Gin has reinvented itself over the past decade, shrugging off its chequered century-long past and refashioning itself as a refreshingly adaptable mixer. From its humble beginnings as a medicine peddled by London’s apothecaries to today’s sophisticated botanical blends, its renaissance has seen a global boom in micro-distilleries, ingenious ingredients and trail-blazing tonics. Despite all this, the humble G&T with a slice of lemon still has its well-earned place. For gin lovers with a taste for the traditional and aficionados with a hankering for fresher inventions, allow us to introduce the highlights of London’s distillery scene.
The City of London Gin Distillery has triple appeal for gin lovers, with its pioneering Gin Lab, a well-stocked cocktail bar, and, of course, the micro-distillery itself. A tour here offers an introduction to trusty copper stills Jennifer, Clarissa and Elizabeth, and freely divulges the formulae behind their award-winning distillations. It’s neatly rounded off with a three-flight gin-tasting and an invitation to fire up a bespoke bottle of the good stuff in the Gin Lab. If that all sounds too much like hard work, a refreshing, citrus-infused Old Tom Gin in the bar is a happy alternative.
The brand that almost singlehandedly established gin as the trend of 2009 was Sipsmith. Understandably, then, Sipsmith Distillery is high on the itinerary for any gin lover in London. The mixology team shares precious pearls of wisdom from the brand’s Master Distiller, Jared Brown, during exclusive masterclasses while attendant gin lovers shake, stir and sip their way to cocktail perfection. You can take a tour of the distillery on most week nights, but for something a little more special, the weekly Sipsmith Sipper Club is hard to beat. The evening begins with a tour and then moves to Charlotte’s Bistro for a three-course gin-inspired dinner. There’s more: you won’t leave without a gift bag brimming with all the ingredients to create the perfect gin and tonic (ice not provided, of course).
Elsewhere in London, there’s a coveted gin that has been hand-crafted since 1863 to a recipe that’s barely changed, and it’s available to sample at the Beefeater Gin Distillery. The self-guided tour takes in big gulps of British gin history and is a rare opportunity to see some of the brand’s original Victorian pot stills. It includes, of course, a gin and tonic poured to your preference.
Head to the bustle of Maltby Street Market at the weekend and gin lovers will find the Jensen’s Gin Distillery open for tastings as well as an indulgent selection of long drinks. Found beneath an atmospheric railway arch, the distillery here, which can be visited by booking in advance, bottles small batches of vintage-style London gin made from traditional botanicals.
Earnest gin aficionados will no doubt be aware of Hayman’s, a heritage, family-run brand that’s been around since the original gin boom of 1863. It has made its home over in Balham and continues to make True English Gin to traditional period recipes. A visit offers an opportunity to meet the team, learn about the historic processes that go into the gin, and take a guided tour of the facility itself, with a tutored tasting along the way.
Inspired by the 19th-century globe-trotting adventures of Phileas J. Fogg, Esq. – roving hero of Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days – Mr Fogg’s Gin Parlour in Covent Garden is transporting to say the least. Over 200 gins are lined up behind the bar here, including some rare bottles that must be sampled to be believed, and numerous ways to experience them, including tastings and gin-spired Afternoon Teas.
Drink like James Bond in Dukes Bar. This elegant enclave in London’s Mayfair was the watering hole of author Ian Fleming and is said to have been the inspiration for 007’s unshakeable loyalty to the classic gin cocktail, the martini. It’s not surprising – it’s said that the martinis here aren’t merely some of the best in the British capital, but rank with the world’s finest. Of course, the proof is in the tasting. Select from Dukes’ iconic martini trolley and enjoy the de rigueur tableside theatrics before sipping the cocktail that Dukes has utterly mastered the art of. Channel something of Bond’s sartorial flair if you’re planning a visit – leisurewear is not permitted.
A classic cocktail of similar prestige is the gibson – like the martini, it’s made with gin and dry vermouth, but with the addition of a pickled onion adding a savoury edge. The Gibson on Old Street is a former pub that’s been glossed up with Art Deco glamour and plush layers of style. True to its name, it serves the definitive gibson: ice cold in a stainless-steel martini glass, made with Copperhead Gin, Martini Ambrato Riserva, a house double-pickled onion, a dash of pickling spice and a twist. It’s delicious and crisp, and will win the heart of any gin lover. Catering to those beyond the gin spectrum, too, the cocktail menu here runs the gamut, with plenty of creative, dramatic drinks all served with spectacular flair.
Come the last Saturday of the month, Chapel Down Gin Works in King’s Cross is the place to be for its gin brunch. A celebration of quintessentially English food and drink, the brunch is a three-course affair beginning with Maldon oysters paired with a splash of Chapel Down’s Brut NV – the Kent vineyard is one of England’s leading winemakers after all – and moving through brunch bowls and hearty savoury dishes accompanied by a stiff Bloody Mary or Breakfast Martini. Before leaving, pay a visit to the distillery room to meet Helga, the copper still, and indulge in a quick tasting of one of the Chapel Down gins. They’re made using the grape skins from the wine-making process and are available to try in the bar every day of the week if Saturday brunch feels a little far off. The bar’s interiors are certainly sleek, but those in the know take their drinks to the outdoor terrace to enjoy views out over the canal.