The history of Nicholson Gin is so vast as to be almost overwhelming, from its birth during the throes of the Gin Craze, to its dalliances with politics, its salvation of Lord’s and its emergence as the name behind one of the biggest pub brands England has ever seen. When the brand met its demise in the early 1980s (following Gin dipping to its lowest ebb in the 1970s), it seemed as though a very long story had come to a very short end. Thankfully, though, it was just on pause…
In June 2017, Tim Walker and Nick Browne, cousins and direct descendent of the original Nicholson tribe, re-launched Nicholson Gin, using the very same recipe created by their relatives all those years ago. With the story swirling back to life before our very eyes, we thought it wise to go back to the very beginning.
The first thought most of us have when we think of the Gin Craze of 18th Century London is of William Hogarth’s famous picture, Gin Lane. Drunken mothers and emaciated, long-past-revelry Londoner’s lie sprawled across the streets like spare parts. A man wrestles a dog for food, another skewer’s a baby, madness prevails. It was a dark take on the drink’s impact, but there was some truth to it; Gin was the drug of choice for those seeking to forget their plentiful woes, and unscrupulous street sellers were willing to risk inflicting blindness, or even death, upon their customers by pumping their liquids full of acid and turpentine to mimic the sensation of heat that they simply couldn’t muster in their rudimentary apparatus.
Gin Acts were introduced to try and control this blight, the first in 1729, the 2nd in 1733, the 3rd in 1736, the 4th in 1737 and the fifth in 1738. Amendments carried on for years – imposing taxes and fines on distillers and sellers to ensure good, or at the very least better, behaviour.
In the midst of all this, in around 1736, the Nicholson family joined the fray. Now – and forgive us, because this was already complicated and since been mercilessly preyed upon by the cobwebs of time – in 1731 the Nicholson family was joined to the Bowmans, an already well-established distilling family, when James Nicholson married Ann Bowman. Ann’s father, William Bowman, was distilling in Clerkenwell at the time, and it is thought that soon after the wedding, the families went into business together – hence the 1736 date, which appeared on the back of many historic bottles.
In 1802, James and Ann’s children, John and William Nicholson, joined forces with their cousin, distiller and brandy seller John Bowman, in 1802. They established yet another family partnership, Bowman & Nicholson. According to reports, John and William were from a Cumberland farming background, but they soon learnt the distilling ropes and in 1808 established their own business, J&W Nicholson & Co, in Woodbridge Street, Clerkenwell (this remained a partnership until 1893, wherein it was registered as a limited company).
By 1828, J&W Nicholson was doing well enough to have funded a huge new building for distilling, and over the next few years began to take over a great portion of the area surrounding their new premises at St John Street, including Hayward’s Place, in which houses that still stand today were built to house factory staff. The four room homes (which were built in 1834, quite before home sanitation was a thing) slept 10 at a time, which gives some indication as to the sheer size of the Nicholson operation by this time.
In 1824, William Nicholson Jr was born. The son of John, William Jr crammed a lot of careers into his eighty-four years. He was cricketer, a politician (twice), a High Sherriff and the director of J&W Nicholson, as well as the father of fourteen children (presumably having to break convention because of it as it seems only two names were allowed per family back then, William or John, making things confusing for anyone still following this story!).
William Jr played first class cricket from 1845 to 1869, most notably for Marylebone Cricket Club at Lord’s Cricket Ground. This ended up becoming a bit of a big deal… In 1866, MCC was in trouble. Lord’s was up for sale, and MCC didn’t have the funds to buy it. Luckily, William Jr stepped in, proposing to loan MCC enough to cover the freehold.
Now, there’s no concrete evidence to cite gratitude as the exact reason for what happened next, but MCC soon adopted red and yellow (affectionately known as bacon ‘n’ egg) stripes for their uniforms. Red and yellow just so happened to be Nicholson Gin’s colours, so there’s a widely held belief that this is no coincidence.
Three Mills Island is an artificial construct on the River Lea based in Bow, East London. The island has been around since the Middle Ages at least, though there is some suggestion that the mills also feature in the Domesday Book, which dates it as far back as the 11th Century. Hands changed often; in the 1530s the mills ground flour, in the 1580s gunpowder. In the 16th and 17th Centuries the mills started producing neat spirit, eventually becoming a vast supplier (or rather, given the mood, an enabler), to the London Gin scene, even creating the neat spirit from which Nicholson Distillery made its gin.
