For many, gin is a sort of religion to them. For me? Well I arrived at the party a little late. I’ll be honest and say that it took me many years to establish any kind of refinement to my drinking. At university I was a shots and sweet white wine kind of girl, peppered with the odd snakebite and black and a rose wine in the summer. Cocktails came by the jug not the glass, and we only drank prosecco when we knew the person behind the bar. I had no idea what I liked, although I was pretty sure I didn’t love what I was already drinking.
When I started my first proper job upon graduation, evenings at the pub were par for the course, and I was in all honesty struggling to keep up with the grown ups. Because I was drinking white wine and even now in my mid-thirties, white wine gets me trashed. It’s my kryptonite, and I persevered for so long because that was the entry level drink for everyone I knew. But it was definitely not working for me.
So what’s a girl to do? Well in my case, I turned to my Mum for advice. And she made a bold (and unpopular) suggestion. Switch to gin.
Back in the early 2000’s, gin was an old persons drink. To my uneducated palette it was dry and bitter and bordering on undrinkable. But my Mum assured me that I’d grow a taste for it, and that it was scientifically impossible for the women in our family to get drunk on gin. I know, I’m a medical marvel.
She was right. And here I am 14 years later in the grip of the craft gin craze clutching my premium tonics and small batch gins like they are winning lottery tickets. And if you’ve tasted a lot of gin, read about the production and history of gin and have a gin collection to rival Tesco, where do you go next?
You blend your own gin.
And that is how I found myself at The Distillery on Portobello Road in London, clutching my golden ticket to their Ginstitute Experience. An opportunity to learn not just about the history of gin, but about the science behind it, I was keen to learn more about what goes into my favourite gins and perhaps, maybe, blend a smash hit gin of my own.
The Distillery is a self styled four floor mecca for gin lovers, offering everything from inventive gin cocktail bars, a craft gin shop, restaurants and a top floor hotel with views across West London to die for. It’s the home of Portobello Road Gin, a classic London dry that came out of historic London pub the Portobello Star located on 171 Portobello Road. The Portobello Star has been in existence since 1740, and after creating an knock-out gin which is rapidly growing in popularity their Still room and gin museum moved homes to the purpose built Ginstitute, part of The Distillery’s gin destination.
In fact, The Distillery only moved a few doors down to 186 Portbello Road, to a location that has long been synonymous with drinking. Perhaps the most famous was The Colville Hotel, known affectionately as ‘the Pisshouse’. Very apt. Now you’ll find a striking pastel blue building with Portobello Road Gin’s famous logo and typography sitting on the corner of Portobello Road and Talbot Road.
Even if you aren’t going on a gin experience or staying in the top floor boutique hotel (somebody please book me a room there, because I’m DESPERATE to stay), The Distillery is a great place to try some new gins, expertly mixed by knowledgable gin-loving bartenders and grab a bite to eat.
There are two restaurants, the Spanish style Gintonica (did you know that the Spanish are one of the world’s largest consumers of gin) which serves 100 gins from around the world alongside tasty tapas and The Resting Room where we found ourselves for a few hours ahead of our gin soaked Sunday evening.Do you love a good G+T? Well, there a perfect place for you in the heart of Portobello where you can even blend your own. Here's a review of The Ginstitute based at @distilleryldn!Click To Tweet
Eating at The Resting Room
The Resting Room has that gorgeous mid-century feel, and with the late afternoon winter sun pouring in through the impossibly huge windows, we set about perusing the menu. As you’d imagine, there are many gin cocktails here to try, all hand blended using the homemade ingredients created on their copper still and you’ll find aged concotions served straight from barrels above the bar.
As we knew we were going to be knee deep in gin a little later, we took it easy and ordered a classic Portobello Road Gin and tonic with a grapefruit twist and got on with the main order of business…
…Lining our stomachs (I mean, looking at the food menu).
We had been forewarned that the Ginstitute experience was a somewhat boozy affair, so not only had we planned a taxi home, we’d also planned to eat well ahead of the tour. On Sunday the Resting Room does an incredible roast dinner so we ordered two of those and when they arrived we were overwhelmed at how good they were.
We both opted for the pork roast which came not only with excellent roasties, a homemade Yorkshire pudding and a jug of gravy but also a lovely mix of rainbow veggies which was a little different to what we have found elsewhere. There was very well cooked crackling (a must I think if you are ordering pork) and just as we tucked in another dish arrived full of homemade cauliflower cheese that made our eyes bulge out (but obviously, we ate it all). It was delicious, and left little room for dessert so instead we relaxed and let our huge meal digest!
