That gin in your post-Thursday work G&T (how did we guess?) is dry and delicious but it’s also about as different as rum is to whisky compared to how gin used to taste. Our modern palate certainly wouldn’t recognise the spirit once dubbed ‘mother’s ruin’ which was poured from every London gin palace, bathtub and tankard. But apart from the elements that made a lot of that liquid addictive and poisonous (hello methanol) the stuff that was safe to drink had a key difference to today's gin - and that's all to do with the base spirit.
"Apart from the juniper, pretty much everything else has changed from how gin was in its earliest incarnation," said Jake Burger, The Distillery's Master Distiller, at his dinner to launch the bar's new Old Tom. "We [the English] were trying to replicate a Dutch drink called Genever, but whilst the Dutch were doing things in what we might call the 'proper' way today, the English were more concerned with minimising effort and maximising profit."
By that Jake means that the Dutch distillers literally distilled their own spirit from grain and redistilled it with botanicals, finally sweetening the end result with a little Malet wine. It was good quality stuff on the most part that tasted pretty delicious. Over in ol' Blighty however, we were looking for shortcuts (Jake jokes, although that even the thought of harvesting botancials was inconvenient for the English) and so most of our distillers didn't even make their base spirit, rather they bought it in from large distilleries who went for speed not quality and then used oils and salts to flavour it. Yep, pretty awful.
This didn't deter anyone from drinking it though, especially in the poorer areas of society. "Imagine every single newsagent, store, supermarket and street vendor in central London turning their hand to selling gin. Then imagine that its cheaper than bread or milk and that anyone can buy it, violent drunks, the elderly and infirm, children. Finally imagine that it's not only highly addictive, but poisonous, laced with added flavour enhancing properties that when consumed in large quantities cause blindness, death or the loss of one's mind," writes Tristan Stevenson in his book The Curious Bartenders Gin Palace.
But then came the Industrial Revolution and with it more professional distilleries. "Companies," says Jake, " that would change the face of gin and go on to dominate the market for years to come." He's talking about outfits such as Boords which started production in 1726, Nicholsons from 1736 and the famous Gordons in 1769 followed by Coates, now known as Plymouth, in 1793. How did they change the face of gin? By making it properly with a good base spirit and using actual botanicals for flavour. This was no bathtub operation.
The gin these brands would have initally started producing is a style you can't taste anymore, called Old Tom, which was sweeter but was also based on an entirely different-tasting spirit. And while quite a few brands have released Old Toms, we'll explain why they're not faithful reproductions of the original - it's all to do with the type of still.
In 1830 the column still, also known as a continuous still, was brought into play. Before this all alcohol was made with alembic stills which could only get spirits up to 70% ABV, allowing for plenty of flavour particles to still exisit within the liquid. The column still changed this, getting the spirit as close as possible to 100% alcohol meaning those grainy, yeasty, cereal notes were left behind. Old Tom made around the 1780s, when it was still being made properly but not in a column still would have had those grainy notes as well as juniper and sweetness. Old Tom made after the introduction of the column still was very different.
"The column still ended one of the main reasons that the distillers would add juniper and the other botanicals to the spirit, trying to mask the flavour of it, and that's why they would also add sugar - to try and make it more palatable," says Jake.
What does all this mean? Well the Old Tom that has been avaliable to buy up until now is closer to what this style would have been post 1850. It didn't take long for the column still to pretty much kill off sweet gin anyway, once you started with a neutral spirit the botanicals became increasingly prominent and important and instead of being masked by sugar they were used for their own individual flavours, aromas and beauty - all leading to the style we drink today, London Dry Gin.
Jake and his team at Portobello Road gin have narrowed in on that brief spot in British history when the old style of still and spirit was being used but it was done by those who knew what they were creating and who understood proper use of botanicals. Using their 400 litre alembic copper still King Henry, The Distillery team are using a pot-distilled barley spirit distilled up to about 70% (think of it like an unaged scotch whisky) which they then redistill with juniper, coriander seed and liquorice, before adding a little sugar and a little spice. Left to rest in very old sherry barrels above the bar in The Distillery’s Resting Room, the spirit takes on no flavour from the wood but rather mellows and rests. It's a style that is completely unique to that time and utterly delicious both as a cocktail ingredient or served long with tonic - but not as your traditional G&T. "This is the gin we have tried to recreate, how we think high quality English gin would’ve tasted around about 1780-1830," he says.
If you're keen to sip as your forefathers would then you can enjoy The Distillery's Old Tom in their bars. We'd highly recommend it, mostly down to taste, but also just to see what all the fuss was about when gin truly did Rule Britannia.