Our visit to the City of London Distillery, just off Fleet Street
‘So gin is basically flavoured vodka?’ my wife asks Jamie Baxter on our tour of the City of London Distillery.
‘That,’ says Jamie, ‘is the kind of thing you say if you really really want to annoy a gin distiller. But basically, yes. If you add flavors to the distilled spirit you get gin… or gin-flavoured vodka.’
Jamie Baxter is the Master Distiller at the City of London Distillery, the first distillery to open in the square mile of the City of London in 200 years. Britain is now starting to see the boom in craft distilleries that is already well underway in the United States.
The place is a fascinating subterranean mix of bar and distillery, in the suitably Dickensian setting of Bride Lane, one of those tucked-away old London streets where Fleet Street meets Ludgate Hill. You enter through a tricky-to-find narrow doorway, as if you’re sidling into some kind of Speakeasy. You almost expect someone to slide back a panel in the door and ask you for the password.
Making London Dry Gin
Instead, you descend the stairs into a huge and welcoming bar, with comfy red leather armchairs like a London gentleman’s club. And there, behind glass along one wall, is the little distillery which, since Christmas 2012, has been producing its own City of London Dry Gin. Or, if you prefer, juniper-flavoured vodka.
I have to call it that as The Vodka Guy had been lured here after seeing vodka on the distillery’s website a few months earlier, but when I ask Jamie what his plans for vodka production are, he tells me: ‘We haven’t really got any, to be honest.’ Oh. Right.
That’s a great shame as Jamie previously worked at the Chase Distillery in Herefordshire, started by William Chase. Chase is the man behind Tyrrell’s potato chips, and deciding he wanted to do something more with his potatoes than just make crisps from them, he asked Jamie Baxter to produce a potato vodka.
Jamie says he set out to make a vodka that whisky drinkers would appreciate and, within six months of the first production, it was voted best vodka in the world in San Francisco. ‘To get an award like that after just six months was amazing,’ says Jamie, ‘though it makes you wonder what the Russians and Poles have been doing for the last few hundred years.’
Jamie’s distillery tours are both informative and funny. We get a run-down of the complete history of gin, especially in 18th-century London.
‘Near here was both Gin Lane and Beer Street. Everyone knows Hogarth’s sketches of Gin Lane and Beer Street, showing how you were fine if you drank beer but descended to the depths of depravity if you drank gin. He was, in fact, commissioned to do the sketches by the brewing industry. He lived in Chiswick… very close to a large brewery.
‘The gin produced in those days was really rough,’ Jamie continues, ‘but sugar to sweeten it and make it palatable was expensive. They used to flavour it with things like sulphuric acid and turpentine – which we are not allowed to use these days. Health and safety gone mad! But in 1832 the column still was invented, and with this you could make spirits much purer so you didn’t need to sweeten the product. The new type of gin was called London Dry Gin as opposed to the older sweet gin. This process also changed vodkas. Before then all vodkas would have been flavoured by something, as plain vodka would have been too rough to drink.’
The Best Gin and Tonic Ever
Jamie’s City of London Dry Gin is stocked by Fortnum and Mason, no less, and is also available from the bar, which is open on weekdays from noon (though only goes into full service mode at about 4pm). Here he hands us a couple of gin and tonics and, as someone who is not a big gin fan, I have to say it tastes pretty damn good. My wife makes amends with Jamie by saying it’s the best gin and tonic she’s ever tasted. Even the tonic has a freshness and clarity about it.
‘We have eleven different tonics in the bar but for our gin and tonics we use Fever-Tree. It gives them a nice, clean taste, which you just don’t get with some of the better-known more commercial tonics. I want people to taste my gin, not the tonic!
‘The flavour in the gin,’ Jamie tells us, ‘is a blend of Angelica root, liquorice root, juniper, coriander, fresh pink grapefruit, fresh lemon and fresh orange.’
I’d better not get too keen on G&Ts as the bar stocks 181 gins… but, ahem, only three vodkas. Or, to put it another way: the bar stocks 184 vodkas, most of which taste remarkably like gin. Among these is one of Jamie’s creations at the Chase Distillery, a Chase Limited Edition Gin. He turns the bottle round and, with a smile, reveals the label on the other side: Chase Limited Edition Juniper Vodka.
Tours of the City of London Distillery are available at 1pm, 2pm and 3pm, Monday-Friday. There’s no need to book. Phone first to check current prices. Every evening there is also a Gin Experience Masterclass, but these must be booked ahead. Corporate clients can also book the distillery to make their own gin. See the website for further details.
The City of London Distillery
22-24 Bride Lane