We’d let the team at The Resting Room know that we were heading to the Ginstitute a little later, and they were honestly fantastic at making sure we were topped up with water throughout our meal and knew where we were going. As it happens, when we visited this was the first Sunday in a while that roasts had been back on the menu, and I’m so glad for the serendipitous timing because we needed something substantial that day and because they were excellent.
Even if you aren’t planning a trip to the Ginstitute, it is worth having a roast here, followed of course by some excellently mixed G+T’s – just make sure to book in advance!
The Ginstitute Experience
By the time 5pm rolled around, we really excited about our gin experience, and not quite sure what to expect. We were also wondering whether booking the whole thing on a Sunday evening was the most sensible decision we had made, but we were fuelled up and had already had a taste of the good stuff earlier in the day, so we made our was through to The Ginstitute down a small flight of steps into the dark and cosy History Room, where we awaited our Ginstructor for the evening.
The History Room
Soon enough, Patrick appeared bearing gin (an extremely tasty Tom Collins) and we began a whistlestop tour of the history of gin. The History Room had been decorated with touches of the old gin palaces famous in London in the 1820’s, but our lesson started from its creation by the Dutch as Jenever, and how it was brought to the UK by King William of Orange to increase his popularity. As it goes with so many imports to the UK, we can’t have nice things and the story led us to how London at least became gin obsessed, and not in a good way, with every second house becoming a place where gin was distilled, and badly at that.
You might be familiar with the Gin Lane and Beer Street propaganda art created by Hogarth to depict how terrible a thing gin was, and after lots of twists and turns gin became just that thing you’d find at the back of your grandma’s cupboard. But obviously, not anymore.
The Blending Room
By this point we were on our third gin of the evening and we’d tasted what the gin of old times would have been like (terrible, in my opinion) and we were ready for the next part of the experience – to head to the Blending Room! It was here that we’d learn much more about what actually goes into a gin, and how different botanical mixes and strengths really change the flavour and depth of the fastest growing spirit craze in a very long time.
This was the part of the experience that really excited me – as a history nerd I already knew a lot about the history and origins of gin (although Patrick’s delivery was second to none, and there were a few new tidbits I can now add to my knowledge), but I didn’t know enough about how gin was created and what you actually have to have to create a perfect gin.
We set about playing with botanicals, touching and smelling them, and tasting the infused versions of them all, and Patrick (who was so knowledgeable about mixing the right gin) gave us a run down of what we needed to think about when making up our own gins.
- Every gin we would make would have the basics of a good gin included – 50% of the bottle. This would be made up of Juniper, Coriander Seed, Angelica Root and Oris Root.
- We’d need something from the “drying” shelf, which included Liquorice, Yorkshire Gold Tea, Lapsang Souchong, Wormwood and Gentiane Root.
- The citrus flavours included Lime, Bitter Orange, Lemon, Grapefruit and Lemongrass
- The spice shelf had cubeb berries, pink peppercorn, white peppercorn, cinnamon, cassia bark, nutmeg and mace
- What I like to call the lucky dip shelf that had some other interesting flavours like asparagus, rosebud, fennel seed and camomile.
After trying a lot of blended ingredients and being served up a lethal martini I felt like my tastebuds had gone to pot at this point, so I really wasn’t sure whether my gin blend would meet the mark. But I created Little Sparrow Gin with a mix of Lime, Bitter Orange, Pink Peppercorn, Cubeb Berry and Yorkshire Tea and hoped for the best. As it turned out I made a “crowd pleaser” and I have since made a few G+T’s with it and it’s a really enjoyable mix. That’s great, because I have a unique reference number which means I can keep ordering bottles of Little Sparrow whenever I feel!
After trying everyone else’s gin blends I was concerned I wouldn’t even get home, but we headed off into the evening armed with our gins and a rosy glow of five hours spent in a gin dream.
The Ginstitute Experience (and indeed our whole afternoon at The Distillery) was such a fantastic experience. Tickets to The Ginstitute are £120 and each session lasts around three hours – for that you get four gin drinks, an hour on the history of gin, two hours blending your own and you take away a 70cl bottle of your own gin and a 50cl bottle of Portobello Road Gin.
The Ginstitute also run masterclasses where you can lear how to mix your favourite gin based cocktails (and taste them all, obviously!
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