I’m rushing up London’s Portobello Road on a Friday afternoon in spring, dodging shoppers and strollers as I zig-zag from sidewalk to road and back again hunting for a bar. The Portobello Star is the latest in a long line of alcohol-serving establishments situated in the same building since 1740. History aside, what it’s really known for nowadays is its gin – and in particular, its Ginstitute, a three-hour workshop that covers the spirit’s past and present, and lets participants concoct their own custom gin, a prospect so enticing that the classes are frequently sold out.
Luckily for me, though, I managed to snag a spot during this long weekend getaway in the British capital, albeit on the same day I arrive from Toronto on the red-eye, meaning I’m sleep-deprived, slightly frazzled from navigating the London Underground and on the edge of running late thanks to the extreme optimism of Google Maps.
The organizers recommend arriving at least 15 minutes early, and I can see why: My fellow students are already seated at high wooden tables in the dim and cozy space, half-finished gin and tonics in hand. I settle onto a stool and a server brings me my own. It’s the bar’s own Portobello Road London dry gin, mixed in a tall glass with Fever-Tree tonic and garnished with a slice of grapefruit. I catch my breath and take a sip, and am quickly refreshed by the triple-whammy of sugar, citrus and bubbles, followed soon after by a buzz from the alcohol.
Like everywhere else food trends travel, London is in the midst of a gin renaissance. Since Sipsmith acquired a license in 2009 – it was the first in the city since the venerable Beefeater earned its own in 1862 – the number of gin-makers has skyrocketed. (It took Sipsmith 18 months of persistent door-knocking to earn said license, partly because the relevant government department didn’t really know how to create one.)
What makes London’s distilleries different is the city’s turbulent, centuries-long relationship with the spirit it borrowed from the Dutch, then made its own. And I’m here to untangle the complicated history of the beverage, to learn what makes a gin, and to taste some of the best gins local distilleries have to offer.
At the Ginstitute, our group of 10 files up a narrow staircase and through a nondescript door to enter our first classroom. The small, dark space is furnished with red velvet stools and low wooden tables topped with thick white candles. Glass-fronted cabinets holding vintage gin bottles and cocktail manuals are mounted on two walls; on a third, an etched glass mirror in honour of the gin palaces of yore reads “The Ginstitute: Proud Purveyors of London Spirit” in gaudy gold lettering surrounded by curlicues and floral designs. Behind the bar, lead Ginstitute instructor (and Portobello Gin co-owner) Jake Burger, sporting the requisite craft-distiller’s beard, is putting the final touches on a round of Tom Collinses – that’s gin, lemon juice, sugar and carbonated water – and we each take one before seating ourselves in a sedate semi-circle as he launches into a rapid-fire history of gin.
In brief, and with a certain amount of fable mixed in with the facts: Italian monks were preserving juniper berries in spirits for medicine by the 12th century, a concoction that was enhanced by distillers in the Netherlands. English troops sent to the continent to fight in the Eighty Years’ War brought the drink home in the early 17th century, but it was William of Orange banning the import of French spirits that truly made homegrown distilling soar. In 1702, half a million gallons of gin were produced in England; by 1727 – the peak of the “Gin Craze” – that figure had risen to five million. The drink was blamed for social problems and higher death rates, which led to legislation aimed at curbing consumption. (Given the degree to which gin – sold in bars, out of barrels – was doctored with turpentine, alum powder and sulfuric acid, the horror stories are easy to believe.)
Early gins were sweet and aromatic to hide the off-putting flavour of the base spirit. But by the early 19th century, thanks to the invention of the column still (and higher-proof alcohol), there was a shift in gin-making style, with botanicals used purely for flavour rather than their masking abilities. It’s here that the London dry style enters the scene – “dry” refers to the lack of added sugar – conveniently around the same time as the invention of commercial tonic water, based on the mixture of lime, sugar, water and gin British soldiers in India added to quinine to make the anti-malarial palatable.
Gin continued to be popular on both sides of the Atlantic through the golden age of cocktails, but started to fall out of favour in the 1950s as vodka’s popularity soared – until the recent craft era. Unlike whisky, gin doesn’t need to be aged, and unlike vodka, it leaves plenty of room for creative expression, meaning it’s the perfect figurehead with which to launch one’s microdistillery. Which brings us back to Portobello Road.
Jake is working as he talks, scooping ice into glasses and squeezing lemons for our next round of G&Ts, this time with premium 1724 tonic water, made with quinine sourced from the Andes. (He admits to stocking grocery-store tonic at home.) The students, two glasses of study material in, have gotten much more animated, and a debate breaks out about the merits of Beefeater and Bombay Sapphire, and the pros and cons of big companies purchasing microdistilleries. “We’d all like to be bought out and retire to the Caribbean,” Jake says, only partly in jest, as he hands out our drinks and hustles us upstairs for the creative portion of the evening.
“The secret to a good gin is good progression of flavour,” he begins, explaining that besides the essential juniper berries, three other ingredients are typically used for the sake of tradition: coriander seed, angelica root and orris root. Beyond that, it’s up to the distiller’s imagination, though the idea is to create four waves of flavour: a predominant juniper taste, clean and lively top notes (citrus or coriander), softer spices and florals, then a finish of more powerful, insistent flavours like lavender or fennel.
As he talks, he passes around each ingredient, and we crush juniper berries in our fingers, inhaling the scent, and chew on sweet, woody chunks of licorice root. The list of possible botanicals is turning into a blur – six kinds of citrus, two teas, seven peppers and spices, even asparagus and rose – and I seize onto Jake’s suggestion to work around a theme when creating my own gin.
