City of London
In the name of full disclosure, this review is a complete rewrite of City of London Gin, as since the original article was written in 2012 (and updated in October 2013), so much change and evolution has occurred (both of the gin, the distillery and the team) that simple updates were no longer an option. So, here goes for version 3…
It would seem that after a slow and somewhat controversial start, The City of London Distillery – or COLD for short – is gaining traction and is on course to finally becoming the ‘Gin Mecca’ it promised to be before it launched.
Located on Fleet Street, the COLD site is at the heart of the area where many of the now famous gin distilleries had their humble beginnings (and equally, where the depravity of the last Gin Craze was at its most obscene). Over 1,700 stills were said to be in use in the capital during the 1700’s Craze, which ultimately lead to the 8 Gin Acts that ensued, trying to curb the heavy gin consumption causing so much of the decay of London’s working class.
Now in a very different era, yet one with an unquenchable thirst for gin, COLD has opened up in the right place at the right time. Not just a production site, they have managed to combine a distillery, a make your own gin experience, a bar that’s worth spending some time in and which – three years on – is becoming an established “destination venue” for gin fans.
Baxter, who has extensive drinks industry experience (having been involved in the early days of Chase Distillery), and who is rightly considered to be a very knowledgeable master distiller, at his best advising, installing and kickstarting new ideas into life – was the ideal partner when the project started. Baxter was brought on primarily to help install the stills, get the site running and to create the gin’s profile. Having played his part – he moved on (in December 2013) to work on a new project at Exigo Brewing and Distilling in Leicestershire, leaving Jonathan to take on the distilling as well as managing the distillery operations.
At this point in their history, the distillery had released their flagship gin, which was both respectable and well made, but which didn’t really stand out. There was nothing particularly wrong with the flavours, nor was there anything very memorable about them either. There was no real defining factor separating it from the other dozens of classically styled gins that were (and still are) available already. As a result, both the gin and the distillery ticked over, but neither were making headline news nor any real headway in terms of volume sold or consumer traction.
While Jonathan is not a trained distiller and it took a while for him to gain the confidence and expertise to fully flourish at the helm – he is a good learner. More importantly, underneath a direct facade that can seem (at times very) abrupt – he was humble enough to acknowledge that there was room for improvement and that a change wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. He set about seeking advice from others in the industry, notably Thames Distiller Charles Maxwell and former Tanqueray Distiller Tom Nichol to fine tune the COLD offering.
Learning, adapting and heeding their advice, the new look City of London Gin range emerged one expression at a time into what it is today a 5 strong range (plus a few others made bespoke for bars – which we’ll cover separately below).
Not many aspects of the original recipe have remained and there are signs in each of the gins that the advice has been implemented. Most notably, Nichol’s love of a slightly higher dose of liquorice root is apparent through out, so too is an emphasis on mouthfeel, so often talked about by Desmond Payne. Even the way they distilled was altered, for example moving from having an overnight maceration period towards simply placing the botanicals in the stills and beginning the distillation process soon after.
The City of London Gin range to taste:
City of London No.1 Gin
As we have understood it, City of London No.1 Gin is supposed to be a classic, almost introductory gin, ideal for a house pour. Using juniper, coriander, angelica, liquorice, fresh orange, lemon and pink grapefruit in the mix, it is made in batches of around 280 bottles, (one shot process for those of you who always email in to ask) at a strength 41.3% ABV.
It’s classic London Dry, with a resinous juniper and plenty of coriander seed to boot. The citrus is clear but not dominant, so too is the liquorice root. Much like their original offering from 2013 (we feel that it is better than the original due to a fuller mouthfeel), this is decent gin, that will please many and makes for a lovely G&T (lemon wheel would be our garnish suggestion here, but a wedge of pink grapefruit also works well). That said, it’s nothing to get overly giddy over either. Think of it as a workhorse – it is more about function than style, and in a Negroni and in various punches, it delivered the required dose each time.
City of London No.2 Gin (aka Christopher Wren Gin)
Arguably, this is the gin that changed it all for the distillery. Made in partnership with former Tanqueray master distiller Tom Nichol, it was while making this gin that owner Jonathan Clark decided to alter other aspects of his process for other gins. Moreover, it has served as a calling card to re-introduce the distillery to many that may have previously written it off, with both the high profile collaboration and the spirit itself gaining a lot of positive interest, that has helped recalibrate perceptions around the COLD offering within the trade.
For those who didn’t know – Sir Christopher Wren, is one of the most highly acclaimed English architects in history, with his most famous masterpiece being St Paul’s Cathedral. Given the illustration of the cathedral had been a part of the brand’s packaging from the start and the iconic building sits nearby, the name was chosen as a nod to the distillery’s location.
Using 5 botanicals (juniper, coriander seed, angelica, liquorice root and sweet orange) and bottled at 45.3% ABV – it’s easy to see the maker’s finger print on this one. Anyone who has enjoyed Tanqueray Malacca or Tanqueray Old Tom will be able to see parallels between the gins too. They are not too similar, but there is a clear cross-over. Soft on the nose, there is a big caramelised orange upfront, giving way to earthier juniper and angelica. The Liquorice root works miracles extending the depth of flavour and length of finish too.
Sold at £42 it’s more expensive than many gins out there, but rest assured this is worth the tag. It takes a lot to get us raving about a classic London Dry Gin as there are many on the market. This is one one of those which are a cut above the rest. The flavours are expertly integrated and carry beautifully when mixed. It’s hard to fault it and those who love a ginny gin will no doubt agree, Christopher Wren Gin fast becomes a permanent, and often renewed, addition for the drinks cabinet.
