The trend: London’s adventurous spirits

Co-founder Darren Rook (left) and distiller Andrew MacLeod Smith

On the south side of Battersea Bridge, tucked in between the Royal College of Art and Ransomes Dock, is an old bus depot that could almost pass for derelict. Venture into the chilly gloom, however, and a twinkling succession of neon signs leads you to a revelation: this place, Testbed1, is full of life, home to a cocktail bar, an events space, a gallery, a film company, a pop-up bakery, a boxing gym and, as of early next year, the first whisky distillery to operate in London for more than 100 years.

That the capital – so famous for its gin – once made whisky may itself come as a surprise. In fact, London has a long history of distilling malt spirit, and in the first half of the 19th century it was home to at least six documented whisky distilleries. It was only towards the end of the 1800s that the industry, thwarted by legal and economic restrictions, started to founder. Its last working whisky distillery, Lea Valley, closed in the early 1900s.

Now, London whisky is to be resurrected by The London Distillery Company, a new venture on the micro-distilling scene. Founded by investor Nick Taylor, and whisky enthusiast Darren Rook, TLDC began to germinate after Taylor read an article on the rise of Australian whisky – it prompted him to wonder why London didn’t have a whisky distiller of its own.

“Here was a gap in the market for a [London whisky] business I have thought about nearly all my working life,” says Taylor. While he has no knowledge of whisky distilling, Taylor does have a background in food and drink, having founded a cheese company, a micro-brewery and a number of London bistros. As a founder of Envestors (acquired by Braveheart in 2010), an investor network specialising in young businesses, he also has start-up experience.

Rook, by contrast, started his career as a tree surgeon, before joining the hospitality industry. He later became an ambassador for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a role he still holds today. Taylor and Rook met through a friend in January 2010, and agreed to work on the project together. They raised £350,000 through a combination of private investment and the crowdfunding site Crowdcube, before stumbling upon the site for their distillery after Rook’s wife, a chef in the fashion industry, catered an event there.

“It used to be a dairy – I like to describe it as ‘dairy chic’!” laughs Rook, who proudly points out original tiling, Belfast sinks and ironmongery, which he hopes to preserve.

The crux of the operation is located in a 1,100 sq ft unit overlooking the dock, where two copper pot stills will produce up to four casks of single malt whisky and 1,000 bottles of gin a week. Cheek by jowl with the stills sit two fermentation tanks, a tasting table and two desks, one for Rook and the other for TLDC’s youthful distiller Andrew MacLeod Smith, a former North Sea oil engineer turned master distiller and brewer.

So what of the juice itself? “Whisky made in London 100 years ago was probably lightly coked in flavour, as the barley back then was normally malted using either peat or coke,” says Rook. “But the style of whisky we’re aiming to make will be light and fruity.”

Given Rook’s arboreal knowledge, the quality and variety of casks will be a focus. “Up until the 1950s, a lot of whisky was aged in chestnut rather than oak,” says Rook. “The EU laws governing the production of whisky in England are more flexible than they are in Scotland, where whisky must be aged in oak by law, and we’re hoping to exploit that to experiment with ageing in different types of wood.”

The spirit must be aged for a minimum of three years before it can be called whisky; in the meantime, TLDC marked its launch by pre-selling 109 20-litre casks of new-make spirit, to be released next year. These casks costs £495 if left to mature at TLDC; more if taken home immediately.

The whisky packaging will be recyclable to reduce each bottle’s carbon footprint, while all raw materials will be organic, and sourced as close to London as possible. The team’s recent discovery of an underground spring on site was therefore particularly gratifying, and plans are afoot to tap it for distilling and blending.

TLDC has already started to produce a range of experimental spirits and liqueurs under the name Testbed. “As a small distillery, something we can share really well is these little snapshots from the distilling process that demonstrate what happens if you use yeast x, or cask y, or barley z – people can learn with us,” says Rook.

The first batch of four Testbed gins, which uses a traditional backbone of juniper, coriander and angelica to explore more unusual botanicals, is subtle and intriguing. From Testbed No. 1, vibrant with top notes of pink grapefruit, the range journeys via the deliciously damp and mossy No. 2, made with lovage root and bilberry, through the lavender-laced No. 3 to a more assertive bergamot-spiked No. 4, which would be ideal in a Negroni.

Whisky fans, meanwhile, will have to hold their breath just a little bit longer to taste a London whisky. But what’s three years when you’ve already waited a century?

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