Last Thursday, the 12 of December, may not specifically ring loudly in your mind for many reasons. But, it was a day to get excited about if you live in London and love whisky – the first day spirit began flowing from the stills at the London Distillery Company in Battersea, a mere 103 years after the last London whisky distillery shut down.
For me, it was thrilling to see it all come together. Darren Rook – the co-founder – was one of the first people I met in the whisky industry and he has been nothing but encouraging to me about my journey into the whisky world.
Back in spring 2012, we had an initial chat about the distillery and his plans for it. At the time, I wrote this feature after Darren was kind enough to give me the first ‘exclusive’ interview to outline his ideas. While not all of them have gone quite to plan, it was clear back in May last year that he was going to push the project forward fully.
Since then, I’ve watched the team blossom – from bringing on his distiller, Andrew MacLeod Smith, to seeing their Dodd’s Gin (the first product on the market that they developed while they were waiting for the whisky licensing from HMRC) become a well-known brand across the UK and further afield, to witnessing the lovely Kirsty Chant (who heads up the communications) spread the word far and wide about the project, and now to seeing the first spirit distilled for whisky. They’ve put in (as Darren phrases it) “Blood, sweat and tears, sometimes quite literally” and it’s excellent to see it off the ground.
On the launch day in question, a small group watched as the clear liquid streamed from the 650 litre still – named Matilda after Darren’s grandmother – and as John McDougall, the company’s consultant distiller with over 50 years’ experience in the industry, kept an eye on the proceedings.
It is still, naturally, early days for the whisky process and it will continue to be a slow one at that. The distillery is teeny, so only has room for enough equipment to produce what will be 100 casks a year for the time being. The fermentation is currently taking around five days using Whitbread B yeast to make around 2,000 litres of wash.
This is split into two batches as it is run on the first distillation and makes around 650-700 litres of low wines, before the second distillation results in enough to fill one cask. A week’s work, as it were, to fill approximately two casks – it’s definitely a labour of love.
The spirit is being made from Warminster malt and the first two casks filled are made of English oak (the last ones coopered by a retiring English cooper), so the work is firmly focusing on an ‘English’ slant to differentiate itself.
And, of course, it’s early days for the team, who are still getting to ‘know’ Matilda. Andrew told me it will be a work in progress as various elements are tweaked, painstakingly one factor at a time, to understand what will make the best final product. At the moment, the new make spirit I sampled is very malty, earthy and nutty on the nose, with lots of Horlicks notes although even at 69% it was the richness of the spirit character that stood out over the burn. The palate, meanwhile, was quite ‘dark’ with some coffee and chocolate elements reaching through the fresh burn notes.
All in all, it is thrilling to see spirit running from Matilda, to know that the hard work (and 15-month wait for approval from the HMRC to begin distilling) has come through and to see the happy faces on the team, the members of which know they’ve cottoned on to something special. I raise a dram to you all in hopes of sharing another one in December 2016 when this will finally be called whisky!
Thanks to Kirsty Chant for supplying the final photo for this post.