The East London Liquor Company has transformed the spirit industry in the city. Founder Alex Wolpert was even recently asked to judge the annual Rum Masters competition in Notting Hill – only two years since opening his company. We met up with Alex, along with Events and Marketing Manager Ashley Hunka, at their successful distillery and bar in Mile End. We spoke of all things rum – and gin, and vodka, and whisky.
AW: Alex Wolpert
AH: Ashley Hunka
You’ve been open for nearly two years now, how has the reaction been to the East London Liquor Company?
AW: It’s been good, really good, we’ve been distilling for just over a year and half now and it’s going great; our second birthday’s in July and it’s been great. It started off as a local’s gin but now we’re in almost ten countries.
Export wise I think we’ve proven it’s not just a locals gin but it’s got global appeal, which is very flattering and lovely to have that kind of recognition.
It’s always been about making really good liquid, over anything else, and I think people appreciate what we do.
What’s the secret behind your success?
AW: It’s about the focus being on the liquid first and foremost. We spent six months researching and developing our gin before we sold any, we gave it for free to a few bars that we knew that were friends to trial it out. I’ve got a really talented distilling team here who are all about quality.
AH: There’s an incredible attention to detail. Alex went to Guyana with a vision for the rum and stuck to it.
Tell me more about the vision…
AW: The vision was to make a vodka, a rum and a gin that was accessible from price point of view but also quality in taste and concept.
We wanted people to pick up the bottle and understand it instantly. There was no guess work needed, no smoke and mirrors, that’s what was really important to me – transparency.
Let’s meet the crack team behind this operation.
AW: Sure, Tom’s our head distiller, he’s getting drunk in the corner. Chris is our logistics, and he does all our internal artwork; he’s our creative. Johnno runs the bar with Pavel and Andy, who’s our whisky distiller, and Mikey, our brand ambassador.
It’s a fantastic set-up, how did it all come into being?
AW: I started off bartending in various places and ended up running a restaurant, a bar and a pub. The first bar I started off in was The Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, it was fun – Kate Moss came in one weekend!
Then I started running a few venues for Barworks and after I left I went on to do some consultancy work, event work and then came back to Barworks and thought “life’s too short to work this hard.” There was a big gap in the market, there still aren’t many people doing what we’re doing.
There have been something like 30 distilleries opened in the UK in the last two years, but there still is no UK distillery making gin at the price point we are, on the scale that we are, and that to me is crazy.
The idea is to demystify what is meant by ‘craft’. We don’t use the word craft, it’s a bit of a dirty word to us. You can go into Wetherspoon’s and look at their craft beer selection and Budweiser’s in there. That word has been totally massacred.
For us, it doesn’t matter if it’s called craft, or artisanal, again those words don’t mean anything but it’s small scale, it’s transparent [quite literally, you can see the distillery from the bar], the way we price our products is honest and open and that’s what we want to stand by.
AH: When I came on-board, Alex explained the ethos of transparency and accessibility and told me this fun story of someone coming into the bar and saying “I’d like a gin and tonic, but don’t give me the cheap stuff,” and Alex explaining that just because one gin is expensive, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good and because another gin is inexpensive doesn’t make it any worse. Tying that in with, not just what we make, but what we also import is a really nice, and important, way to look at it. It’s a massively expensive ‘I told you so’ [to the industry] but that ethos really stands out for me.
“We don’t use the word craft, it’s a bit of a dirty word to us. You can go into Wetherspoon’s and look at their craft beer selection and Budweiser’s in there. That word has been totally massacred”
This is the only distillery that’s been in East London since the turn of the 19th century.
AW: There’s not been any distillery here since 1904 or 1905 to make whisky or gin in East London
AH: And vodka
AW: That too. We wanted to reinstate that and tackle that heritage to say, “we can do it here, we can bring production back to East London.” We’re not making it as they did then, we want to be innovative and different about the process, with the flavours and the types. The approach is new but it’s tapping into that heritage.
What can TRULY customers expect from the rum tasting with the ELLC?
AW: Really hands on, again no smoke and mirrors, no nonsense. We explain in plain terms what rum is, why we’ve imported it and the flavours of it in the tasting with the cocktail. And so it’s really a step-by-step process.
AH: What you do get is our team, who are highly trained in the distilling process and the history of rum and what’s going on in the world of rum. It’s something wonderful because they’ll be behind the bar with you and it’s your opportunity to really pick their brains and ask any questions. You’re not being talked at, it’s a conversation. So it’s a really intimate experience in such a beautiful space, which is important.
AW: Definitely. It’s a dialogue, where you’ll have some banter and talk about the rums, and if you want to try some you can, it’s a really flexible and open experience, not rigid at all and we’ve got some fantastic bartenders here who will take you through as much or as little as you’re is interested in learning. If people are really up for it, then they’ll get great bang for their buck.
AH: Or if you want to be more laidback and just try some really great rum, that’s fine, there’s no right or wrong.