We’re not going to start playing with the still, so the shelves are lined with glass jars of single-botanical spirits to be mixed into our custom blends. Nor is Jake about to let us create something we won’t want to drink, so as we take turns reading out our lists of ingredients, he works out the percentages himself, and suggests tweaks when he isn’t quite pleased with a combination. (I’m unreasonably proud when he approves my Hong Kong-inspired blend of the four main botanicals plus dried orange, smoky lapsang souchong tea and pink peppercorns.) We do get to pour the various spirits from the test tubes that he fills into our bottles, though, after which he passes around a tasting glass of each person’s creation for us to sniff and sip before sealing the bottles and slapping on the labels – our very own gins to take home, kept on file so we can reorder any time we want. “Dry, good for a martini,” he says of mine as he shakes my hand. “Very good – we all passed today.”
Sixteen hours later, the previous night’s gin surely cleared out of my system, I’m on the other side of town at the Peg & Patriot in Bethnal Green, to meet “Cocktail Kate” and my group for the Gin Journey – basically a pub crawl with a tour guide. The decor here is sophisticated-meets-hipster, walls, padded banquettes and velvet chairs in the same slate grey, the bar trimmed in gold with bare bulbs hanging above. Kate, draped in a scarf dotted with stills like she’s the priestess of booze, comes over and introduces herself, writing the social media handles of the day on the chalkboard table so we can tag our posts and compete for prizes, then introduces our group to the theme of the afternoon – tasting and enjoying gin.
“When you’re tasting spirits, it’s an attack on all your senses,” she says, holding a glass up to the light and swirling as she judges the gin’s legs, noting that thinner varieties tend to be citrusy, while those that cling to the glass’s sides will be heavy in oily botanicals such as angelica root and cinnamon. We dutifully pick up our own glasses and imitate her gestures, taking a sniff and then adding a drop of water to open up the aromas, then smelling again. Finally, we get to taste – “get it all over your tastebuds,” she directs, “you want to get every note” – and I’m struck by the long licorice-y aftertaste, convinced I wouldn’t have noticed it pre-Ginstitute.
It’s early in the day and there are many gins to try, so I pace myself as we go from bar to bar, each time sampling a gin both straight and in a cocktail, and getting more and more friendly with the rest of the group as we go. We settle into a rhythm, Kate enthusiastically and entertainingly explaining the history of gin in her Liverpudlian accent, peppering her speech with jokes and random facts and tossing tiny bottles of gin as prizes to those who can answer her questions the fastest. We learn that the early Greeks fed juniper berries to athletes, debate the flavours of each gin, eat tacos in Banksy’s former garage while Drake’s Hotline Bling plays overhead, and find out that the Beefeater brand gives its namesakes at the Tower of London (though they’re officially called Yeomen Warders) a bottle each for Christmas every year.
At our final bar, Callooh Callay, we toast our journey with pretty blue drinks, the bar’s take on the Aviation, with lemon, maraschino and crème de violette. The atmosphere here is relaxed, and perhaps I’m a little bit drunk, but I raise my glass in a silent toast to the immigration officer who let me into this country. “I’ve got quite into gin lately,” he had said. “I wish I could join you.”
The writer participated in the Ginstitute and the Gin Journey as a guest. They did not review or approve this article.
If you go
Visit the Ginstitute for the three-hour Gin Blending Experience ($190 a person) or the two-hour Masterclass ($104 a person), during which you’ll learn to mix five classic gin cocktails – or simply drop by the Portobello Star for a cocktail from their extensive menu. 171 Portobello Rd., theginstitute.com
The Gin Journey (from $78) takes you on a guided excursion through five top cocktail bars in London, Manchester, Liverpool or Edinburgh, including transportation, a gin sample and cocktail at each stop. Additional options include a London Negroni Journey ($104) and a summer-only Botanical Journey in Liverpool ($52), during which participants enjoy a gin tasting, sample cocktails and blend their own gin. ginjourney.com
Prefer to mosey in and out of bars and distilleries on your own time? Download and print the London Gin Trail map from the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, which features 12 gin destinations across the city including Sipsmith and Beefeater distilleries, the art deco bar at the Savoy hotel, even a gin and jam afternoon tea. To find the map, search “gin” at visitbritain.com.
Where to drink
Tucked away on a side lane just off Fleet Street, the City of London Distillery serves up cocktails, drinks and snacks as well as offering tours, tastings and workshops. 22-24 Bride Lane, cityoflondondistillery.com
For cocktails that are as much artwork as beverage, book a table at Oriole, a trendy new bar found incongruously downstairs from the U.K.’s biggest wholesale meat market. Speakeasy-style live music – think jazz, blues and swing – starts every night at 9. East Poultry Ave., Smithfield Markets, oriolebar.com
Tasting menus are the draw at the London Gin Bar, where you can sit and sample an array of gins – focus on small batch, overproof, sloe or the whole flavour spectrum – or test your tastebuds with a blind tasting. 22 Great Chapel St.,thelondonginclub.com
Where to stay
London’s coolest bar might just be Dandelyan in the Mondrian Hotel at Sea Containers, the second bar run by Ryan Chetiyawardana, who was named international bartender of the year for 2015 at Tales of the Cocktail. Not only does staying at the riverside Mondrian make it easy to stumble to bed after last call, but should you need a nightcap, minibars are stocked with some of the bar’s bottled cocktails. Rooms from $338, mondrianlondon.com.
The summer-only “gin safari” at family-owned luxury hotel The Goring – the closest hotel to Buckingham Palace, with royal guests to match – is more than just a place to sip your G&T. Guests can snack on gin-inspired bites and enjoy cocktails created by Hepple Gin in a garden planted with botanicals such as juniper, Douglas fir, lovage and blackcurrant. Rooms from $747; thegoring.com