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Into the spirit: London’s best independent distilleries

Posted at 4:30 pm, October 23, 2014 in Food & Drink
Distillery gins

© Rob Greig

London’s craft beer craze grabs the headlines, but there are many excellent distilleries across the city creating small-batch gins, vodkas and liquers, too. Eddy Frankel and Euan Ferguson dive into the drinks cabinet.

It’s not a gin, it’s not a vodka and it’s not a liqueur: this pioneering product is made by timeserved former cocktail king Alex Kammerling, and is described as a ‘British aperitif’. In other words, a London version of Continental pre-dinner hunger-piquers such as Campari. Take a sip of the sunset-hued spirit and see if you can identify every one of the 45 ingredients, which include ginseng, echinacea and fennel seed.

Most of the gin drunk these days is the London dry type, but Old Tom was a slightly sweeter variety popular among the gin fiends of the eighteenth century. This modern version from Bermondsey derives its subtle sweetness and explosive flavours not from sugar but extra handfuls of botanicals. It’s like gin turned up to ten – and it’s the stuff that started the famous London gin craze, so go easy on it, okay?

Sloe by name, slow by nature. This Chiswick distillery steeps hand-picked wild sloes (from the barren expanses of Dartmoor) in its signature London dry gin, then lets the two ingredients get acquainted for a good long while. The result is a warming, sweet, delicious take on your granddad’s favourite Christmas tipple. And it might soon become yours too. (Come June you might want to give Sipsmith’s Summer Cup a whirl.)

It would be a brilliant name for a cocktail made of Stella Artois and limoncello, but that would be revolting. So your tastebuds will be thankful that this is actually a grapefruit version of that famous Italian liqueur, named after its producer, Joe Stella. The citrus tang is fresher and cleaner than in limoncello, but it’ll still make you feel like you’re on holiday on the Amalfi Coast, wearing flip-flops and realising you can’t actually speak any Italian.

You’d usually be foolish to judge a spirit by its bottle, but not here. The stunning Arabesque/illuminati design on the Dodd’s bottle speaks of its impressive contents: London honey, raspberry and cardamom are among the botanicals in this bold gin from Battersea. It doesn’t hold back with the strength either: at almost 50 percent abv, it’s a proper eye-opener for any time of the day.

Distillery gins

© Rob Greig

This new Hackney Wick distillery describes its gin as ‘light and crispy’, but there’s no crunch here – just a smooth-sippin’, easy-drinkin’ blend of lemongrass, cardamom, fennel and plenty of other tasty aromatics. So good, and so Londony, it’ll have you singing ‘gin gin ger-ee’ with every sip, like a merry Dick Van Dyke. Plus, all ingredients are organic, which makes Butler’s almost good for you.

Sacred makes a range of gins and elegantly infused vodkas at its Highgate HQ, but we want to draw your attention to this very special vermouth. Using the same pure-vacuum distillation technique as with its gin, Sacred takes wine from Gloucestershire and adds various ingenious ingredients – wormwood, liquorice, thyme. Mix into a negroni or sip straight for a cockle-warming winter treat.

At the moment this smallbatch vodka is so smallbatch it’s only available to buy from the new distillery in Bow, once the heart of east London’s spirit production. Several fine gins are made there too, but try the vodka for a reminder that this often maligned spirit can go down as sweetly as spring water. An ELLC whisky is promised in a few years as well – something to look forward to.

This glamorous little number is the most exciting drink to come out of Peckham since Del Boy’s piña colada. It’s restrained with the botanicals – citrus, ginger and coriander create a sparklingly exotic flavour that never gets out of hand – which makes it the perfect partner for a good-quality tonic, or as part of a martini. Head to LB’s Maltby Street gin café every weekend to get your hands on a bottle.

Mead was the drink of choice for discerning imbibers in the craft-beer bars and hip cocktail clubs of the Middle Ages, and it looks set for a comeback – at least if Gosnells has anything to do with it. Like medieval meads, this semisweet drink is made from fermented honey and water. It’s a perfectly refreshing and bubbly way to quench your thirst after a long day of jousting.

All this talk of booze making you thirsty? Take a look at London’s best bars.

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