Londoners have a new reason to celebrate. As of December 2013, the capital is now home to its first whisky distillery in over 100 years: The London Distillery Company, which has set up shop in industrial Battersea. Up until now, London has been in the midst of an artisanal gin revolution, with more and more micro-producers popping up across town – even The London Distillery Company has gotten in on the action, producing their own well-regarded Dodd’s Gin. But for lovers of dark spirits, those hankering for something rich and redolent of malted barley, the new arrival is something of a revelation. To find out more about the operation, and what it feels like to make London history, we sat down with Darren Rook, co-founder of the distillery.
Tell us about how you and head distiller Andrew MacLeod Smith first met and connected. How did you jointly help the distillery become what it is now?
In Spring 2012, Andrew got in touch to find out more about our project, so I arranged to meet with him for a chat. It wasn’t meant to be a job interview but a couple of days later, I offered him the job of distiller. Andrew had a few months left to finish his MSc Brewing and Distilling course at Heriot-Watt University up in Edinburgh; he officially joined in September 2012, which is when we started building work at the site in Battersea.
The London Distillery Company is branded as a whisky distiller, though gin was your first product on the market. Will you be focusing on both spirits equally as your whisky production grows, or will the balance shift?
When Nick Taylor and I founded the company in 2011, it was always our aim to open a whisky distillery – but we knew that cash flow was vital in keeping the distillery afloat. Whisky has a large initial outlay and in some cases you won’t see a return for 30-40 years. With this in mind we began our search for a site in London where we would have space to create various spirits, but with the focus being on whisky and gin. Going forwards, we plan to focus equally on both whisky and gin.
What’s the most frustrating part of your job? And the most exciting?
Frustrating: time management. In any new business you have to start pretty small and lean, and therefore be a bit of a jack-of-all-trades doing production, admin & finance, marketing, brand support, sales and fulfilment. At present we’re a three-person team so fitting everything in can be a challenge.
Exciting: building London’s first whisky distillery in over a century! Looking back over the last 18 months it’s hard to believe that we have done so much and made history. No one can take that from you.
Tell us more about the style of whisky that you’ll be making, and what flavour notes or characteristics you’re most interested in exploring.
At this point we have no fixed agenda in terms of flavour profiles. When developing the business plan, the aim was to experiment with yeasts and see what excited us. We’re allowing around nine months for research and development, in the same way that we did with Dodd’s Gin, before we settle on a direction for our inaugural spirit.
What makes Dodd’s Gin different from other boutique gins on the market right now? What’s the best way to drink it – neat? In a Martini? A G&T?
We make Dodd’s Gin ourselves, rather than through a third party distillery. It is crafted using a combination of hot distillation and cold distillation methods. We then marry the gin for several weeks before bottling, which allows all the flavours to combine. The recipe was created from scratch, so it took months of distilling different botanicals and testing various combinations until we decided which worked well together and in which quantities.
All of the ingredients we use are organic, and we also work with The London Honey Company to source honey from different London postcodes to use in Dodd’s Gin. This doesn’t mean that it is a sweet gin, as the sugar is left behind during the distillation process, but we manage to capture delicate floral and citrusy notes that beautifully complement the rest of the botanicals.
We developed Dodd’s Gin to be imbibed neat, or in classic cocktails such as Martinis and Negronis. Last summer, we made a Hard Lemonade, which went down a treat at various events. We also work with the Department of Good Cheer, who hold regular events at The Doodle Bar, next-door to the distillery, to explore new Dodd’s serves.
You give consumers the opportunity to customise and distil their very own whisky on site. What has most surprised people about the distilling process?
The biggest surprise has been how just three ingredients – barley, yeast, and water – can create such different results. Many people are not aware of the impact of the fermentation stage, and the various flavour profiles different yeasts can impart.
Is an expansion on the cards, or do you plan to stay at your current small-batch size?
We will certainly consider expansion, but not at the expense of quality. There are ways of increasing capacity whilst maintaining small-batch production methods.
London seems to be undergoing a distilling and brewing renaissance. How do you see yourselves fitting into the new scene? How much do you engage with and educate consumers?
One of our main aims in creating the distillery and opening the doors to the public for tours is to educate about gin and whisky production. We are also assisting others who are planning to set up operations on a similar scale to ours, and give them the benefit of our experience. All of the distilleries based in London currently hold Rectifying and Compounding licences, whereas we have gone one stage further, becoming London’s only distillery to hold a distilling licence, which is why it was such a long process. Now we have been granted this licence, it means we can make whisky from scratch.
Where are your favourite places in London to get a drink?
Friendly faces and great-quality whisky always greet me at The Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Farringdon. At the end of the working week, we like to hang out with our neighbours at the Doodle Bar over a beer. I’m also looking forward to visiting Ryan Chetiyawardana at his new bar, White Lyan, which has received great reviews since its recent opening.
Outside of London, what are your favourite cities to travel to (and drink in), and why?
Paris. It’s a beautiful city. I love exploring all the bars tucked away down side streets and alleys. Plus there is a great bar community, the drinks are superb and the service is world-class. Also Edinburgh – I spent a lot of time there before coming to London, and it’s home to some of the best bars in the world. Always guaranteed good banter.
Name three people working in drinks locally who you’re really inspired by.
Evin at Kernel Brewery. For me, he started the wave of craft brewing in London five years ago. John Glaser at Compass Box Whisky: he and his team have taken a small business, grown it, made some amazing whiskies and educated people along the way. John has helped rejuvenate the blended whisky category. And Ryan Chetiyawardana, aka Mr. Lyan. He is innovative and creates classic but modern cocktails. Ryan has so much passion and excitement for what he does. We really enjoy it when we get to work with him on a project.
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