Introducing three spirits makers shaking up the liquor industry
Over the past 15 years, we’ve seen the revival of cocktail culture, the emergence of mixology as both a science and an art form, and the boom in high-end spirits. Putting craft beer to one side, all of this has given way to a new crop of small-batch distilleries that are not only catering to the modern appetite for premium-quality, handmade products but are competing successfully with major players in the drinks trade.
London is known for its gin, but tucked away in two adjoining railway arches near Hackney Downs station is the city’s first vodka micro-distillery, Our/London. Up and running for a year now, the distillery doubles as an event space and tasting room, and is part of Our/Vodka, a global brand founded in Stockholm and made up of independent distilleries run by local partners in different cities around the world.
“Being asked if we wanted to open our own vodka distillery was a pretty massive curveball,” says Neil Chivers, who runs Our/London with long-time friend and restaurateur Clive Watson. The pair were drawn to the understated branding and crown-capped bottle design, both of which do away with the many marketing clichés surrounding premium vodka, from the tall bottles to the diamond filters. “It’s almost utilitarian and there’s something that really stands out about that,” he adds.
To date, Our/Vodka has sub-brands in Berlin, Detroit, Seattle, Amsterdam, London and LA, with New York, Miami and Houston still to come. “We’re brand custodians in a way but the city brands themselves are shaped by the partners,” Chivers says.
“Seedlip is actually the name of seed sewers’ baskets that my family used when they started farming,” explains Ben Branson. With Seedlip, 33-year-old Branson is leading the way into the rarefied world of non-alcoholic distilled spirits and offering a grown-up alternative to going booze-free, whether you’re teetotal or just having a day off.
Despite venturing into uncharted territory, Branson, a former marketing executive, insists he never set out to create a new category in the industry. Seedlip grew out of his fascination with botany and herbal medicine; in particular, The Art of Distillation, a book detailing the apothecaries of the 1600s.
“It’s been a bit of a wild ride, from hand-labelling the first thousand bottles in my kitchen to selling out in Selfridges,” says Branson. Spice 94 and Garden 108, which are both made to be mixed with tonic water, are now stocked by 35 Michelin-star restaurants in the UK, the brand announced investment from Diageo in May, and the first bottles landed in California in early November.
For husband and wife duo Robin and Tessa Gerlach, creating their own gin was, first and foremost, a means to do their part for elephant conservation. Having spent time in Kenya and South Africa, the end-of-day sundowner tradition – usually a gin and tonic – was something that stayed with them. This, combined with Robin’s interest in exotic African botanicals and Tessa’s passion for wildlife, came together as the idea for Elephant Gin, which donates 15 per cent of its profits to charity.
“We kind of stumbled into it while trying to do something for the elephants,” says Tessa. Neither of them had any idea that their German-made, African-inspired gin would go on to win awards (Spirit of the Year 2016 in the World Spirit Awards), or that they could give anywhere near the €150,000 they have donated to Big Life Foundation and Space for Elephants so far.
“Gin is one of the most versatile spirits, so it was ideal to infuse it with unusual ingredients,” says Robin. ‘We selected 14 botanicals – from devil’s claw to baobab to buchu to lime’s tail – which we combined with fresh apples from Germany. It took us a year and a half to develop, and we haven’t changed the recipe since we sold the first bottle in 2013."
Photography by Thomas Brown
This feature was originally published in House Notes and on houseseven.com for Soho House & Co