Gin, with its fresh, herbaceous, juniper-laced palate and bold boozy kick is the modern day catnip for Brits. It’s definitely my liquid of choice and the same goes for half the UK population it would seem these days. We can’t get enough of the stuff.
Which is why, when the guys behind Portobello Road Gin and The Ginstitute announced they’d be building a new, four floor venue, inclusive of a working distillery and hotel, all dedicated to everything juniper in the very heart of the world famous Portobello Road, I was just a tinsy bit excited (read: immediately attempted to pull every string known to man to get me in before they’d even started building the place. Don’t judge).
Luckily, once the place was up and running, it also happened to coincide with my parent’s 30th wedding anniversary, and what better way to celebrate than to take part in the Payne Family favourite pastime - drinking gin – at the Gin Hotel, a term quickly coined by the UK national press in the weeks following the launch. It’s moments such as this, gathering the whole family at the latest London opening to quaff gin, that yet again proves to my parents that committing the last nine years of my career to a very different bar than the one they had foreseen me at was in fact a good move.
So, bags packed, and with the privilege of being amongst the very first guests to stay the night at this three-bedroom hotel, bar, restaurant and gin experience - off the 6 of us went to Notting Hill for a night at The Distillery.
Gin Tonica on the first floor
Before we even saw the pictures, I knew that The Distillery would be beautiful. The team here is behind half of the best venues in Leeds, including Jake’s Bar, Cielo Blanco and Oporto, as well as one of my very favourite bars, The Portobello Star in Notting Hill – essentially, these guys know what they are doing.
The experience begins before you even walk in. Towering above you as you walk down Portobello Road is the (what will no doubt become iconic) huge, hand-painted blue, gold and red sign above the door of The Distillery. Stepping over the threshold, the golden floor tiles read “The Distillery”, and the heavy door leads us into the little reception area where a very welcoming host awaits to meet us.
Wasting no time, our first port of call while they finished getting our rooms ready was to head downstairs to the gin history room for an in-depth history of gin to kick off our experience at The Ginstitute.
For £110 per person, you can learn the history of gin from inside the stunning on-site Gin Museum, head to the gin lab where you’ll become familiar with all the various distillates that go into making a delicious gin, and then – this being the best part – blend your very own gin to take away. Of course this isn’t exactly a dry experience, and you’ll be merrily topped up with tasty delicious gin cocktails throughout the experience.
The Ginstitute isn’t a new initiative for The Distillery – it was launched in 2012 and has been running daily since from above The Portobello Star, just one block down the road. However, having outgrown that tiny space and moved into The Distillery, sessions now take place alongside working stills and an entire gin cellar which has certainly amplified how wonderful the experience is.
The 1888 Martini
At the end of our wonderful two hour gin blending session, our very knowledgeable Gin Instructors Derek and Jake picked their favourite of our spirits. When everyone agreed that my juniper-heavy gin was far better than my brother’s I knew for certain it was going to be a good night. Some rivalries never end.
Before being invited to our rooms, one of our enthusiastic bartenders gave us a little background about what we could expect to find in our fridge – three pre-bottled cocktails, or if we fancied getting creative ourselves, there was a full bar kit, bottle of gin, glassware and ice on demand.
Upstairs our beautiful rooms awaited us. Stunningly design-led with a subtle 60s, retro feel, all the small details had been attended to including fragrant fresh flowers on the window sill, all overlooking the bustling Portobello Road market. The bar kit turned out to be made of a lovely shiny copper and cut crystal glass which just begged to have pre-pre-dinner Negroni poured out from the fridge. Rude not to right? We immediately put a Bowie vinyl on the record player and enjoyed our drinks before dragging ourselves away from the promise of the bottled martini in the fridge...it was time to continue our evening.
There is something quite charming about doing a bar crawl in one building, and whilst we were booked for dinner in The Resting Room on the ground floor, we felt it necessary to indulge in a few drinks and pre-dinner snacks in Gin Tonica on the first floor. This striking room has a small gin bar tucked into one corner, opposite an open kitchen, all lit by floor to ceiling windows letting in an incredible amount of natural light.
