FOR THE LOVE OF GIN
Jensen’s Gin, Bermondsey
It all starts with me liking gin in general.
Meeting at a small railway arch in the backstreets of Bermondsey – close to Maltby Street Market – it would have been impossible to guess that the story of Jensen’s Gin actually begins in a tiny 5th floor bar in Tokyo; I had been speaking with the bartender about how gin was not as good as it used to be, and from under the counter he fished out a bottle of Gordon’s from the 1960s…
As the eponymous owner of the distillery, Christian Jensen does not look like your typical east London, exposed-brick inhabiting, experimental, mad-scientist of a distiller. There’s not a man bun or micro-scooter in sight. Clutching a mug of coffee and very softly spoken (I started out as a software developer working in finance, so I’m more used to working with computers than people), Christian’s tale begins slowly and meticulously measured;
In 2000 I was working in Tokyo, and relatively early on I discovered this bar that soon became my local… After making a tasting of this Gordon’s gin from the 60s compared to a modern bottle, they were worlds apart.
Without the distraction of being drowned in tonic, Christian found the older concoction to be smoother and well balanced, more rounded than the bottle from 2000. The contemporary Gordon’s was harsher and rougher, much less pleasant to drink when tasting neat. A friendship blossomed, and soon the bartender was sourcing vintage gins for Christian to try; he would go into the mountains and buy old stock from shops that hadn’t shifted their stock for years. I became accustomed to drinking this nice old gin, but it wasn’t cheap. When he left Japan after two years, as a gift Christian received a bottle of old gin and the now infamous parting words of “take this to London and make your own. I can’t keep sourcing the good old stuff!”
It was only when in redundancy that Christian had the time and inclination to sit back and look at the bottle. Still not happy with the flavours being produced by the big gin companies – at a time when craft vodka was all the rage – he found that only two distilleries still existed in London: Beefeater and Thames Distillers.
I called them [Thames Distillers] up, and they thought it was strange that anyone would want to make gin as it really was all about vodka at the time. The master distiller, Charles, was mildly curious and thought it hilarious someone wanted to make their own gin, just as a personal thing.
Charles’ family has been distilling gin in London ever since they registered Finsbury Distillery in 1740, retaining the classic approach to distilling that catered to Christian’s interests. That initial phone call led to Christian taking his old bottle of gin to Charles who informed him that the original distiller of that bottle had died, and with him, the recipe. It would have been near impossible, even with complex chemical analysis, to work out exactly what had gone into the still, so instead Charles said “the easiest thing to do is to explain what you like about these old gins and then I can make some and taste them with you, and we keep going until we find what you’re happy with.”
His choice of distillery was not a random one; you can make gin anywhere in the world, but they have natural places where they belong. I believe there’s a geographical element to where products are made, and in my books, gin belongs in London.
At this point I have to stop him.
Christian – are you meaning to tell me that this entire venture was just to produce a gin for you to drink? No commercial aspirations at all?
For the first time I sense an element of mad-scientist; I was very lucky that I had the resources to afford wasting it on making a nice gin, just for me.
Being adamant that whatever was produced should be possible to have been made 300 years ago when London was in the midst of the gin craze that saw it dubbed as “mother’s ruin”, Christian was firm in what he was wanting: a classic gin, easy to drink, balanced, no rough edges, with a hint of citrus. It took around a year of many trial distillations (and tasting sessions) for Charles and Christian to come up with a recipe that was as good as, if not better, than the old gin Christian had been drinking in Tokyo.
As he soon came to learn, creating the recipe was the easy part. By not having a license to sell alcohol to private individuals Christian had to register a company with HMRC and receive approval in order to buy alcohol direct from the distillery. I lived on Bermondsey Street, a good old London name, so I decided to call my company Bermondsey Distillery Ltd. As soon as I received my permissions I called Charles and said, “can I now please buy some of my bloody gin?”
Suddenly fearing that he hadn’t asked the all-important question: “how little can I buy?” (this was all primarily so I could get some nice gin to drink!), he was relieved to hear that from a half still, once blended and bottled, he would be looking at around a minimum of 100 cases of gin. 1,200 bottles. A lifetime of evening G&Ts; I didn’t think too much about it. Gin doesn’t go off, so…
After further dilemmas of having to find a bottle shape and label last minute, the minimal, simple, and no-fuss result very much epitomises Christian’s process up to this point; I didn’t really care about the design, I cared about the liquid. I just wanted a gin that was nice to drink. The label design and logo was created overnight by a friend in Copenhagen and took Scandinavian simplicity to a whole new level. The designed remained on the bottle for 10 years.
Did you ever envisage you’d be sat here in your own distillery, giving tours and tastings, and experimenting with a whole new variety of gin flavours such as honey and chilli?
If you’re going to keep giving your friends gin as presents for Christmas, birthdays, weddings… and you’re going to also try to drink all of it yourself, you’re probably going to be very happy but very drunk when you die. It was at this point I thought that this maybe wasn’t my greatest idea, and I had better start trying to sell some of the stuff.
Not having a background in sales, or the alcohol industry, Christian had the novel approach of always keeping a bottle in his bag when he went out in London, asking barmen to make him a Martini but then having them taste and use his gin instead. Relatively early on he found a fan in the owner of Bedales in Borough Market, who became his first stockist, weaving tales of this crazy man who started making gin in his bathtub, showing Christian just some tricks of the sales trade.
After a couple of years enjoying sitting in bars talking about – and drinking – gin, becoming ever nerdier over the history and process of distillation, he set about to make an Old Tom Gin, a sweetened version of London Dry. The main ingredient in many Victorian cocktails, research led him to a secret archive of a distiller active between 1840-1880 who had kept meticulous records of recipes and techniques. The recipe for Old Tom Gin was there. I was so tempted to stick one of these notebooks in my pocket and run away, but I resisted and just took pictures instead. I have avoided going there again in case someone follows me!
Originating from when gin was sold by the barrel load to gin palaces, who would then water it down in order to sell more, to mask their treachery they would add in various botanicals, sugar, or flavourings, including cayenne pepper to create a warmth and spice that could be mistaken for strong alcohol. This was the origin of the modern cocktail.
Following this discovery, Christian made an unsweetened Old Tom using a recipe from 1840, using herbs and spices rather than sugar for sweetening, making it a dry Old Tom. Incredibly smooth and easy to drink even without tonic (I can now personally attest to this), it was very well received; it could be said that this gin was the nucleus for the sudden rise in London’s obsession with Victoriana among barmen now being able to accurately recreate old gin-based cocktails.
I played a part in this resurgence, but I didn’t think having my own distillery was necessary until I kept being told that in order to be as authentic as possible people would want to see where the product was being made. It was in 2012 that I thought setting up my own distillery sounded like fun, and I bought myself my first still for my birthday that year.
Managing to find the manufacturer of the stills at Thames Distillery – John Daw & Sons – were still producing, his fears over moving production, and losing flavour, were abated. Now exporting to 10 countries – and finally, Tokyo this year – the distillery is small, but certainly packs a punch. Tours are fully booked, and the distillery is now experimenting with different flavourings and infusions such as hand mixed Negronis and infused gins, such as their latest chipotle concoction.
Looking back to when he first stepped foot in that bar in Tokyo to now being sat in his own distillery, he reads my mind: yes, it’s been a bit extreme to just get a good gin to drink.