Dabbler Soup – London gins

Ian Buxton is one of the UK’s leading drinks writers, specialising in whisky and spirits, and is the author of the bestselling book 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die.

Ever wondered what ‘London Gin’ means?

Until recently, the answer would have been ‘not a lot’. Unlike Plymouth Gin, which is a legally-protected term permitting distillation only in that fair city; London Gin simply denotes a style that can be made anywhere.

Historically, gin came from Holland and became London’s favourite in the eighteenth century when gin distillation took hold of much of the city. Writing about this period, Lord Hervey declared: “Drunkenness of the common people was universal, the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from morning till night.” William Hogarth in his 1751 engraving ‘Gin Lane’ portrays a scene of idleness, vice and misery, leading to madness and death. As students of history will know, binge drinking is nothing new!

But, eventually, gin cleaned up its act and by the post War period, the manufacture of gin moved out of the city as the distilling industry consolidated.

In fact today, much London gin (including many big brands and cult favourites such as Hendricks) is made in Scotland and the sole producer of any scale or brand significance remaining in London is Beefeater, which distils in Kennington. But now smaller producers are fighting back with distinctive London gins, often on a boutique, hand-crafted scale. And, crucially, made in London and served in the capital’s better and more stylish bars.

This move to limited expressions was led – quite fittingly – by Beefeater with its premium Beefeater 24 style, launched in 2008. It incorporates rare teas in the botanicals for a distinctively English twist.

This year it’s been followed by the even more interesting and distinctive Beefeater Summer and Winter Editions. As the name implies, it’s a case of use it or lose it – the styles, which add a selection of seasonal plants such as elderflower, hibiscus and blackcurrant to the standard Beefeater botanicals, will only be available for the appropriate season. Beefeater Summer – a cooler, lighter gin designed for cocktails – has probably passed you by, but the Winter Edition should be on shelves now.

Developed by renowned Master Distiller Desmond Payne, Beefeater Winter Edition includes additional botanicals such as cinnamon, nutmeg and pine shoots. The intense aroma of cinnamon is complemented by the soft sweetness of nutmeg and balanced by the fresh flavour of pine shoots, enhancing the piney flavour of juniper – the most important botanical in all good gins. Payne added these botanicals, along with extra Seville orange peel to the original and award-winning Beefeater London Dry recipe, to create a spiced, warming gin, suitable for the cooler months.

Other newcomers include Oxley (from Bacardi, but you’d never know); Sipsmiths; Old Tom from Jensen, which attempts to recreate a sweeter style of spirit popular in the 19th century; and Sacred Gin, which is – almost unbelievably – distilled by hand in Highgate.

Oxley and Sacred Gin both employ a highly unusual cold distillation process, which aims to preserve more of the taste of the botanicals, resulting in a taste that’s surprisingly fresh and quite true to the base ingredients. Either can be sipped neat, though most will be used in cocktails.

Quite lavishly packaged, and expensive at around £45 for a bottle, Oxley is aimed primarily at the US market but can be found in trendier London outlets.

No less exclusive, but rather better value at £30, Sacred Gin has already collected a number of awards and attracted the attention of cutting-edge cocktail maestros. Sacred is produced using 12 different botanicals including juniper (the staple ingredient of all gin), cardamom, nutmeg, and Boswellia Sacra (aka Hougary Frankincense) from which the brand name is derived. Distiller Ian Hart also offers enthusiasts the opportunity to create their own personalised gin by selling bottles of individual distillates. You then mix to your own recipe for the ultimate, but probably unrepeatable, martini.

Sipsmiths is the creation of distiller Jared Brown, who makes just 500 bottles (or less) at a time in a custom-designed pot still which, entirely co-incidentally, is housed in the Hammersmith building formerly the offices and tasting room of the late and great Michael Jackson (a noted drinks writer, not the singer). Here Brown produces an interpretation of the classic London Dry style that nods to its heritage and emerges as a particularly dry gin with a wonderful burst of juniper and a zesty, citrus freshness.

Finally, fine wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd have recently launched their No. 3 brand of London Gin. Named after the address of their long-established shop in St James’s Street, No. 3 is designed to be the perfect ingredient in a classic dry martini. The distinctive, fresh citrus notes come from orange and grapefruit peels and a touch of coriander. Crucially, distillation is a batch process in traditional pot stills, where cardamom and angelica add a dry, spicy taste and juniper complete the recipe.

But despite their impeccable London pedigree, Berrys, the archetypal gentleman’s wine merchant, can only claim this as an honorary Londoner, for No 3 is made in Holland. And thus, you could say, this gin is coming home from home.

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29 thoughts on “Dabbler Soup – London gins

  1. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    November 11, 2010 at 13:56

    The other side of this coin is, of course, the old Tonic.

