A gentle stroll through London’s parks has got to be one of the better ways to bask in a fine English summer’s day, and what more of an indulgence could there be to round off time spent traversing Victoria Park than to visit the nearby East London Liquor Company. The distillery is located in one of Bow’s best-known historical sites, the old glue factory in Bow Wharf, and is a treasure trove to any card-carrying spirits devotee.
We’re struck immediately by the ambition of the enterprise, not only is ELLC a distillery and bar, it sits adjacent to its own well-stocked, and ever-evolving, bottle shop to whet one’s appetite on entry. An Aladdin’s cave of spirits, from tantalising Miracle Mile Yuzu Bitters, to the exclusive import of Lost Spirits Distillery’s Cuban-inspired rum and Sonoma County’s Rye Whiskey, it’s open whenever the bar is in session. There’s little excuse not to browse, shop (it’s ideal for gift-foraging), and stop for a drink in the bar next door once one’s curiosity has been utterly piqued.
Opened in July 2014, the custom built distillery produces a range of handcrafted spirits from two futuristic Holstein copper stills 450-650 litres at a time. Since opening, they have produced and bottled over 12,000 bottles of London Dry gin, and another 8,000 bottles of smooth artisanal 100% British Wheat vodka. Added to that is the most recent addition, their East London rye whisky that has recently been set down to be aged in bourbon barrels for a minimum of three years. Also importing and bottling its own brand of rum from Demerara Distillers in Guyana, it seems there’s no limits to the team’s aspirations.
The founder of distillery is Alex Wolpert, a trained actor who paid his dues in the London bar scene, spending seven years at Barworks. Alex has worked hard to create a formidable team of zealous, creative and innovative experts with Head Distillers, Tom Hills, a Biochemist, and Andy Mooney who came on board to hone the whisky offering; Alex comments, “one thing I’ve learned is hire people who are better than you. I’m very lucky that people have fallen in love with the idea as much as me. I’m learning as we go and it’s great to learn from people like Tom and Andy who think on their feet and as they’re both in their mid twenties, they’re not constrained by tradition or heritage.”
By distilling, bottling, selling and mixing everything on site, the crew have an incredible autonomy of process with complete control over ingredients and method. Keeping everything in house, from raw grain to the finished article is key to Alex, as it means he can guarantee the product’s quality. On the decision to go it alone Alex comments, “I wanted to get out there and create something myself, the whole process is so multi faceted and wonderful to get stuck into. I saw a niche in the market for an accessible and transparent Londoner’s drink that was truly affordable, not trading off meaningless words like ‘craft’ and ‘artisan’ (words you won’t find anywhere on our bottles!), rather small batch spirits that we can be extremely proud of”.
Customers too have a sense of ownership over the brand: on stepping into the bar, one is confronted by the gleaming bellies of the two impressive copper pot stills; you get the sense that you’ve somehow become a part of the distilling process whilst supping on an ingeniously crafted cocktail, created by Head Barman, Mikey Pendergast.
For Alex it was key that he should “bust this myth that if it’s expensive, it’s good; I don’t know of another distillery in the UK as affordable as we are”; Alex has taken a firm stance, “I’m prepared to take a hit on margin to make a people’s gin that’s not lining brand owners pocket”.
East London was a fitting place for Alex to launch his venture, with its rich legacy of spirits manufacturing dating back to the 16th century; the cheeky stroll to work for the long-term Hackneyite didn’t hurt either. The first to bring back distillery production to the East End in 100 years after manufacturing was pushed out of the city over the centuries, Alex has found Londoners and bars alike to have a voracious appetite for quality, locally produced spirits.
It’s not only the locals and regulars that have embraced East London Liquor Company, it has also become a favourite of bartenders up and down the country, “we’ve been so lucky and have had a really good reception, with over 100 bars in London championing our spirits and over 20 London shops in London backing the brand – we really have a great, loyal support network for our products, and it just goes to show that our neighbours want a piece of something local.”
The distillery also offers tours, spirit tastings and ‘make your own batch‘ sessions, which is of course a fantastic way for enthusiasts to connect with a modern distillery and its methods, but it’s also been a means of bringing in bartenders to become powerful, educated and invested advocates of the brand, with over 400 coming in to train with the team in the last 10 months it’s high time you sought out ELLC from across London’s bars.
Visitors are of course also able to enjoy range of bespoke concoctions at the on site cocktail bar, which features a large glass wall between the bar and the distillery so that drinkers can watch on as the stills get to work. Housed in an old glue factory, the venue has an industrial feel, but the glimmering kit behind the bar offers something more of a Willy Wonka experience; incidentally, the keen of eye will notice the upturned horse on East London Liquor Company’s bottles, a wry nod to the factory’s sticky past.
Ever innovating, ELLC offers a comprehensive list of cocktails in an ever-morphing, seasonal menu; it not only features their own spirits but also acknowledges the rich heritage of drinks production from around the world, “our cocktail menu is used as a sounding board and is something to be played with, we’re not in any way precious about our drinks list; we’re constantly inventing, trying out new cordials and syrups… Inspiration comes from bartenders both in London and abroad, but always from people who are innovating and playing around. Ultimately, it’s all about serving the customer and ensuring they leave happy”.
With the their gins and vodka taking on the London bar scene and making their way to the home bar of many of its local fan base, ELLC are now working furtively on a “new liquid” which will be available in the next few months; Alex’s lips are sealed, but can reveal that it will be cask aged, well, we’re up for it when all’s good and ready…! The future also holds the first rye whisky to be aged north of the river, with 25 barrels being released this year to whisky lovers who want a piece of this history in the making, and with the duty being waived on the barrels, Alex has ensured that even this new spirit remains accessible.
One can’t help but to be in awe of East London Liquor Company’s ambition and scope. But Alex takes it all in his stride, “I guess it’s quite simple, it’s a three tier approach – the bar, the shop and the distillery are so complementary that they’re one and the same thing; locals love to come in and buy our gin, we import because it complements what we do and promotes an innovative and fresh outlook on spirits and what we do in itself is unique – it’s primarily got to taste good, after that, everything else follows”.
Interview by Alex Godfrey
East London Liquor Company, Unit GF1, 221 Grove Road, Bow Wharf, London, E3 5SN