The island has fleeting mentions of Bowman connections through much of its history, including in 1763, when William Bowman Jr was a witness to the transfer deed of the site. Over a century later, in 1872, the Nicholson family purchased the distillery from the Mure family, and William Nicholson Jr set to work modernising the mills, expanding both milling and distillation at the site over the years. Although it was primarily used for the production of grain alcohol (which supplied not only the Nicholson distillery in Clerkenwell, but competitors as well), Nicholson Lamplighter Gin was also made at the site.
Lamplighter Gin was a different product to Nicholson Gin, although Walker and Browne, who tried both side by side as part of their research for the modern day iteration, struggled to discern much difference. In fairness to the now departed Nicholson chaps, though, the botanicals have faded with age so on taste alone, it would be difficult to know. Bottling the same gin under a different name certainly wasn’t unheard of, though; Nicholson also had a contract to make gin for the Houses of Parliament, which Walker and Browne suspect was Lamplighter. Talking to others whom have been involved with more modern contracting in the 1990’s – they too held the belief that all three products were the same.
J&W Nicholson took on its first pub accidentally, after a publican failed to pay his distillery bills. The estate grew throughout the 19th Century, acquiring ostentatious gin palaces until, in 1873, William Nicholson Jr established Nicholson Pubs as a separate entity. The pubs are now part of the Mitchell & Butlers Group, and still make reference both to their founder and their link with the Gin industry.
Willian Nicholson Jr died in July 1909, he’d passed on his responsibilities at the distillery to his son, William Graham Nicholson. The two had a lot in common, with William Graham also following his father into politics.
Spirit production at Three Mills was halted during the First World War while the government used the site to make acetone from grain. The distillery resumed its spirit production, but eventually closed for good when the site fell victim to another World War and was bombed during the London Blitz in October 1940.
In 1961, the Clerkenwell site was sold to Ind Coope. From here on out, Nicholson Gin was distilled elsewhere under contract. In the 1980s, the whole business – pubs and all – was sold to Allied Breweries. Their main interest was the pub estate, and as a result production on the gin under the Nicholson’s brand name stopped, with the last bottles disappearing from shelves over the next few years.
A reliable source tells us that the recipe was then appropriated and used from the ’80’s all the way through to the late ’00’s under the brand name Finsbury. While it would require a whole new article to uncover the twists and turn of that brand (which itself has its roots in Clerkenwell in the 1740’s, and which has been made in many distilleries in slightly different ways, using either molasses or grain as bases as well as interpretations on the recipe…), suffice to say that if you have ever quaffed Finsbury Dry Gin, you have tasted a gin that will be very similar Nicholson Gin of the ’70’s.
The Nicholson Gin trademark was in tatters, having been passed from pillar to post between mergers and acquisitions. Allied merged with Pedro Domecq, then Allied Domecq with Pernod Ricard… It had been all over the shop, but it was still salvageable, so – after realising that the gin market was bigger than it had ever been (the 1700s aside…) and still growing – Walker and Browne decided that now was the time to trace their family tree and bring the brand back.
Keen to keep the gin in London, they made a beeline for Charles Maxwell of Thames Distillers and told him of their plans. The original Nicholson Gin recipe had been passed down by Pernod Ricard, so the group set to work running a trial distillation using the exact proportions detailed. Maxwell and a panel of experts spent months tasting the batches and making minor tweaks to the recipe until they were satisfied that it was entirely faithful to its roots, yet would survive in today’s crowded market.
“One of our most memorable moments,” Browne told us, “was making our iterations with the recipe and arriving at a final version. We always knew that Nicholson used to be a great gin, but having that affirmed by today’s experts was both hugely encouraging and a great relief as we had incurred considerable costs up to that date.”
Recipe approved, Walker and Browne moved on to branding. There was not only design to deal with, but acquisition from Pernod Ricard and the re-registration of trademarks. The modern day Nicholson Gin bottle owes a lot of thanks to the Lamplighter bottles; the red lion crest is there, as well as the Nicholson logo in its red ribbon. A lot is undoubtedly borrowed, although the 2016 interpretation has a tall, round necked bottle and a splash of colour from a yellow and red striped seal. (And while we’re on subject of Lord’s colours – Walker and Browne are keeping the cricket ties close. The MCC have been huge supporters of the revival, and were amongst the first to sell the gin.)
