Make Gin…Make History
Located what feels half way between Bethnal Green (head down the Roman Road from Bethnal Green station) and Stratford, lies a an object of historical importance. And a building that creates alcohol. It is, in fact, the first distillery producing whisky, gin and vodka north of The River in over a century.
A disproportionate interest in booze, combined with a healthy interest in history means that I am destined to go down and find out all about it for you.
The East London Liquor Co. lives in Bow Wharf. It doesn’t look at all what I expect it to look like and also turns out they have a bar, which I also don’t expect (but in retrospect makes perfect commercial sense) – which means you can go there and drink a mix of their stuff and other people’s stuff!
Adjacent to a gym and an investment group, said bar is stacked high with a variety of rare and expensive boozes of many varieties (though the freshly printed A4 menu doesn’t give much away). I am here in the middle of the day, so it could very well be a matter of (bad) timing – which is my thing right now.
Getting lost whilst showing up early is my thing
Continuing with my recent disturbing trend of showing up completely at the wrong time for fucking everything, I appear 90 minutes early to a place that is on the whole, pretty empty. I get a glass of icy water from the barlady with the perpetual smirk (my theory is that she is laughing at my attempt to grow facial hair) and go on take a few shots of the venue, which, like many other venues, is very keen on filament lamps…
Then I sit and watch a variety of thin men in white shirts eating sandwiches – playing a silent game of ‘guess who actually works at the distillery and which of them is the distillery founder’.
I lose the game completely when none of them turn out to be the founder. The man I need to be talking to is Alex Wolpert, a guy who knows all about booze. He appears behind me as I sit there staring into a laptop (the first impression that a lot of people probably get of me)
Alex introduces himself and this rapidly becomes another opportunity for me to learn about alcohol making – bringing me closer to my not-sure-if-serious (why so serious?) goal of opening a sake microbrewery in the near future :3
Meet Alex Wolpert
Alex is a self professed ‘spirit geek’, founder and effective brand ambassador for ELLC (but doesn’t seem all the keen on titles). He has an Eastern look to him, short cut, receding hair, and flecks of white in his beard. He has the air of a guy who runs shit but looks pretty laid back today in a grey polo shirt
Alex does a lot of stuff – he got his start waitering at Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen 8 years ago, and he’s now involved with Barworks, the guys behind 5CC and a fair few other fine drinking establishments dotted about London. He’s shifted 95% of his energy to ELLC, though still serving on Barworks’ board. I think he’s an actor and scriptwriter as well, but I could be wrong…
They got the keys for their current site just this January and since then haven’t stopped building this thing, I mean this both physically (he’s directing electricians who are setting up new cabling in the distillery), and metaphorically (getting out there and telling bar professionals all about it).
Why here then? Well, Alex chose Bow Wharf having been an East Londoner for 14-15 years now. It was a pub before they moved in, and in their current he decided to compromise on space (there’s not that much of it) for a central spot (the bustle of the city is within easy reach of public transport).
What’s going on?
What do they make here then? 3 gins, one whiskey and a vodka. They also import a rum from Guyana – apparently EU regulations mean that you can’t officially call something a ‘rum’ that’s not been produced in a country that grows sugarcane.
They’ve got Jamie Baxter in as their Master Distiller, previously of the City Of London distillery and a guy who essentially helps people with the capital and resources to start up distilleries. Jamie basically interprets what Alex is looking for in a drink, combines it with his masterful knowledge of spirit making, and following some trial and error, there arrives the final product.
I ask if there’s a marketing strategy that they’re following. Apparently not – “I don’t have a grand marketing plan – I’m going for organic growth”. Alex seems kinda laid back about that aspect, though if their progress so far is anything to go by, he’s clearly been putting in the hours.
Most of it is done onsite, neutral white grain spirit is imported in and then redestilled for gin and vodka. The top capacity estimated at 16000 bottles a month and they also make their own liqueurs onsite at the bar (which I am told is a little easier than distilling).
Whiskey is a little more troublesome. They have a maturation room downstairs – beerwash – which is unhopped lager, goes downstairs and is eventually distilled into whiskey. Alex’s thoughts on having to wait around 5 years before they can sell their whiskey? “If I wanted money in a hurry I wouldn’t be in this business”
Of the 3 different gins, all are dry and one is London dry. ABVs are 40% for the London Dry Gin, Small Batch Vodka, and Demerara Rum. The Premium gins are a little stronger, with Batch 1 at 45% and Batch 2 at 47%
The distillery itself is fascinating if you like to learn where your hooch comes from. They have their own gas line which goes straight into their boiler, which is used for the stills. For the gin, everything is steeped in the pot, with nothing added afterwards. They use British wheat grain in the spirit, which whilst being more expensive – is an expense Alex is happy to pay.
They’re also building a distributorship business – working alongside smaller and craft distilleries all over the world. From here Alex goes on to tell me that the American craft distilling scene is about 10 years ahead of ours – partly because they have a lot more space for equipment in their distilleries!
He also tells me that there’s a Californian distillery, St. George Spirits that even made Shochu at one point – is anyone making it around here I wonder? Alex doesn’t know of anyone…
I ask about his ‘drinks philosophy’.“If it’s too expensive to drink, it’s too expensive to buy” Alex believes in collecting to drink, not collecting to trade – and he does. Infact, a lot of the beautiful and rare bottles behind the bar were brought here straight from his flat.
We have a chat about how people often mistake scarcity for quality in the valuation of drinks. For example, The Macallan 1937, which I have seen on ‘sale’ for £17,000 a bottle, surely cannot be 10,000 times better than your average bottle of £17 whiskey. If it were, wouldn’t the experience of drinking short-circuit your brain with sensation? Like taking a massive, massive hit of LSD or something?
On this point, most of the ELLC’s offerings are under £20 wholesale (and free of psychoactive compounds) with their premium gin priced a little higher.
The smaller stills at ELLC allow them to try shorter runs, and more experimental stuff. Apparently they could theoretically do a short run of 650 at a go, which Alex says wouldn’t be too hard to shift that kind of inventory to curious bartenders and the like. Seems legit, since the guy probably knows half the industry by first name at this point.
What’s it like launching a new spirit then? Apparently easier selling on your own product to bars – the logical development of that old sales truism ‘you can’t sell what you’re not sold on’.
In parting, I asked for Alex’s advice on how to kick backside in the food and drink business:
“Hard work , persistence and a healthy supply of Negronis.”