John Claridge At East London Liquor Co.
There is nothing like a glass or two of gin at nine-thirty in the morning to bring the mind into sharp focus, as Contributing Photographer John Claridge & I discovered last week when we paid a visit to the East London Liquor Company on the canal next to Victoria Park. It was the morning after the opening of John’s East End photography exhibition at The Society Club, but nevertheless we both arrived at the distillery, housed in a former glue factory, before nine – and thus the tasting that we were required to undertake as part of our assignment served the function of ‘the hair of the dog.’
At the stroke of nine, the distillery staff arrived and admitted us to their workplace. We were astonished by the spectacle of the tall copper stills extending to the roof at the rear of the building. These gleaming cylinders embellished with pipes and valves appeared to me like vast wind instruments awaiting giant jazz musicians to play upon them. It was a fancy dispelled by the unexpected pungent scent of grapefruit and lemon, as distiller Sam Garbutt set to peeling citrus fruit and suspending the peel in the warm still while the grain spirit was added. This vapour infusion is sufficient to impart an aroma of grapefruit to the London Dry Gin that is distilled here. I watched Sam as he hastily measured out the coriander, juniper berries, cardamon, angelica root and cubeb berries, concocting a heady mixture of botanicals.
Head distiller Tom Hills was taking a moment to consult his laptop in between supervising the beginning of the day’s distillation, which would extend over the next seven hours. “I’ve got a zillion things to do today,” I heard him say under his breath. No hyperbole for the man responsible for producing between five and six hundred bottles of gin and vodka every day at the first new distillery to open in the East End for over a century. Founded just two years ago and exporting around the world, the East London Liquor Company has already established a formidable reputation for the quality of its gin and vodka, with whisky to come next year too.
After the first flurry of activity, setting up the stills, the pace relented as the distilling process commenced and John had taken his photographs, so there was no option but to try each of the three varieties of gin and study their distinguishing characteristics.
I would not describe myself as a gin drinker, so I had no idea what to expect of the London Dry Gin but I was pleasantly surprised by its complex aromatic taste with citrus overtones, which quickly dispelled any memory of the familiar industrially-produced gin which is commonplace. This was something else altogether and, even at nine-thirty, I was fascinated that it was possible to distinguish each of the botanicals within the blend. By contrast, Batch No.1 was a drier taste with a hint of darjeeling tea which gave it ‘bite’ and complemented the citrus aroma. Batch No.2 proved to be the most complex of the three with all the botanical flavours in the foreground. I alternated sips from each of the different glasses in front of me to clarify these relative qualities in my perception and it was a satisfying achievement to have grasped the comparative nature of these spirits, thus filling an important gap in my education before ten o’clock in the morning.
Meanwhile, John Claridge was regaling the distillers with tales of his visits to the Jack Daniels Distillery in Lynchburg in the ‘dry’ state of Tennessee during the eighties, when he took intimate black and white portraits of the distillery workers, initiating a series of advertisements which run to this day undertaken by other photographers carrying on where John left off.
It did not take much persuasion to introduce the obligation – as a matter of courtesy – of trying the distillery produce to John. Composing his attention, he raised a glass of London Dry Gin slowly to his lips, took a sip and made an involuntary exclamation of delight. “This could turn me to drink,” he declared.
Tom Hills, Head Distiller
Sam Garbutt, Distiller
Chris Culligan, Distiller
Andy Mooney, Whisky Distiller
Photographs copyright © John Claridge
East London Liquor Company, Bow Wharf, 221 Grove Rd, E3 5SN
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