Monday, 29 February 2016

The Gin Lab Experience

Almost in the shadow of St Paul's Cathedral and close by the City Thamelink Station is a tiny opening called Bride Lane where you will find the first working distillery to open within the City of London for over 200 years, just off Fleet Street it combines a working distillery, bar and visitor attraction.

Invented in Holland, gin only became popular in England when Dutch-born William of Orange took the English throne in 1688. In over-crowded, slum-ridden Georgian London with many water-borne diseases prevalent gin became  a safe  drink for the poor; the opium of the people. For a few pennies, they found entertainment and escapism from cold and hunger at the bottom of a glass. In 1730, around 10 million gallons of gin were being distilled in the Capital each year and sold from 7,000 dram shops. In fact, it’s estimated that the average Londoner drank a staggering 14 gallons of the stuff a year!

By the end of the century, we were at war with France. So, to protect our economy and help the war effort, the government put a heavy duty on the import of spirits and lifted restrictions on domestic spirit production. In doing so, they created a healthy market for poor quality grain – which could only benefit the many landowners who sat in Parliament. The resulting trade also created a rich source of tax revenue.

The effects were devastating. Gin was blamed for misery, rising crime, prostitution, madness, higher death rates and falling birth rates.  As public outcry grew, the government was forced to take action. The 1736 Gin Act taxed retail sales at 20 shillings a gallon and made selling gin without a £50 annual licence illegal.  In the next seven years, only two licences were taken out. Whereas reputable sellers were put out of business, bootleggers thrived. Their gin, which went by colourful names such as ‘Ladies Delight’ and ‘Cuckold’s Comfort’, was more likely to be flavoured with turpentine than juniper.  At worst, it was poisonous, containing horrifying ingredients such as sulphuric acid.

In 1751, artist William Hogarth published his satirical engraving ‘Gin Lane’, which depicted such disturbing scenes as a gin-crazed mother, covered in syphilitic sores, unwittingly dropping her baby to its death down some cellar stairs while she takes a pinch of snuff.  An image of the social breakdown supposedly caused by gin, which took the blame for a of multitude of sins and consequently earned the nickname “mother’s ruin”.  Binge drinking isn’t anything new and the Gin Craze that swept 18th century London spawned as many social problems and fuelled as much public outcry as similar issues do today.  Aided by powerful propaganda such as this, the 1751 Gin Act was passed. This was more successful. It lowered the licence fee and forced distillers to sell only to licensed retailers trading from respectable premises.

A change in the economy also helped turn the tide. A series of bad harvests forced grain prices up, making landowners less dependent on income from gin production. They also forced food prices up and wages down, so the poor were less able to afford their drug of choice.  By 1757, the Gin Craze was all but dead.  Very few gin distilleries survived, and for nearly 200 years there wasn’t a single gin distillery in the City. 

That is until the City of London Distillery opened in 2012. The brainchild of Jonathan Clarke.  We used their gin as our house gin at The Market Restaurant so I was delighted to go along to join a "Gin Lab Experience", to learn about distilling and the different botanicals, design my own recipe and distill my very own personalised bottle of gin (70 cl).

After a warm welcome from Michael and a gin and tonic to get us in the right mood we started by exploring a whole range of botanicals and, with as much  guidance as we needed, we designed our recipes and prepared the ingredients for our own gin.  

Then into the Gin Lab to fire up a mini-still.  The stills named appropriately after the seven dwarfs (i chose grumpy).  Carefully nurturing our gin throughout the distillation process, taking tastings and deciding when to make the cut, designing our own labels and finally applying the red wax to seal.

A great experience highly recommended for gin lovers. perfect as an unusual gift, group experience, team building experience or reward.

City of London Distillery, 22-24 Bride Lane, London EC4Y 8DT
0207 936 3636

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