Going to London for the first time, I was a little excited about seeing the sights but what most tickled my fancy was getting to go to the Ginstitute. Throughout our travels we were constantly asking any and every pommy if they had heard of this magical gintastic wonderland, with most replying with a confused yet inquisitive 'no?', followed by a 'that sounds cool where is it?'. Feeling pretty happy with myself that I had found somewhere that very few tourists go, and by the sounds of it even less locals, I was even more excited about going. So early one afternoon, with the sun still high in the sky we headed to a little unknown bar on Portobello Road to experience something very gintastic!!!
Arriving early, we found a place at the bar and excitedly announced to the bar tender that we were there for the full gin experience, to which we were immediately given 2 gin and tonics. Straight away we were off to a great start. Being such a balmy spring afternoon, with a high of 14C, we downed our first two drinks quite quickly and proceeded to order another 2. After being informed that the other 2 gintrepreneurs were running a little late, we got comfy and settled in and kept ordering the inclusive cocktails. After half an hour of admiring the decor and our bottomless glasses, the two gin-dragons (their self proclaimed names) arrived and we headed upstairs for the fun.
Our guide for the evening, Jake, was waiting for us in a small little room above the bar decorated in a similar fashion to the old gin bars of the yester years. With a friendly greeting and a Tom Collins ice breaker, Jake then took us through the rich melancholy history of gin. Dating back to the 11th century juniper was originally used for medical purposes, particularly to help ward off the Black Death. As time when on, Dutch physician started distilling the juniper with other botanicals like anise, caraway and coriander, to help cure other illnesses like gout, gallstones and kidney ailments. Then during the 17th century, whilst fighting the Spanish in the Eighty Year War, the English stumbled across the calming effects of this liquid before they rode into battle, which is also where the name Dutch Courage came from. Liking the spirit so much gin spread quickly throughout London and with the governments allowance on unlicensed gin production and heavy taxes of imported spirits local gin joints opened up everywhere becoming very popular with the lower level working class. This quickly spiraled out of control creating various social problems which lead to the negative reputation that still clings to gin today, with references like gin soaked, referring to drunks at a bar, and mother ruin, like the scene depicted in William Hogarths 'Gin Lane'. With all this misery and dispare being caused by gin the government decided to step in with the Gin Act in September 1736, causing gin prices to skyrocket, with heavier licenses on gin distillers. In their hope to eradicate the spirit from the lower off working class, this act infact worked the opposite causing most of the major distilleries to shut up shop and more secret stills to open up. It was said that in the 6 years of the act being established, gin production in London rose by over 50%. Along with the increase in production, there was also numerous riots about the act and in 1742 the government decided to repeal it and a new act, devised with the help of some gin distillers, was drafted. With this new act in place more respectable firms began to establish themselves into the gin market which soon turned gin from a cheap and nasty rocket fuel into a high class cocktail found in some of the most prestigious residencies. By the early 1800's gin was once again on top as a drinkers choice, however much more popular with the well to do society. Numerous 'Gin Palaces' began springing up all over London filled with the finest carved wooded bars and elegant furniture. However this was not the final happy ending for gin, sadly with the introduction of vodka to Europe in the late 19th century, this quickly became the drink of choice mainly due to the fact of its subtle flavor and minimal fragrance, particularly on the breath. Whilst gin did not die off completely, its new marketing campaigns of 'its not too ginny' weren't enough to keep the once drink of choice on the top shelf. Laying dormant for many years with only the big name producers continuing production gin finally made its big comeback when Bombay Saphire released its shiny new bottle, which some say was the rebirthing of gin. Since then the near forgotten spirit was hailed again as a drink of choice, particularly in the cocktail world and today more and more small time producers are popping up bringing their own style to this old and historic spirit.
After the history lesson we then headed up stairs to begin our gin making process. This started out with another lesson on the different types of botanicals used when making gin. As some may know, there is a near endless amount of botanicals, along with juniper, that can be used in flavoring gin, just as long as they are actually botanicals. So from roots, berries, bark, peel, seeds, leaves, herbs, flowers and nuts as long as its from a plant it can be used in the gin making process. To save a little time, jake pulled a 'here's one I prepared earlier' and passed around over 20 different alcohols each flavored with a different botanical that can be used in the flavoring of gin. As we swirled the glasses, took a long deep sniff and even a small taste we each compared the different characteristics of the flavors, noting down each one we wished to use for our very own gin. Once we had all fully appreciated some of the different additives that make up this fine drop and received another cocktail to help wet our whistles, we then got down to the business end of the course of formulating our own gin. With our trusty guide Jake there to stear us into the right direction, we each picked around 8-12 different botanicals to mix together, in a secret combination/formula, to each make our own specialized style of 'mothers ruin'. Whilst I do assure you that this was all very technical, using the proper lab equipment and measuring devises, the real hard part came when we received our own labels and had to come up with a name for our new concoction, thus RnL and Eleven Star gin was born.
With a freshly bottled gin in hand we then headed back to the gin bar for a final cocktail, a martini to be exact, and to chat a little more about gin and other gin related topics. Whilst back in the bar Jake and I got to talking, mostly about gin, but also about his very impressive collection of old spirit bottles. Whilst most were of course gin bottles, he also had some very old vodka, bitters, Pimms, premix cocktails and champagne dating back to as early as 1914. When I asked how he had come across such a collection, he informed me that he had won the entire collection off eBay from a deceased estate in America. Apparently the previous owner was a judge from one of the northern states and after his departure his family had cleared out the house of his belongings leaving it for the lawyers to sell. During a final inspection of the house the lawyers uncovered this collection hidden behind a secret wall, which was typical during the prohibition era of the 1920/30's. Due to their storage condition most of the bottles survived quite well with very little evaporation or decay. Noticing my keen interest in spirits, particularly that of the vintage kind, Jake was gracious enough to allow me to try one of the bottles he had open at the time. With only the description of 'Applejack' typed onto a small label stuck to the bottle it can only be assumed that this particularly spirit was a moonshine style liquor, typically common during the prohibition era. Surprisingly due to its age and unknown origins it was exceptionally well kept and went down a treat as the final night cap.
So feeling quite merry and with 2 bottles of gin in hand we both said our goodbyes and took our leave to stroll merrily down the street back home.... Oh wait!!! I almost forgot the best part, whilst we were in the lab creating our one of a kind gins we participated in a blind tasting of a secret flavored alcohol of which the correct guess won a prize. After everyone had their go of sniffing and tasting this very weird and quite savory clear liquid we all took our punts, and by shear luck or perhaps my keen well trained palate... I came out the victor winning myself a very classy Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee tea towel. So overall 14 cocktails down, 2 bottles of gin each, a few fancy bottles of tonic water and a very decorative tea towel, I think that made for a pretty good night out (well afternoon really).
- Ryan -