Gin Tonica celebrates the European tradition of drinking gin and tonic from Copa de Balon glasses. There are two reasons to be pleased about this, firstly the name of this glass literally translates as a balloon glass meaning these gin and tonics are huge, almost as big as your head. Which is delightful glug of tasty gin. Secondly, and a far more serious reason, is that this shape of the glass enhances the flavours of the botanicals in the gin and gives the expert bartender more space to play around with the garnish. Whilst some might argue that it is a fool’s game to play with the perfection of a simple gin and tonic, since visiting Gin Tonica I would wholeheartedly disagree. As well as the straight-up G&T, albeit with option of a number of different tonics and different garnishes, there is a page dedicated to the “Gin and Tonic Plus” which also adds jams, liqueurs and extra bitters or fruits – designed to blur the line between the spirit mixer and cocktails. And if you really want to go all-out on the gin geekery front (this is a gin distillery, so chances are you will), the team have curated a list of 100 gins for you to work through.
A Copa de Balon glass in Gin Tonica
Alongside our pre-dinner gin and tonics we also had some light snacks, no bad thing considering the size of the drinks and mum really can’t put it away like she used to. Delicious buttery prawns alongside wonderfully salty patatas bravas and a plate of cured meats was the order of the day. I have since been back for a full dinner here (Research! Obviously!), and the Basque region-inspired tapas here rivals the very best I have tried both in London and abroad.
Downstairs to dinner, and you’re completely transported to what feels like a different venue. The Resting Room too boasts huge windows, yet the lighting down here is dimmer, the wood much darker and the atmosphere cosier – this is a place where many, many hours could be lost with friends and gin.
After the obligatory bottle of 30th anniversary celebratory champagne, we got to exploring The Resting Room’s wine list. Whilst I was expecting the very in-depth spirits list (more on that to come), the fantastic wine selection caught me somewhat off guard. I learned that beneath The Distillery lies a tiny-yet-incredible wine cellar, which we were later invited to explore, and all the wines available have been hand chosen by the CEO Ged Feltham. Luckily our fantastic bartenders were on hand to help us navigate the list and we ended up with an excellent Barolo to enjoy over dinner.
And what a dinner it was! We definitely ignored the advice of our wonderful waitress and over ordered but with little regret because the food was magnificent. Seasonal British small plates such as salt baked beetroot with quinoa, ox cheek cigars with barley risotto and butternut squash salad with feta cheese were followed by huge sharing platters of incredibly moist pork chops which had been marinated in – you guessed it – Gin for 24 hours. And don’t even get me started on the cheese plate.
Digestifs took the place of desert so we were able to yet again explore the drinks menu. One thing you can’t miss when you’re in The Resting Room is the barrels after which the bar was named, all resting imposingly over the bar. Within these barrels is a selection of spirits from around the world, mellowing and taking on deeper flavours and – so the same spirit you drank last week may taste entirely different if you went back in weeks to come.
These resting spirits are the only brand names you’ll recognise behind the bar at The Resting Room as the rest of the spirits menu is distilled and blended onsite. Alongside Portobello Road Gin you’ll find delights such as Horseradish and Rosemary Vodka, Distillery Yorkshire Tea Summer Cup and Distillery Celebrated Butter Gin, all also available to buy by the bottle in The Distillery bottle shop. Once again, the exceedingly hospitable bartenders helped us pick our drinks for the rest of the evening, and managed to deter us from drinking the tequila straight from the resting barrel.
Suddenly it was 1am, the bar was closing and it was time for bed – although not before that Martini nightcap which has sat patiently waiting for us in the fridge. When we awoke the next day the hazy heads were made slightly less terrible by the view out the window, down to the market traders of Portobello Road setting up shop, and the promise of a Red Snapper to brush away the cobwebs.
I think when conceptualising a new venue, you can tick a number of boxes that will get you the incredible press coverage, a waiting list and a busy bar. The Distillery ticks all those boxes with their well-designed space, a forward-thinking drinks list, a delicious seasonal food menu and their unique selling point of gin blending and distilling onsite. But it’s the warmth and loveliness of a good team that really seals the deal and keeps people coming back to a place, and The Distillery has that in spades. So I’ll be seeing you at the bar for another Portobello Road Gin and Tonic!