    There’s a particularly good one now called Fever-tree, full of nutritious, delicious quinine, and, unusually for a tonic water, not tasting like hell. I plugged them on Think of England once, hoping for a freebie as it ain’t cheap, but got sod all out of them.

  2. finalcurtain@gmail.com'
    November 11, 2010 at 14:29

    ‘the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from morning til night’ –
    no change there then. Not many of them on the gin though, I’ll be bound. I drink it regularly in the heat of Spain, but it has little appeal in this climate. Agree with you Brit, and the Fever-Tree blurb (Tonic more important than the Gin). But they would say that. On a 4 to 1 ratio, the 4 is quite important, and Schh just will not cut it.

  3. Worm
    November 11, 2010 at 14:45

    I’ve tried the Sipsmith and it is a mighty fine Gin. And as Brit says, Fever Tree tonic is probably the best mixer available

    Never had much of a fondness for overly flavoured gins that wave their botanicals in your face – like Hendricks. Number 1 favourite for me has to be Plymouth Navy Strength which seems to have a very clear fresh taste

  4. ian@brollachan.com'
    Ian Buxton
    November 11, 2010 at 16:00

    With you on Hendricks, Worm.
    Good distilling name that by the way – the worm is the snaking copper pipe in which spirit condenses in a bath of cold water. A worm tub, in fact.

  5. Worm
    November 11, 2010 at 16:21

    …and lets not forget the mezcal worm in tequila bottles – performing the important task of making gullible students vomit

  6. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    November 11, 2010 at 16:24

    I was a gullible student once and I ate one of those worms. It did nothing for me that the large amount of tequila required to get me in such a state that I didn’t mind eating a worm hadn’t already done.

  7. ian@brollachan.com'
    Ian Buxton
    November 11, 2010 at 16:34

    Now before we get confused, let’s get this worm thing straight: it’s a common misconception that some tequilas contain a “worm” in the bottle. Only certain mezcals, usually from the state of Oaxaca, are ever sold con gusano, and that only began as a marketing gimmick in the 1940s. The worm is actually the larval form of the moth Hypopta agavis, which lives on the agave plant.
    Sorry, that’s really pedantic, isn’t it…as he tried in vain to worm out of this piece of quite unnecessary one-upmanship.

  8. Brit
    November 11, 2010 at 16:37

    Ah thanks, Ian. Let me rephrase:

    It did nothing for me that the large amount of tequila required to get me in such a state that I didn’t mind eating the larval form of the moth Hypopta agavis hadn’t already done.

  9. ian@brollachan.com'
    Ian Buxton
    November 11, 2010 at 16:40

    Do try and keep up – “It did nothing for me that the large amount of mezcal required…etc”
    Yours in intoxication,

  10. Brit
    November 11, 2010 at 16:43


  11. finalcurtain@gmail.com'
    November 11, 2010 at 18:12

    Just to get the matter back ‘on blog’, I have been in touch with delightful Saskia at Fever Tree, pointing out that at least three ‘Dabblers’ are full or part-time topers, and have been keeping the sales figures of their Tonic Water moving along for some time. She is now a Dabbler and, what is more, samples of their latest product, Mediterranean Tonic Water (with botanicals from Provence), are presently winging their way to chez-mahlerman. A report will follow, if I am in any condition to write it.

  12. ian@brollachan.com'
    Ian Buxton
    November 11, 2010 at 18:18

    …and what about your gin correspondent?
    Am I to go without?

    Oh, delightful Saskia, keeper of the tree, hear this plea I beseech you!

  13. finalcurtain@gmail.com'
    November 11, 2010 at 19:00

    Well, I expected Brit to get into a bit of a strop, but Ian….I imagined you professional drinksters would be swimming in the stuff. My dearest friend used to work for Irish Mist in Tullamore, and ‘samples’ used to spill out of his boot everytime he stopped over for a ‘tasting’ at our house. My daughter works in the perfume industry, and the impression I get from both worlds is, broadly, that it costs a pound or two to make, and can sell for twenty times that amount. It’s the sizzle, not the sausage that you pay for.

  14. Brit
    November 11, 2010 at 19:07

    A strop, Mahlerman? Not a bit of it, I commend your blagging skills.

    But I would point out to any providers of freebies who happen to read this that the correct procedure is to first email editorial@thedabbler.co.uk

  15. Worm
    November 11, 2010 at 19:38

    Aston Martin makes GREAT cars

  16. ian@brollachan.com'
    Ian Buxton
    November 11, 2010 at 19:52

    Gin is not usually a problem, but have you seen the price of tonic lately?
    Not to mention the limes.

