Alice Made This visits Jensen, a craft gin distillery in the heart of Bermondsey’s Maltby Street, to learn more about the history of the spirit and how, in the middle of its resurgence, you should be drinking it the honest, old fashioned way. We talk to Hannah Lanfear, Jensen’s cocktail expert, about what makes Jensen’s gin the ideal tipple this summer.
Gin tasted better when Christian Jensen was younger. His career took him to the top of the finance technology industry in the City, but it’s his obscenely comprehensive record collection and his love of vintage gin that fostered his double life as a gin maker.
I’m stood at the bar under the railway arches in the Jensen’s hub. It’s 2pm on a Wednesday and I’m drinking neat gin while talking to Hannah Lanfear, the oracle of cocktail making and botanicals. This is the first time I’ve ever been able to drink gin neat.
“It was an emotional decision to get a new still”, she tells me as I admire the beautiful laboratory. “If you’re making whisky, you need to make a new still exactly the same as the old one. Even down to the dents and imperfections. Gin isn’t like that.”
The new Jensen still was made by John Dore & Co, the oldest distilling engineers in the world. After 2 years of precise craftsmanship and specifications, and rallying the residents of Maltby Street together to assemble the pieces, the new equipment works beautifully. It uses a water jacket to heat the alcohol and the botanical mixture. It’s a remarkable example of still making done as it’s meant to be done.
“Gin started out as an epidemic”, Hannah continues. “There was a distillery on nearly every street in London and every man, woman and child were drinking the spirit.”
That was until the Gin Act of 1751. Parliament wanted to reduce the consumption of spirits, regarded as once of the primary causes of crime in London, and prohibited gin distillers from selling to unlicensed merchants. As a result, the early 1800s saw the golden era of respectable, corporate gin companies such as Plymouth Gin.
Gin shops had a reputation for being dark, small and unsophisticated places. Soon there was a rise in the popularity of gin bars, ornate pubs with big glass windows, etchings into mirrors and glass, brass rails and glass lanterns. Women could enter without intimidation and gin became respectable.
“Gin has always been a very important spirit in classic cocktails”, Hannah says. “It offers flavour. The first classic cocktail guide was published in 1862 and the majority of the cocktails are gin based. It’s remarkable really. This golden era continued until the second world war."
During the war, distilleries were shut down and, by the 60s, youngsters didn’t want to drink what their parents and grandparents were drinking. Vodka became the new thing and gin started to commercially decline.
In the 1980s, Diageo bought up a lot of the independent distilleries and shut them down to close competition and focus on their gins, Gordons and Tanqueray. This was the end of London dry gin.
In the last ten years, things have started to change. After Sipsmith was founded in 2003, small distilleries have started to flourish in London again.
“When I was bartending ten years ago”, Hannah tells me, “people would come in and want a vodka cocktail or something rum based, but now people happily want a gin cocktail. This gives us so much more scope. The general public has come on leaps and bounds.”
Christian Jensen settled in Bermondsey thirteen years ago and helped lead the first wave of new small craft gin distillers in the capital. Jensen is the first new distillery in the area for hundreds of years and was never intended to be commercial. Full bottles of unopened gin from the 1920s are extremely rare. The traditional spirit was dying out and Jensen wanted to recreate the style. Faced with a minimum order of 2000 bottles of his recipe, Jensen took the risk and soon had buy in from bars and stockists, notably The Hide on Bermondsey Street.
Jensen’s gin became a cult choice amoungst bartenders because of its smoothness and cocktail properties.
A recreation of a lost style of gin. It’s how it was made in the mid to late 20th century and is less juniper centric. It’s smooth, very well balanced and you get a full feel of the botanical flavours rather than just a narrow window of juniper.
Hannah adds the smallest dash of fresh water to my glass and the botanicals are brought out in the most beautiful way. Remarkable.
Try Jensen's Bermondsey Dry gin neat, on the rocks or with a dash of fresh water. Pair with our clean and machined Cecil steel cufflinks for a refined summer feel.
A much older gin. Christian found the recipe in a hand written, archive book. For over 40 years, one man wrote down all the gin recipes that he made, everything that he ever distilled.
These old recipes challenged a lot of what was thought about Old Tom gin. Everyone thought that it was a sweetened gin, but none of these recipes had any sugar in. It turns out that gins were being sweetened in the gin shops and pubs rather than in the distilleries. Barrels of gin were being watered down with sugar and talcum powder to stretch the spirit.
“I think it’s remarkable,” Hannah continues. “Lots of classic cocktails were calling for an non-sweetened gin so lots of the recipes that used Old Tom weren’t working. Ours is the only Old Tom that is made how it’s meant to be. The cocktails taste wildly different. It’s illuminating and the botanicals are suddenly allowed to travel.”
Try Jensen's Old Tom in a refreshing gin and tonic. Pair with the warm summer tones of our Lucas brass cufflinks.
“The liquid came first,” Hannah concludes. Above anything else, the recipe and the history, the process and the product, are the things that are important to Jensen. Like Alice Made This, they are precise and considered in their approach with the aim of creating a clean and honest product.
Neat gin is now a possibility.