Tucked away in a basement just off Fleet Street, the City of London Gin Distillery is easy to miss, but well worth seeking out.
Accessed by a small staircase next to a Sam Smith’s pub, the entrance is low key, but the bar and distillery rooms themselves are expansive, featuring low-lit corners, comfy high-backed chairs and a ‘turn of the century gentleman’s club’ vibe that has a touch of class but avoids being stuffy.
We arrived a little early for our tour, and were treated to a complimentary G&T while waiting for the other guests to arrive. Once we finished these off we were greeted by our tour guide Alfie, plied with another cocktail, and ushered into the brightly-lit distillery room at the rear of the bar.
The whole operation was actually much smaller than I expected. Neat alcohol is bought in from Birmingham, then added to two copper stills (named ‘Clarissa’ and ‘Jennifer’, after the curvaceous TV gourmands who were known to be fond of a beverage or two), first for refinement, and then flavouring.
It’s here that things get interesting, as our guide took us through each step of the process, including how stills had developed over the years, the origins of the drink itself, and lots of interesting pub-quiz facts along the way. For instance, gin was originally designed to mimic the Dutch drink Jenever (still popular today) which was served to the Dutch Navy. British sailors at the time got a couple of pints of beer a day, while the Dutch received Jenever.
As you can imagine, a navy functioning on two pints of gin a day wasn’t particularly efficient, but it did have a somewhat laissez-faire attitude to battle, which gave us the phrase ‘Dutch Courage’.
We’re also taken through through the history of Gin Alley, ‘mother’s ruin’ and the differences between wet and dry gins. It’s all to do with when and how the botanicals are added. A gin like Hendricks for example, while delicious, cannot add delicate ingredients like cucumber and rose directly, so instead it’s infused with these essences in the mix, and therefore becomes a ‘wet’ gin. We also cover Old Tom (basically sugar added, a result of the illegal gin-trade during the 17th century), Sloe gins and more.
And then we got to drink them all…
The tasting is a lot of fun, with five interesting variations laid out to try. We’re also taken through the history of the distillery itself, and told that it sits 547 steps away from St. Pauls. It is 548 steps from the bottom of St. Paul’s to the top, so next time you are in the area you can choose between an arduous climb, or a gentle stroll followed by some top-notch booze.
It’s a fun tour, good value for money at around an hour and a half in length, and unlike some others, City are definitely not stingy with the drinks (a couple of our fellow tour-takers failed to materialise on the night, so we also got to polish off a couple of their testing glasses).
The Distillery is a great bar to visit in general, and if you fancy learning a bit while you get thoroughly squiffy, then this comes highly recommended. Book in advance though – the weekend sessions fill up quickly.