City of London No.3 Gin (Old Tom Gin)
This Old Tom is a classic interpretation of the type of flavours associated with the sub-catergory. With the core three botanicals taking place centre stage (juniper, coriander seed and angelica), lemon and bitter orange peel give a big burst of citrus while cardamom, cassia and other botanicals what we think might be either nutmeg or cubebs underpin proceedings.
For those looking for a quintessential Old Tom Gin, this should certainly be in the mix. Botanically intense and sweetened, it delivers what it sets out to and a great gin for cocktails like a Martinez or a modern take on a Bees Knees.
City of London No.4 Gin (Sloe Gin)
Not overtly sweet, COLD’s Sloe Gin has a ripe fruit and nutty nose. There is a fruity heart big booming sloe flavours to taste, with pine and other underlying classic London Dry Gin flavours (they use their N01 as the base). The slightly lesser dose of sugar delivers a ripe and aromatic experience, rather than being cloying.
City of London No.5 Gin (Square Mile Gin)
Last but certainly not least – this is was a gin developed alongside the careful guidance of legendary Thames Distillery distiller Charles Maxwell. With juniper, coriander seed, orris root and angelica accentuated by lemon, orange and grapefruit amongst others.
More herbaceous than their other gins and with a large dose of coriander seed, we found the Square Mile Gin to be the smoothest in the offering, despite being a higher proof of 47.3% ABV. While the final botanical recipe remains undisclosed, we think that the herbal note, so prominent to taste and a favoured ingredient by Maxwell (and adding a delicious yet fresh taste) is the savory plant. Whatever it is, it helps make the gin’s flavour journey flow from one top note to the next and integrates well behind a prominent juniper.
Much like the Christopher Wren, this is also a special gin to say the least. In our opinion, Square Mile Gin is a Martini gin through and through and for those who like a Dry Martini served with an olive, look no further.
So where are they now and what to expect next?
As well as their own range, COLD are making some exclusive gins for the likes of the Dorchester Hotel and have a few big name partnerships in the works for 2017, as well as continuing with their current bespoke offerings. It’s exciting to see that they are growing this side of the business – the Dorchester Old Tom for example is both a delicious gin and adds an intriguing layer to all involved (and a pricey Martini if you want to try it at the hotel…).
It’s great to see the entire range transition into custom made bottles too, having moved the identity into one consistent look, as well as moved on from the controversial (and confusing) early days, where their packaging looked almost identical to a couple of already existing gins…
A particularly nice touch is how St Paul’s Cathedral is referenced in the shape of the bottle. The unique look helps the gins stand out both in back bars and supermarket aisles alike – while also reinforcing their provenance.
While we’ll not go into all of the details of the early days and the “problems” that occurred – with 36,000 of you logging in from the US and outside of the UK each month and often citing us as a reference, we’d be amiss if we didn’t point out that the City of London Gin that you might have seen around in the US, Spain, and in stores across Scandinavia to date is probably not this one.
The City of London Gin was an existing product made by Burlington Distillery for export markets only. It still sells well in many places across the world and we’ll cover that gin and review it in a separate article about them shortly. To answer the question regarding there being two gins with the exact same name… suffice it to say – you can’t trade mark a geographic location and stop someone based there from making a gin with their actual location written on the label, even though your gin is well established as a brand. This seems fair, however, it wasn’t right to pick an almost identical aesthetic to launch with and to opt for such a provocative stance when at the time, the gin was decisively average. With mistakes acknowledged, the distillery has moved on and so will we. For anyone still confused as to which is which – look at the bottle shape. If it’s not the one in the images here, it wasn’t made by COLD.
City of London Distillery as a destination has long been a strong point for the team. The bar staff are increasingly knowledgeable, (although understandably, the offering is heavily COLD focused!) and are able to transmit that knowledge across, while the distillery’s accessibility makes it a mecca for all gin fans to visit it.
It has state-of-the-art Christian Carl stills divided off from the bar by giant sheets of toughened glass that are strong enough to sustain a gin-fuelled inferno (should the worst happen) and the bar area is large enough to accommodate up to 100 guests. Other than the gin being served, the presence of the stills looming large over the room are probably the distillery’s biggest asset. On display to all who enter the bar, the COLD stills are a beauty to look at and with the production so visible, it is the best way for fans to learn about the process of making gin. It certainly makes a memorable setting for a drink too.
If you are looking to visit, COLD also puts on ‘Gin Experiences’ that are well worth your attention. Starting with a distillery tour and a gin and tonic, the experience continues into the gin lab where you will get to create and personalise your own gin and take it home. Fun, informative and the right kind of geeky – they have been packed out since the experience was made available.
Both as a team and a distillery, COLD has evolved since its launch. It takes a lot to acknowledge that things aren’t working, get in heavyweight advice on how to fix it and have the courage to act upon that. It was a mess of their own making, but we have a huge respect for them turning it around and putting together a solid gin range, with a couple of genuinely remarkable expressions in the line up.
With UK distribution now in the safe hands of Spirit Cartel who will no doubt increase the profile hugely in the year to come and help grow sales, it seems that maybe, this could be the fresh start and continued patch of progress that they needed to flourish long term. We’ll keep you updated as they progress.
For more information about City of London Gin, visit their website: www.cityoflondondistillery.com
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