Genius of Juniper

11 August 2017

Fanny Siltberg

In the Middle Ages, juniper berries were believed to have medicinal qualities and the Dutch were big on indulging in genever, the drink from which gin derives its name. On its 500 year long journey from the canals of Amsterdam to the world, gin has become a standard liquor of the more exclusive kind, and recently, all the rage among mixologists and hobby drinkers alike. In this feature, The LINK has met up with East London Liquor Company, the distillery cooking up a storm in Mile End. Cheers!

What type of drink makes for a perfect pre-dinner drink, a great post-dinner drink, a fantastic drink in the afternoon and even the optimal go-to choice for a drink in the bath? According to the founder of East London Liquor Company, Alexander Wolpert, the answer is simple - it’s a Negroni. In April, the Young Professionals visited his gin distillery in Mile End for a guided tour, and The LINK took the opportunity to meet up with the founder to learn more about why a gin distillery was needed in London.

Located right by Hertford Union Canal in what is left of a 19th century glue factory, East London Liquor Company is a sight to behold. The building is well preserved, with large iron and glass doors neatly framed by ochre coloured bricks. The industrial fumes are long gone, and instead, a light edge of juniper lingers in the air as we enter the bar. With its high ceilings and rugged wooden floors, the room has an impressive effect and behind the bar, separated by a wall of glass and lit up my the last rays of the afternoon sun, three huge copper tanks provide an impressive backdrop. The distillery is never out of sight, nor out of mind, at East London Liquor Company, and Wolpert is keen to keep it that way.

After having worked behind a bar for many years, Wolpert started playing with the idea of creating a gin that, contrary to tradition, was of high quality, but still at an affordable price.

“There is this British phenomenon that for something to be good, it has to be expensive and if something is cheap, it is bound to be sort of rubbish. We wanted to bust that myth. So we had this idea of making our liquid as commercially ethical as possible, being democratic about it and show that really excellent gin can be available to everyone,” he tells The LINK.

His idea was that if the focus was on creating a liquid adapted for the drinks it would be used in, rather than focusing on the flavour qualities of traditional gin, that he could create a product that would bring a true Londoner’s drink back to its origin.

“It’s rare to have liquid thought about and put together from the point of view of the drink it’s going to be in, rather than what looks nice and what sounds good from a marketing point of view,” he explains.

“We have a small shop in our distillery and we’ve got a shop in Borough Market and we sell hundreds of bottles every month from each of them. It really shows that something local, affordable and excellent really has traction,” he continues.

This love for gin is evident throughout the YP tour as well. As our guide Alexander Ling, who was knowledgeable about gin to the point of obsession, expertly and with a great dose of theatrics and humour guided us through the distillery, we were informed of everything from the origin of gin (the Netherlands, in case you are curious) to the reason why copper is used for the stills. The questions from the YP crowd were many, but eventually, the time came to not only talk about gin, but to actually taste it. And so, the tour continued down a flight of stairs to the tasting room.

This possibility of being able to take customers and clients behind the scenes is what makes ELLC so special, according to Wolpert. He means that the distillery’s open, upfront and transparent way of doing business is one of the secrets to its success.

“When we do sample tastings on shop floors or with bartenders, we can bring clients back to the distillery and show them where everything is made. It lets people have this sense of engaging with the liquid. It is not made in some factory somewhere, and we have a nice tasting room where we can show people around and be completely transparent about what we do,” he tells The LINK.

Back in the tasting room, a dimly lit and barrel brimmed vault in the distillery cellar, we are about to embark on that journey ourselves. A gin tasting differs slightly from the more familiar procedure of a wine tasting, which you at best could adapt a kind of fake it until you make it approach towards. To begin with, the glasses are smaller, for the obvious reason that gin has a higher alcohol percentage than wine. Ling also points out the fact that this is not a shot race and encourages us to take a tiny first sip to let the the taste buds get accustomed to the initial sting of the ethanol. He explains that it is only then that the more subtle flavours of the gin can show. And indeed, as we go through ELLC’s three gins, the London Dry, Batch No.1 and Batch No.2, suggestions of where the different flavours stem from bounce across the walls. Lavender, juniper, Darjeeling tea, cinnamon and sage all make an appearance before the tasting comes to an end and we return to the bar above ground.

After the tasting, everyone had found their favourite version of gin, and in developing the flavours so carefully, Wolpert and his colleagues seem to have struck a chord that resonates far beyond East London. ELLC currently exports to over ten international markets, and since Batch No.1 became part of Systembolaget’s standard range, Sweden is the biggest importer.

“This small, local, communal focus is really transferable to a worldwide market and it is lovely to see that our concept is a reality that people everywhere can buy into, appreciate and understand,” Wolpert says.

When asked if there is any such thing as an unsuitable time for gin, even the ELLC founder admits there are some limits.

“It’s a great drink at any point of the day, apart from maybe breakfast.”

See images from Young Professionals' gin tasting at East London Liquor Company in the gallery below.

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