AW: Exactly, if you want five different versions of a Singapore, then great; the guys behind the bar really know their stuff.
“And that’s the fun of it, there are very few gin distilleries now that stick to one gin”
London’s going through the throes of a gin renaissance at present, why do you think this is?
AW: Are people making more gin because there’s a renaissance or is there a renaissance because people started making more gin; it’s chicken and egg. The honest answer is that it’s a versatile liquid, it’s cheap, bartenders love it and you can pretty much make it dry, sweet, salty, fruity, savoury, and herbaceous; you can do whatever the hell you like with gin. If you know what you’re doing, it’s a very flexible and accessible spirit, and that’s the fun of it.
That’s the fun of making it, we make an aromatic dry gin with tea, Darjeeling, pink grapefruit and Chinese cinnamon that’s still very much true to as much of what London Dry is, but takes it a step further by bringing a really aromatic quality to it. You open up this whole other side and from there we ask ourselves, How ‘English garden herb’ can we make a gin? How punchy? How chewy? How herbaceous? And we move forward with a view of how these drinks can service the bartenders and the drinkers.
It’s all about giving the bartenders a tool kit of gin, it’s not about saying lets market three gins and talk about how we retail these things as quickly as possible, that’s not what we’re about. The flavour profiles we developed are about how can we facilitate, help and inspire bartenders to use great liquid and make great drinks from it.
And that’s the fun of it, there are very few gin distilleries now that stick to one gin. There’s probably four or five really good gin-makers that only do one gin. The rest are all doing more than one because they appreciate the value of making small but effective and precise diversification, and it works.
AH: I’m curious, you never told me, why did you pick Guyana for Demerara rum
AW: Because I love that style of rum and it’s so distinctive
What’s distinctive about it?
AW: They’re the only distillery left in the world that have a wooden column still and that gives a certain amount of flavour to the liquid but also because the sugar cane grown on the banks of the Demerara River tastes so much different to cane grown in Barbados for instance, or Trinidad or Jamaica.
If you pick up a really traditional Jamaican rum like Appleton’s, for example, and you blind taste Appleton’s against any kind of great Bajan, Dominican or Nicaraguan rum, there are distinctive flavours that either come across or don’t. Are they oily? Are they minerally? Are they flat and punchy? Are they fruity and floral? These are all characteristics of a country’s style; it may not be indicative, but there is definitely a style associated with countries where rum is produced.
The other thing about Demerara is that it’s accessible, if you don’t like rum you can drink this style of rum and say “okay I get it, I don’t necessarily like it but I understand what it is, I understand why it is like that but I can move on from it.”
If time was no object I’d bugger off and find another rum of a different style because I think Bajan rum is amazing and a bit untapped because people don’t really know what to do with it or how to use it behind the bar.
You just announced a Barrel-Aged range, what can we expect?
AW: We have, we’ve launched a barrel-aged gin programme, where we’re ageing gin in a variety of different barrels. Over the next two or three years, every eight weeks we’ll be releasing a new expression of that particular ageing process; new French oak, chestnut, ex-bourbon, red wine, white wine, ex-rye, ex-wheat. Again, the idea behind that is to showcase that we are playful and innovative, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We might release something that doesn’t really work but it’s a personal experiment.
I think the fun things is that we’re not saying we know all the answers, we’ve got all the experience and we’re brilliant at what we do and we’re fully committed and invested in playfulness and working on something to achieve some kind of level of excellence, but how long that takes we don’t know, we’re all relatively here.
“The future is whisky”
What’s in the future for ELLC?
AW: The future is whisky. We’re releasing a navy strength version of our Demerara rum in a couple of months but in the meantime we’re ramping up our whisky production massively. By 2018, they’ll be a small release of our whisky, by 2019 they’ll be a big scale up of whiskies that are available.
Our London Rye will be our staple and on top of that we’ll have lots of single cask, single malt and different experimental mash bills. We’ll release those few bottles every other month or so.
We also have the bottle shop on site which is very cool. There’s a lot different rums in there, from Japan to New York, to Martinique in Trinidad, so people who come, if they’re coming for rum, will not be disappointed.
It’s a really nice opportunity to bring in stuff that you wouldn’t normally associate rum with, like Japan. There’s a rum from the Seychelles which is incredible, and what we try and do, which is very pertinent, is almost all the rum in the shop is available on the bar. You can pick it out in the shop and try it in the bar before you buy. Nothing is brought in without reason, they’ve all been personally picked because they’re a great liquid; me and Johnno are very protective about what goes in there because it is so important to us that we serve the very best.
We’ll be extending the bottle shop soon, doubling it in size and therefore doubling the back bar offering in the next couple of months, so we’ll be able to fully mirror what’s in the shop, on the bar. So if anyone wants to come in and try anything at all, they can.
Want to taste East London Liquor for yourself? Book the rum tasting experience for £35 per person.