Established in January 2014, the East London Liquor Company is located in a former glue factory in Bow Wharf, East London. A bright, rustic and minimalist bar greets you as you enter, adorned with transparent bottles of different shapes and sizes containing the in-house distilled Gins, Vodka’s and Rums. A window at the bar gives the paying customer a glimpse at the two giant copper stills, splishing and splashing and working their magic on the famous spirits which the company create.
We are welcomed one sunny morning into the bar and then back into the distillery for a tasting tour and a little history on this new company which has already trained over 500 bar tenders since its opening! The in-depth focus on training, products and on local support is perhaps the mark of someone who understands the bar and hospitality industry and who knows a high end product when he sees one. Alex Wolpert, the founder of East London Liquor Company is one such individual. Having had a brainwave to create a high end product without compromising on taste and ingredients, he painstakingly searched London for almost 2 years looking for a premises to set up a distillery and create a product that would get the bar scene in London excited. Apt then, that the premises he finally got his hands on was located in the East End which housed the biggest distillery businesses over a century ago.
This October, the ELLC has teamed up with the Wisconsin Distillers, Death’s Door, who have brought over some of their best selling products for the discerning English palate to taste. Gin tasting before noon? Why not indeed!
As Alex introduces us to the Still room, he explains the distillation process. Although I’ve always thought there to be bit of magic to any process that results in something as beautiful as gin, I have to say the Stills inspire a kind of child-like magic to the whole process. If Roald Dahl had written for gin loving adults surely this is where “Charlie and the Gin Factory” would have been set. The copper Stills are reminiscent of the mechanical devices in Roald Dahl’s bestselling book and brings back memories that inspired awe in me as a child. The said magic machines can hold 450 -650 litres of alcohol at a time. Built and shipped over from Bavaria, Germany, they are a wonder to behold and of course the finished products they create, more wondrous still!
While the Ommpa Lumpa tune plays in my head, Alex explains the process of distillation: The Gin & Vodka Still contains a 6 plate rectification column which purifies all the grain that’s added to it. The vapour passes through the dephlegmator (that’s the top of the Still to you and me) and pushes out any impurities leaving pure alcohol down below. Alex explains taking out any harsh impurities is what gives the ELLC spirits their smoothness. I find myself vaguely recollecting the (many) times I’ve winced from drinking any spirit straight due to the harshness of the alcohol. I feel suddenly aware its mid morning and I’m about to sample at least 3 shots of East Ends finest Spirits.
Most distilleries use a method called a “two – shot” process, ELLC however use a “one- shot” process, which Alex explains is something inherent in all craft distillers. Mass producing distillers use a” two- shot” process whereby the concentration of botanicals is always greater than the concentration of alcohol, then added to a mass of neutral alcohol which decreases its purity and taste.
The running theme of the ELLC is the focus on quality ingredients and a high proof of alcohol which is apparent in the taste of each gin and vodka they produce. The fact that ELLC has a mass following of local clientele speaks volumes not only for their produce but for the welcoming and informative style which is in abundance from its entire staff. The head distillers are passionate about what they do and the bar staff will willingly give customers plenty of information on the origins of ingredients as well as the process that goes into every product they create and sell.
As someone who is only acquainted with spirits through the end of a glass, I found the whole experience of the distillery welcoming, charming and extremely informative.
And now to the actual tasting of the stuff. A milder mannered person than myself may have been hesitant to start necking clean shots of gin and vodka before noon, but they need not have worried. On this particular visit to the distillery we had the good fortune to be in the company of Brian Ellison, CEO of Death’s Door Distillery, Wisconsin. Brian gave us a short introduction to Death’s Door and Wisconsin, while simultaneously allowing us a tasting of Death’s Doors spirits to contrast those of the ELLC’s products.
Reader, it was AMAZING! As we were led from the Distillation room, down dark stairs to the underground vault (Yes, Harry Potter did jump to my mind), we entered the Spirit cellar. Cask upon cask of gin and vodka lined the walls with a large table down the middle, laid out with bottles of the houses finest produce.
It was definitely a first for me to be able to taste a Gin neat, and not wince, but rather to hold the spirit in my mouth and savour the taste. And not just with one, but with all of them. The first tasting in the cellar was the East London Liquor Vodka: At the best of times, vodka can taste of 100% nothingness. Not this one! A creamy nutty Vodka, I almost expected the colour to be bronze, that of a fine Brandy or Armagnac. At 40% proof, the purity of the spirit is evident in its taste and suppleness.
The second tasting was of Death’s Door vodka, vodka I have never tasted the likes of. Tasting Death’s Doors vodka did to me what Hayman’s did to me when I first hesitatingly tried it: Instant conversion! The sweetness of the vodka, says Brian Ellison, (Death’s Door CEO) is derived from the wheat, while the moderate barley is what gives it its oily depth. The only way I can describe the oily depth is to say that if this vodka were chocolate, it would be Lindt. With a smooth, creamy aftertaste it is truly delectable!
Next to taste was what we had all been waiting for: GIN. First up, East London Liquor Co’s Batch number 1: Juniper, fennel, pink grapefruit and Darjeeling tea. Only a handful of grapefruits go in to 1 batch of gin, yet there is a distinct citrus flavour when drinking it neat. Fruity, yet with a lower amount of botanicals and a higher percentage of alcohol, the intensity of the Gin is significant. The quality it brings is something Alex says he always searched for whilst working in the bar industry but never succeeded until deciding to create his own.
Death’s Door Gin was again divine, with the same oiliness that exits in its vodka, the smooth piquancy of the Gin seems to be Death’s Door Trademark. Juniper, coriander and fennel are all palpable and Brian tells us that Washington Island where his distillery is based is overgrown with Juniper berries, to the point that locals are begging him to take them. Brian, like Alex is charming and informative and like Alex, his passion for his products, the history and the picture he paints for us leave us enchanted, his passion contagious. At 47% it’s hard to believe the silky smoothness of Death’s Door Gin. Dangerously drinkable!
To finish up, we had a surprising palate cleanser. Death’s Door’s best selling product in its home town of Wisconsin: Wondermint. Wondermint is the only crafted Peppermint Schnapps in the world, and boy is it good. While a picture of my grandmother’s generation is what usually springs to mind with the words “mint” and “schnapps”, this one is a game changer. Absinthe, rosewater and almond go into this schnapps and upon tasting it is evident why it is Wisconsin’s favourite tipple. At 35% it has a pleasant and refreshing taste while also containing Death’s Door signature smoothness. Making Schnapps sexy again is no mean feat, but Death’s Door seems to have conquered it. Though not available in the UK yet, Brian tells us feedback from the distilleries here have been good, (after an initial hesitation which is common with the preconception of Schnapps) and so the New Year should see some DD schnapps lining the UK’s finest distilleries.
East London Liquor Company,
221 Grove Road
London E3 5SN
Monday to Thursday: 12.00pm-11.30pm
Friday to Saturday: 12.00pm-12.00am