The East London Liquor Company's new whisky
After cutting its teeth in gin and vodka, the East London Liquor Company is trying its hand at one of the first London whiskies. We take a look behind the scenes
As the drinks revolution rumbling through London's bar scene continues, cocktail culture and the sex appeal of mixology proceeds to encourage us to be more adventurous with our choice of drinks.
The humble gin and tonic, for example, is no longer a simple question of single or double measures. Instead, it's a full-blown science that involves a careful selection of botanicals, tonic and suitable garnish (don't be so quick to reach for that lime, bartender).
And it's not just unaged spirits, either – whisky, too, is shaking the stiff conformity of Scotch and bourbon in favour of a product that's more at home in the capital.
But hard to believe as it might be, London distilleries still remain relatively scarce. Just two outfits began operations in the capital last year amid the ocean of openings washing through the rest of our shores.
Small-batch spirits are nothing new to Londoners – as early as the 18th century, our not-so hygienic ancestors were bottling their own bathtub booze – but notoriously high rents and a tough market have led many would-be enterprises to look elsewhere.View on Instagram
Enter the unlikely trio of an actor, a biochemist and an analytic chemist. If this sounds like the start of a bad bar joke, you're halfway there. Inside an unassuming old Bow Wharf glue factory is the East London Liquor Company; the first distillery to open in the East End for more than a hundred years.
It's here, steps away from Victoria Park, where London-born Alex Wolpert realised his dream of founding a spirits production facility complete with its own bar. Since its founding in July 2014, the company has produced various gins, a 100% British wheat vodka and a demerara rum from Guyana, but sights are now firmly set on the whisky trade.
Sitting with Alex in the beautifully restored building, you can't help but experience the contagious enthusiasm from which his maverick operation rose into boozy fruition. I try a sample of the company's award-winning gin, and sneak a taste of the clear grain spirit (known in the trade as 'white dog') that's ready for a three-year cask transformation into rye whisky. They're seriously good: the gin, a product already at the top of its game, and the whisky a hint of what's to come.
All the while, he speaks with the clarity of someone assured in their ambitions: "Too many people say you can't make something worth drinking in London without it being expensive," he tells me. "Londoners want a local, honest, affordable drink, and it was always our top priority to give it to them."
With seven years' experience at Barworks, Alex was accustomed to the politics behind large corporations before he set out on his own. He was unfazed by a marketplace that usually operates within high profit margins and with a complex relationship between producer and bar. It's with a wry smile that Alex remembers the start of his company's journey: "People in the industry used to say we would be bust in a year simply because our margins weren't big enough.
"But I was never going to be one of those greedy brand owners – there's a reason I pull up here every morning on my son's BMX and not a Ferrari. 55,000 bottles later and with business steadily growing, I couldn't be happier we did things our way."
He speaks fervently about the backhand nature of 'retros' – "an ethically murky game" in his eyes – where companies retrospectively give bars cash or free stock to reward high volumes of sales. It's clear that Alex thinks such an attitude is holding the industry back, and depriving worthy brands space on bar shelves: "In what industry should you pay people to buy a product? Bar owners should take a product on quality, not liberties.
It's the first new distillery in the East End for more than a hundred years
"Anyone clued in to how the rest of the drinks world operates will notice the split between what we do here. It's not about proving other manufacturers are wrong – I just think quality should speak for itself."
Pointing towards two gleaming copper pot stills, separated from the bar by a glass partition, the 33-year-old father of three explains: "We have nothing to hide here. When you step into this building you can see the whole operation, front to back. That pretty much sums us up."
Confidence emanates quietly throughout Alex's team thanks to a mixture of youth and scientific knowhow, but Alex certainly doesn't take the success of his team for granted: "I'm extremely lucky to work with people much more skilful than I am," he admits. "And, without the restrictions of tradition, we're able to take a more playful journey to creating a quality product. It's exciting, but we're humble and keen to learn as we go along."
Mixologist Mikey Pendergast fronts up the in-house bar. He's working on a new cocktail on my visit: with a wink, he drops a small frond of sea herb into a bright blue concoction and jokingly names it the 'Bombay Samphire'. There's barely time to register the esoteric list of ingredients before it's whisked away for the taste test.
Distillation, meanwhile, is in the capable hands of resident scientists Tom Hills and Andy Mooney. Never ones to stand still, the mid-20s duo have turned their attention towards once more rejecting traditional methods in search of innovation. English whisky is slowly meandering into the consciousness of London drinkers, as small-batch distilleries begin to take on the Scots at their own game, but the ELLC's product will be only the second whisky distilled in London for a hundred years (pipped to first place by a matter of months).
Distilled largely from English rye and initially aged in new oak barrels, the spirit laid down in Alex's cellars has more in common with the new wave of American bourbon whiskey than Scotch (whisky): "We picked rye primarily because we love the flavour the grain gives to a whisky and feel it is underrepresented in the UK," Wolpert says.
We take a more playful journey to creating a quality product
But the challenge of producing a liquid entrenched in the climate and topography of the south of England will be more technical than cultural – rye whiskey is usually made in the US, in Kentucky and the surrounding states, where hot summers and cool winters accelerate the barrel-ageing process by imparting the wood's flavour quicker.
Alex explains that finishing the casking in a number of different, smaller barrels – previously used to house everything from fine wine to sherry – will get around this issue of ageing, while creating a unique finish to each batch.
In contrast to the consistency of their other products, the whisky will be a highly individualistic drink with tremendous character, as it will proudly explain on the label. Needless to say, it'll be a long, impatient wait until the 2018 finish date.
The East London Liquor Company's range of unaged spirits – gin, vodka and rum – are reasonably familiar ground for a London distiller. But the distillers it chooses to import for its online shop hints at a curiosity that goes further: experimental cocktail bitters from Miracle Mile, Polynesian-inspired rum and, in particular, a rye whiskey from Sonoma County, California (an area known for its top-quality winemakers) could be a taste of things to come from the company.
It was never the intention of the East London Liquor Company to front the capital's drinks vanguard, nor to be romanticised for their labour of love. Yet, through all the success, there remains a team that at its core zealously believe in doing things the right way; a heartening trend within the alcohol industry.
Time spent propped up at the bar or admiring the custom-built Holstein stills in this East End distillery makes one thing clear: while alcohol may not be just about drinking anymore, it still starts – and ends – with good liquid. ■
For more information, go to eastlondonliquorcompany.com