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The Craft: Gin Insights from East London Liquor Company’s Head Distiller

East London Gin
Tom Hill

In a sip: Established in 2013, and housed in a disused Victorian glue factory, the East London Liquor Company is at the heart of the capital's craft gin revival. They use 100% British wheat spirit, combining cutting-edge distillation processes with a traditional recipe, to create a thoroughly modern-tasting London gin that gives a respectful nod to East London's gin legacy.

The taste: 'With a vibrant juniper bouquet and pink-grapefruit flavours developing on the palate, this is a very appealing and fresh-tasting gin. Great for a simple, but decadent, G&T'. Sarah Knowles, Society Gin Buyer.

The craft: Tom Hill is the East London Liquor company's Head Distiller and all-round gin genius, combining his love for spirits with a degree in biochemistry to delicious effect.

You've been making London Gin from your factory in East London since 2014 and in that time craft gin has really exploded – what is it about gin that's really capturing the nation's imagination at the moment?

I believe the explosion in new gin brands is partly due to the public becoming rapidly aware of the incredible diversity of gin as a category. Beyond the legal requirement for juniper, distillers have an enormous amount of autonomy to construct a flavour profile that sets them apart from the crowd. This, coupled with the fact that gin is not governed by the prohibitive ageing times of many dark spirits, allows for new expressions of flavours and aromatics to be released in a comparatively short time.

All but the most expensive gins are within the budget of the enthusiast and everybody has the opportunity to form their own tastes and opinions. As people become increasingly interested in the provenance of both their food and drink they are seeking out great tasting spirits that have been produced by people, for the love of doing it, rather than by highly automated processes for profit.

How did you get into the gin business?

I got into distilling following a biochemistry degree at the University of Bristol. It quickly became apparent that the normal career paths of pharmaceuticals, research, or finance were never going to float my boat. I always had a recreational interest in drinks and as I became aware that the UK was on the cusp of a gin renaissance it seemed like the ideal opportunity and timing to combine my love of everything booze related with some of the scientific knowledge and thinking provided by my degree.

I met Alex Wolpert (founder of ELLC) in 2014 when the distillery was an empty building and have been on board since day one ensuring that everything produced is something that I am proud of and enjoy drinking myself!

Historically London gin has some fairly seedy connotations (the gin craze, the empire etc) – how do you reconcile that history with today's sleeker image and do you embrace this part of your heritage (the 'Dead Horse' label is particularly evocative…)?

Gin has historically been a drink of the people in London, devoid of the occasionally stiff upper lipped connotations of its vinous cousins. Whilst at one point in gin's sordid history it was associated with the dregs of society and mothers ruin, thankfully these days the production methods are safe and regulated and modern society has a far greater awareness of the benefits of not being totally legless the entire time.

The inexplicable nostalgia surrounding this period in gin's history is something that as a company we try to avoid. 'Producing gin by historic methods' would imply low quality spirits, corner cutting, potential blindness, adulteration with unsavoury turpentine, and whole host of other sins committed by our juniper thirsty forebears.

We produce gin with innovative and modern techniques in top of the range stills, allowing us a very high level of control over the distillation process and resulting flavour profile. We also believe that our gins are all the better for not having been made in somebody's bath. The building in which the distillery is situated dates back over 100 years and was initially a glue and paint factory. The dead horse is a slightly morbid nod to the knacker's yards of yore but has emerged as something of a mascot for us. Despite the lack of any animal products in our spirits a smugly virtuous vegan café once refused to stock our products based on this alone…

East London Liquor Company Gin

You use 100% British wheat spirit in your gins and vodka. Do you feel that using local ingredients adds a sense of 'terroir' to your spirits in the same way it does with wine?

The grain spirit used as a base for our gins is produced from 100% British wheat, however there is usually only very minimal expression of characteristics that could be thought to represent the terroir by a neutral spirit of any sort. The characteristics of a wheat spirit are a smooth mouthfeel, a subtly sweet finish, and notes of caramel, anise and almond on the palate. These are very subtle and it's more useful to think of the base spirit as the blank canvas on which we build the flavour profile of our gins. The predominant characteristics are provided by the combination and ratio of the globally sourced botanicals that we use.

Did your biggest challenge in creating the East London Liquor Company come during the production process or in convincing the alcohol-drinking public to give gin a try after so many years in the spirit-wilderness?

I won't pretend that the six plus months spent researching and developing the recipes and flavour profiles of the gins we produce wasn't stressful, but the real challenge can be getting people to try the stuff. The moment people have had a chance to try it everything becomes easy and we are rarely unsuccessful in converting those who claim not to like gin. It's very fortunate that we have a bar and restaurant attached to the distillery from which you can see stills and the distillers working. People are welcome every day to come to the distillery and drink cocktails with 'Zero Gin Miles' and ask as many questions about the processes as they like. Again, people appreciate the provenance and the story.

We are very lucky to work with some fantastic retailers who champion what we do and always enjoy working at some of London's weekend food markets. I love the occasional day that I'm out on day release from the sweltering distillery and chatting to customers about how the spirits are made and my philosophy behind our processes. If I chew people's ear off enough they usually buy a bottle to get me to stop!

To you, what makes a gin 'craft'?

'Craft', 'Artisan', 'Handmade', 'Authentic', 'Small Batch': if anybody can provide me with a convincing definition of the above then I'm all ears. These are all words that we don't use.

I guess at some point they must have meant something but they've unfortunately become used by brands to lend some kind of credibility to their product.

This, along with the fact that they have been hijacked by major drinks companies to sell more mass-produced beer and spirits, has led to a situation where nobody I've spoken to can really define what they mean. They are terms that are increasingly met with a roll of the eyes or a stifled snigger and we should all be careful not to be fooled by them. We encourage people to try our products and form their own opinion, and if they need any convincing of the fact that our spirits are produced with love and care by people who are genuinely passionate about it the door of the distillery is always open. Whether or not it fits a subjective definition of 'craft' is not ours to dictate.

What's your idea of a perfect G&T and where would you drink it?

To me the perfect G&T has an abundance of ice, fresh citrus garnish and a very healthy measure of gin. There's a great terrace here at the distillery and nothing beats a couple of G&Ts in the summer sun with the rest of the distillery team at the end of a hot day in the still room.

May 2017

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