  17. joerees08@gmail.com'
    Joey Joe Joe Jr.
    November 11, 2010 at 20:09

    I’m afraid the martini I’m currently sipping is made of Asda’s home brand london gin. It’s still pretty good though, ‘gloriously, achingly cold’ as Nigella’s just described something (beer I think) on the television.

  18. Brit
    November 11, 2010 at 20:22

    A martini and Nigella, JJJJnr? How revoltingly decadent.

  19. joerees08@gmail.com'
    Joey Joe Joe Jr.
    November 11, 2010 at 20:50

    Truly I have achieved new heights in hedonism. I blame the influence of the dabbler, I will be scoffing slabs of ginger cake and quaffing peaty drams with my oysters soon enough.

  20. fchantree@yahoo.co.uk'
    Gadjo Dilo
    November 12, 2010 at 05:49

    I get through quite a lot of gin and as I don’t bother mixing it with anything I flatter myself to think that I am something of a a ‘purist’ 🙂 The quality of it here rather makes one pine for the Costa de Sol’s Larios, however. ‘Saskia’, ahhh, the name itself is enough to send one.

  21. info@shopcurious.com'
    November 12, 2010 at 11:57

    Ginwise, my pref is for Tanqueray, which is described as a London Dry Gin, but seems to be much more popular overseas than here. Very refreshing with lime for sundowners in a suitably hot location. Its curious marketing strapline is: A gin with unparalleled depth since 1830..

  22. ian@brollachan.com'
    Ian Buxton
    November 12, 2010 at 12:16

    You’d like Tanqueray Rangpur – but it’s hard to find.

  23. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    November 12, 2010 at 13:19

    Nah, gin is for pooftahs and Georgian Cockneys, consumed by the Iceni, Trimovanti and Camtiaci mob, so deadening the effects of being trapped within the M25 and living near AA Gill, we Selgovarians drink proper bee-double o-zee-e, ranging from the great gods 25 yr old Macallan and Löwenbräu Oktoberfest, pausing only to refresh ourselves at the well of Bruichladdich and offer up sacrifices to it’s saviours. Or the occasional swig of Gaffel Kölsch.

    Gin, rhubarb.

  24. ian@brollachan.com'
    Ian Buxton
    November 12, 2010 at 13:41

    ” living near AA Gill”….now that is scary.
    Drive anyone to drink.

    Nothing from “the delightful Saskia” yet. I might start to go off her soon.

  25. finalcurtain@gmail.com'
    November 12, 2010 at 14:59

    The quiddity of Saskia is hard to discern Ian – but I would settle for the long game. No point in pressing forward; sit back and let her come to you.

  26. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    November 12, 2010 at 15:02

    Drinkies freebies, a bit of history, non gin related of course. Back when, many of the porridge scoffers working in the old Talisker distillery lived in Glenbrittle, over the hill, no electricity, one youth hostel and some farms, the Wee Free nowhere in sight, plod miles away in Portree, not yet invaded by retired GPO engineers from Bromley or that plonker J.Isaacs.
    Take a push bike inner tube, cut it in half. Fix one end with clothes peg, fill with whissshkey, before adulteration with strength reducing tendencies. Seal other end with clothes peg No 2, hang around neck under jacket, cycle past gateman whistling, job done. Who needs a high salary with perks like this.
    I had my 21st birthday party in the old Glenbrittle post office, mainly lubricated by above beverage, the next morning one person was found comatose, lying at the shoreline, tide lapping his knees. Another had fallen over backwards, into the fire, his hair now Andrew Neilish and was en route to Portree cottage hospital, Ronald Mcdonald, the owner, was found asleep by his wife, in the adjacent farmhouse bedroom, with a.n.other.
    The survivors took 3 days to recover, swearing that never again would we eat mackerel whilst drinking contraband whiskey.

  27. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    November 12, 2010 at 15:08

    Yes, blame the mackerel, Malty. Definitely the mackerel.

    There’s a brilliantly gonzo flavour to the inner tube whisky trick, but I can’t see a connoisseur like Ian approving of the method…

  28. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    November 12, 2010 at 15:54

    The whisky Brit, tasted not of Dunlop, but oddly of mackerel. Omitted to mention that having Ian join the rescue pod is a real pleasure.

  29. ian@brollachan.com'
    Ian Buxton
    November 12, 2010 at 20:59

    Thanks gents.
    This is clearly the kind of responsible drinking our leaders in the “Scottish Government” are trying to encourage.
    Note your thoughts mahlerman – is the recommendation to “play the long game” in any way related to your having secured your own supplies of the delicious, refreshing Fever Tree tonic – the tonic of the Gods – a tonic non pareil and quite the thing with which a gentleperson might refresh their palates?
    (O, delightful Saskia, will this do?)

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