflower, 48%, £37/70cl.
Made in Chiswick, West London. Strong juniper hit and at 57.7%, one of the strongest gins on offer, £39.95/70cl.