It’s hard to know precisely what a distillery looks like these days, but I’m not expecting one that shares a building with a boxing gym, an Islamic Arts Centre, a cinema, and a bar. The blue neon sign declaring “The London Distillery” looks like some post-modern irony rather than a working plant. Outside, the muddy coffee waters of the Thames flow under Albert Bridge. Not, as I said, the location you think of when talking whisky.
In the tiled, high-ceilinged main room is a highly burnished, 650 liter copper pot called Matilda, built to the firm’s specifications by Christian Carl. At the other end of the room is the mash tun and stainless steel fermenters. Most excitingly, there’s clear spirit running into the large receiving vessel.
Although in the 18th and 19th century the Thames and its tributaries were home to many substantial distilleries, the last dedicated whisky plant, Lea Valley, closed at the start of the 20th century. The notion of English whisky laid dormant for over a century, that of London whisky even longer. This is a significant event: whisky making returning to London after 100 years.
This is a chance for CEO Darren Rook and distiller Andrew MacLeod Smith to start creating a London style. It also indicates a relaxing of the attitude of the UK Excise, who had to have their own regulations quoted back at them in order for Rook and his team to be granted their license to distil spirits (rather than the license to rectify granted to gin distillers). Distilling whisky in the capital is a symbolic moment in the development of a national English whisky industry.
The way they are approaching it is hearteningly forensic. That trickle of clearic in the vat is the first runnings, not an end product. The next few months will be a period of assessment of the options open to them, “to find what excites us,” as Rook says.
Barley strains (brought in as grist) will be looked at as will yeast strains. “The idea is to use yeasts which have historically been used by London brewers,” says Rook. “At the moment we are trialing Young’s and an old Whitbread one. We’re working through the decades to discover which strain works best for which style.”
Matilda is equally flexible. The vapor can be run through a condenser, or diverted to a copper rectifying column should they wish to distil in a single pass. The plates in the column can also be removed, effectively extending the length of the lyne arm. At the moment, though, double distillation is being used, with the heads being returned to the next batch of wash and the tails into the second distillation.
Each distillation, handily enough, will give sufficient spirit for one standard cask; there’s no sign of quick-fix, small cask maturation being used. “It will be ready when we think it’s ready,” says Rook. “If that’s 25 years, then so be it!” He then floats the idea that chestnut casks might be trialed along with new oak, should they make a rye and corn-based whisky. Options open.
Consultant distiller John McDougall smiles. “Anyone can build a distillery,” he says, “it’s making it different that’s the tricky bit.”