Sometimes the most delicious things emerge from the most unlikely places. Fortnum’s London Dry Gin, for example, has the divine taste of wild Seville oranges, blended with an intriguing mixture of botanicals, and yet its birthplace is a small industrial unit just off Clapham High Street in south London.
In this distinctly unglamorous location sits Thames Distillers, an independent distillery that specialises in small runs and bespoke products. At present, it is the only independent distillery in London that distils, blends and bottles its gin on site, which gives it complete control over the whole process. It also has a considerable pedigree; it is owned and run by master distiller Charles Maxwell, whose family has been in the distillery business since 1688 - which means that Charles can bring more than 300 years of accumulated experience to his work, not to mention some unique family recipes.
Designed to fit
Thames Distillery likes to think of itself as a bespoke distillery, serving the different needs of many customers, each with a specific requirement. ‘We work like a London tailor,’ agrees Charles. ‘We do as little or as much as the customer wants. We can make something from scratch or just provide part of the service.’ This could mean creating a unique recipe, producing an existing recipe or just bottling and labelling in short or long runs – whatever the customer needs.
The small team of a dozen or people now produces around 35 different gins. ‘Because of the way we’re set up means we can create smaller products,’ says Charles. Indeed, they have one of the smallest production lines one can imagine – no need for vast quantities here, just to make it worth starting up the machinery. The product can be as limited and specialised as the customer wants, which suited Fortnum’s perfectly.
Before Fortnum’s London Dry gin was invented, Fortnum’s was already a customer here, buying superior gin from this artisan producer. But one good idea usually leads to another, and before long Fortnum’s wine-buyer, Tim French, began discussing the idea of a bespoke gin for Fortnum’s, which would carry a unique and recognisable ingredient. Tim explains: ‘We chose to use wild Seville oranges as a main botanical because it is such a quintessential Fortnum’s ingredient. The piquancy of the orange peel also worked very well for the richer, spicier style of gin that we wanted to produce, which is characteristic of the traditional London Gin style.’ The Thames team set to work in their laboratory to create and test the recipe. ‘We had four or five trials to get the recipe right,’ says Charles, ‘and then were ready to replicate it in the stills.’
Fortnum’s recipe is a closely guarded secret, but includes juniper, coriander and Seville orange peel, which is fresh, sharp and bitter. Juniper is the key ingredient and must always be present in gin. (The word gin is derived from genever, the Dutch word for juniper; the very first gin was a simple mixture of grain spirit and oil of juniper.) ‘We work to one rule – the juniper must be predominant, but after that you can have fun playing with lots of other ingredients,’ Charles explains.
Distilling the gin
In a small room behind Thames Distillers’ bottling plant stand two stills called Tom Thumb and Thumbelina, very appropriate names for this small-scale outfit. They have a pleasingly old-fashioned air with a touch of Heath Robinson, although they are quite simply constructed ¬- a large container with a conical top, out of which sprouts a pipe with a sharp bend along its length. Each is a 500-litre still and will produce 200 litres of high-strength distilled gin.
First, the botanicals and the raw grain spirit (which is largely made from wheat) are mixed with water in the stills. The mixture is left overnight to macerate and then the boilers are turned on to heat up the stills. The temperature is kept around 76C, rather than at boiling point, so as not to scald the delicate botanicals. As the alcoholic vapours rise, they hit the bends in the pipe, cool, condense and are collected in a tank. The essences of the botanicals are carried in the vapours, and the flavour intensifies as the distillation continues. Five or six hours later, you have a tank full of subtly flavoured, high-strength gin.
‘Customers can choose what final strength they want, and Tim chose 43%, as he felt it would retain more character,’ explains Charles. ‘Between 40% and 43% is where many of the best gins can be found, although some customers do like to specify higher strengths.’
Once the distilling has been done, the distillers wait about two weeks and then embark on the key process of blending. They take the high-strength distilled gin, blend it back into some of the raw grain spirit and add water. That process is what earns it the appellation of ‘London Dry gin’ – it means that nothing but water is added to the distilled spirit and botanicals. The gin is tasted by a panel of tasters, who taste the high-strength gin from the stills as well as the final blend, and then it is bottled, corked and labelled.
The finished product is quintessentially Fortnum’s; made to a bespoke recipe by a small and experienced producer, with a classic Fortnum’s ingredient at its heart. The bottle is decorated with an evocative old map, depicting Piccadilly in the mid-18th century, a nod to the producer’s, and Fortnum’s, long history. Finely balanced with subtle flavouring, it is a superb example of the distiller’s art – and the perfect base for a first-class G&T.