Once run out of the capital, gin is coming home.
London was awash with gin in the mid-17th century, with hundreds of backyard distilleries quenching the city's thirst. But by the 1990s, the only gin distiller left in London was Beefeater, operating since the 1860s. Then, in 2009, Sipsmith Independent Distillers opened the city's first new gin distilling operation in almost 200 years, and attracted a raft of competitors: City of London Dry Gin; Dodd's Gin at Battersea; Portobello Road Gin; and the tiny vacuum distillery Sacred Gin at Highgate. Specialist gin bars, clubs and pop-up venues followed, such as Searcys' Gin Joint at the Barbican, which treats its post-theatre crowd to more than 30 gins, including chilled Broker's on tap.
In May the East London Liquor Company opened a bar and distillery in an old glue factory in the East End, producing three variants of the spirit as well as a whisky and vodka. Before opening there the company's master distiller, Jamie Baxter, kicked off operations at City of London Distillery, a bar in London's City district, which claims to have the world's largest collection of gins at its bar.
The city's gin revival has been boosted by changing palates and fashions, and also takes inspiration from the American explosion in micro-distilling. Even so, launching Sipsmith Independent Distillers in London wasn't straightforward. "Part of the reason that Sipsmith took so long to get off the ground," says distiller Chris Garden, "is that even the government didn't know how to license a gin distillery any more." The fledgling operation had to navigate a raft of arcane laws and regulations, dating from a time when authorities were trying to drive "mother's ruin" from the capital.
The bigger names in gin are starting to respond to renewed grassroots interest, too. In May Beefeater opened a distillery visitors' centre in Kennington, complete with museum, tours and tastings. And this month Bombay Sapphire opens a distillery and visitors' centre at Laverstoke Mill in Hampshire. Sited in an old paper mill partly powered by the flow of the River Test, it looks onto two glasshouses full of the 10 plants that give the spirit its distinctive flavour.
East London Liquor Company opens daily noon-11.30pm, Unit GF1, 221 Grove Rd, Bow Wharf E3 5SN.
Sipsmith Distillery, 27 Nasmyth St, London W6 OHA.