The red lion crest is an icon of British booze, and it didn’t just feature on Nicholson Gin back in the day. Vintage Booth’s bottles are bedecked in the furry fellow, and even modern brands, like Portobello Road, feature him. Walker and Browne are more than happy to see lions everywhere. “As they say, imitation is the greatest form of flattery,” said Walker. “Nicholson used to supply many of the great gin brands with grain spirit and it seems that over the year’s many of them adopted the Nicholson red and gold/yellow colours, both here in the UK and abroad. It makes us smile – it’s a constant reminder that Nicholson has been very much part of the history of gin.”
London, Present Day
To make Nicholson Gin, Maxwell charges Thames Distillers’ stainless steel pot still with neutral grain spirit, then adds all 10 botanicals: juniper, coriander, angelica, orange & lemon peel, cinnamon, orris, cassia, nutmeg and liquorice. The still takes around five hours per run, with the hearts cut – that which is used to make the gin – coming off the still at around 80%.
The gin is made to concentrate, so once it comes off the still it is stretched further with neutral grain spirit and cut down to Nicholson Gin’s bottling strength of 40.3% ABV with water.
Nicholson’s Gin to taste…
Nicholson Gin smells as gin always has; completely unadulterated by the storytelling botanicals of late. There are no rare plants, nor strange seeds to discover, just an incredibly traditional blend of botanicals, all led by a fierce juniper and angelica duet.
To taste, everything tumbles into the mouth at once. There’s a soft lemon (carried to the end by a warm and lively coriander), a vague hint of liquorice and juniper woodiness and an underlying heat that constantly threatens to rise up, but which remains calm, docile even – just a cog in a wheel, rather than the whole show. It runs like clockwork, with every element of flavour sitting exactly where it should. Those getting a little tired of gins that make barely a glance at juniper will enjoy this, as it’s got a traditional heart and is an incredibly faithful representation of the spirit. That said… it could be construed as so faithful that it errs a little on the side of… well, dull. Contemporary gins with progressive flavour profiles are the order of the day, and while the achingly classic nature of Nicholson will appeal to some, it may bore others.
When mixed with tonic, a drying coriander and cassia spice races to the front, giving juniper – again woody, rather than piny – a chance to splash land in the middle of the sip. There’s a bright flush of lemon citrus at the end, teased out, no doubt, by the quinine, which delivers a nice sweet kick to the G&T. We’d garnish with rosemary to bring in a little fresh herb, but Nicholson Gin, staying true to the red and yellow theme, like to garnish with a twist of lemon and English rhubarb.
Nicholson Gin shows up in a great deal of old cocktail books, not just because it was one of the better gins from the era (and it’s been around since gin began), but because it’s traditional profile makes it perfect in any number of drinks; if you’re looking for a Negroni accompaniment, this is your gin. It’s that history which really sets it apart from others on the market: “It is a story that just shouldn’t be forgotten, and one that affirms the romance, if you will, of the era in which gin and cocktails were at their peak,” Walker said.
Though it only saw London through the Gin Craze in passing, Nicholson Gin has been present through many events and eras, from that great age of cocktails in the mid 1800s, to Prohibition, to World Wars I & II. That it ever left us is tragic, like the bulldozing of a great monument, but that it’s back – made to the same(ish) recipe, with the same life blood running through it – is nothing short of miraculous. Only time will tell if this new generation of the Nicholson clan can adapt to the radically different landscape they find themselves in and re-establish the gin’s reputation once more.
So far, all the moves have been the logical and correct ones, though we’d like to see a little more adventurous, modern marketing and some signs that they really understand how to thrive in this era. It’s all rather slow and steady, well trodden and safe at the moment, as if it was enough just to be out there and pay lip service to cocktails and heritage. That will all come in time, we’re sure, as will their voice and a sense of direction for what to expect next. After all, in the context of their own centuries old legacy, a few months is a very short time to have been back on the market…
In life when we look back, we look at flashbulb moments; those big, memorable, chaotic, terrible and lovely events that whirled together to make the world what it is today. The Nicholson Gin reboot is the rose tinted side of our human saga – it’s a chance to taste the finer moments of our history, a brief waltz through the looking glass.
For more information about Nicholson Gin, visit their website: nicholsongin.com
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