PORT visits the East End startup set to revive whisky production in London, 112 years after the last barrel was produced in the capital
WHISKY WEEK: I’m in the cool, barrel-lined ageing room of the East London Liquor Company and I’ve been handed a heavy cut glass tumbler containing a clear liquid. It’s syrupy and smells of grain. When I take a sip, it blisters into my tongue and burns, but tastes faintly floral. It’s a concoction called White Dog: an un-aged whisky like nothing I’ve tasted before.
“Between 70 and 90 per cent of the flavour of the whisky comes from the barrel,” explains Tom Hills, head distiller at East London Liquor Company. This flavour, he says, is largely dictated by the type of barrel that’s used. For the next three years – the legal minimum ageing period for it to be sold as ‘whisky’ – the colourless, potent liquid in my glass will slowly turn ochre, infused with the flavour of the red wine, white wine, chestnut, new French oak or ex-Bourbon casks it’ll be stored in. And the distillery’s founder, Alex Wolpert, hopes that the resulting whisky will form the next part of an already successful startup business.
Since it began distilling in July 2014, the East London Liquor Company has released gins and vodkas that have been met with much critical acclaim, but there is an important historical significance in Wolpert’s decision to produce whisky in London that really catches my attention. When the Lee Valley Distillery in nearby Stratford closed in 1903, a tradition of London whisky making in the city disappeared. The White Dog I sampled earlier represents some of the first whisky to be distilled in the capital in over a century.
“People don’t know London had whisky… we’re actually bringing whisky back,” Wolpert tells me, as we stand next to the two gleaming copper stills at the heart of the distillery. “But we’re lucky. There’s no surviving culture of making London whisky, so we have carte blanche to do what we want and to redefine it.”
As a distiller, Hills relishes this freedom. Unlike distilleries in Scotland, whose whiskies are so well defined and regulated by law, there is scope for him to be truly innovative when creating whisky in London. Despite Scotland being the home of great whisky in the UK, Hills has managed to find inspiration from further afield. “We love what is happening in America, where they’re pushing the boundaries of what we know whisky can be,” he says, enthusiastically. “Then you’ve got the Japanese, who are making absolutely incredible whisky at the moment.”
This break with Scotch tradition also extends to the equipment used at the East London Liquor Company distillery. At the centre of its almost completely self-contained operation (apart from the initial brewing, everything is done on site) are the two antique looking, German-made copper stills. Both stills are handmade in Lake Constance, Germany, by Holstein – a fourth generation still-making family. “The Americans and the Scots have these industrial stills,” Wolpert explains, “but the Europeans have a history of schnapps and their kit is really well refined – they have been playing about for years on a small scale.”
‘Playing about’ may sound juvenile, but for Wolpert, at least, playing, innovating and enjoying the process is an essential part of his approach in developing spirits. As a young business in an ancient industry, East London Liquor Company is liberated from the restrictions many large-scale spirit producers face. This has pushed Wolpert and his team to use innovative techniques to create gin and vodka, such as the barrel-aged gin to be released this December, and has also had an impact on their whisky distillation.
With commercial rents so high in London, I asked Wolpert why he chose to set up shop in the capital. “We have this playground of bartenders and a very inquisitive public here. What better place to seed a brand, trial it and test it?,” he says. “There is no separation between us and the customer – you can cycle to Shoreditch in five minutes and think about the number of bars there. It’s immediately engaging to say you are local.”
Only time will tell if the East London Liquor Company’s whisky will be a success, but Wolpert and Hills are in it for the long run. “We’re aware of the fact that we’re unlikely to get it right the first time, but we’re experimenting a lot,” Hills tells me back in the distillery cellar. “A lot of what we produce initially will be interesting, but maybe not quite right. Over the course of seven or eight years, we’ll start noticing what’s right and what’s not.”
“It’s very much a leap of faith,” Hills adds, as I take one last sip of the White Dog. “There’s no way of knowing how it will turn out…we’ve just got to put it in a lot of different barrels and, unfortunately, I guess we’ll have to keep drinking it to find out how it’s going.”