“Micro-Distillery”: the clue really is in the name but, nevertheless, I was surprised by quite how small Half Hitch‘s premises in Camden are. From the exterior one can enjoy tantalising glimpses of the distillery in action. Step inside and the first thing you are likely to notice is quite how small the distillery is; the room is barely large enough to swing the proverbial cat and is totally dominated by its beautiful copper still. What’s left of the room is taken up by the considerably smaller vacuum still, a tasting bar and a lot of gin! It just goes to show what you can achieve when you put your mind to it.
I was greeted by Half Hitch’s resident distiller, Chris Taylor (formally of City of London Distillery), who promptly produced a perfect serve of Half Hitch with Fever-Tree Indian Tonic water, orange zest and a whole lot of ice. There isn’t any need, or indeed space, for a tour at Half Hitch but as I sipped my G&T Chris filled me in on the history of Camden and Half Hitch’s place within it.
Back in the 1850s and 60s Britain was economically, and politically, on top of the world. A pair of brothers, Walter and Alfred Gilbey, took full advantage of this on their return from the Crimean War in 1857, setting up as W & A Gilbey Ltd, Wine and Spirit Merchants. In 1869 Gilbey’s moved to Camden taking over vast swathes of the local area. With all their distilling, bottling and warehousing taking over a space of 20 acres, Camden soon found itself at the very heart of London’s gin production. In its heyday there was even a daily train, the Gilbey’s Special, departing for the docks to supply markets around the world. Gilbey’s, and Camden’s, gin production moved out in 1963 although the buildings still exist (now as private apartments).
Fast forward 50 years and local man, Mark Holdsworth (formerly of Bacardi) stumbled across the lost history of Camden and decided to bring gin production back to the lock. In late 2014 Mark launched Half Hitch Gin and achieved that ambition (although, due to their space limitations, bottling takes place off site). Half Hitch is a small batch gin using single estate Malawian Black Tea and Calabrian Bergamot and an additional complement of English wood, pepper and hay. The brand’s name and label also reference Camden’s history featuring the half hitch knot used to moor barges along the lock.
At Half Hitch they combine heritage craft with modern vacuum distillation and it was the latter I got to experience as I made my own gin on site. I presented Chris with a selection of ingredients from which we selected cloves, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and gooseberries. As Chris prepared the ingredients, he allowed me to taste some other gins made using the same method, from Cadbury Creme Egg to Haribo Tangfastics and even Portobello Mushroom! Despite this wealth of gins, I was delighted to discover that Chris had never before made a gin with cloves so today’s promised to be rather interesting.
Next came the science bit. Science isn’t my strong suit but this was like the best chemistry lesson ever! The prepared ingredients were added to a neutral grain spirit before the flask was attached to the vacuum still. The flask was then lowered into a water bath where it rotated as the pressure dropped, while the temperature was monitored. Although vacuum distillation can only produce small quantities, its advantage is the ability to preserve delicate flavours by being able to lower the ingredients’ boiling points. Despite appearances, there is an art to the technique though, not least of all ensuring the solution doesn’t over-boil and compromise the distillate. It is also a rather beautiful and mesmerising process as you watch the solution swirl and whirl and the boiling liquid rise up and drop down as the nectar distillate begins to slowly drop down from the condenser. It was rather akin to watching the flames of a fire wax and wane, but with something much more substantial to enjoy at the end of the process!
The gin distillate was ready within the hour and I tasted it fresh out of the still. The cloves were certainly the dominant flavour, giving the gin a good punchy kick, but the lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves also leant the gin a citrus note. Sadly, as Chris suspected, the gooseberries got rather lost but it is, nevertheless, still a damn good gin (even if I do say so myself!). Ordinarily, the gin is then diluted down to a typical ABV of 40% but (in a bid to make my little bottle last as long as possible) I decided to keep mine pretty hefty at a navy strength 49%. You’re unlikely to get your mitts on my gin anytime soon but let the records show that the perfect serve is with indian tonic water and a lemon wedge studded with cloves. Cheers!
Thanks to Half Hitch for selecting me as a Twitter competition winner of a gin-making experience.