One of the most anticipated openings this year has been that of The Distillery on Portobello Road, London, home to the gin of the very same name. I was blown away to receive an invitation to the opening night, and not just any invitation but a stunning box with ‘The Distillery’ emblazoned on top, containing a gilt invitation and empty bottle of Characterful Vodka to be filled up on-site on the night! And first impressions definitely lived up to expectation. The Distillery is located at the Ladbroke Grove end of Portobello Road, in an imposing building, proudly bearing the logo of Portobello Road Gin, and it promises an exceptional experience.
Ged Feltham and Jake Burger’s latest venture has received countless headlines and accolades as London whips itself up into a frenzy about the “gin hotel” or “super-distillery” that will be bringing Portobello Gin back to Portobello Road. That is, however, only part of the story and rather does The Distillery, which opens this weekend (16 December 2016), a disservice. The stunningly beautiful three-storey corner-plot (which Ged and Jake neither expected to come on the market nor secure) is somewhat deceptive, and also typically Victorian, in being very tall but also very thin. There are only three bedrooms at the top of the building, and a small distillery tucked away in the basement. This is not a super-distillery (in anything other than its contents, of course), and as hotels go, it is boutique in the extreme.
The Distillery mainly comprises of two stunning bars; The Resting Room and GinTonica. Alongside The History Room and The Ginstitute, The Distillery really encompasses, and reflects, Ged and Jake’s background in the bar scene of Leeds and London. And to the general public the bars will be the real draw. The Resting Room, on the ground floor, is less pub and more cigar room with its dark walls and wood and copper highlights. Above the bar there currently rest four single barrels (there will be seven when complete) from some of their favourite distilleries around the world. The spirit resting within can be drawn off at the bar and, given that that it will continue to mature and change within the barrel, no two drinks will be identical. In addition to the wine and cocktail list, the bar will also offer bespoke distillates created on site (and only available at The Distillery and in their on-site shop) as well as no-frills British food, including bottomless brunches and traditional Sunday roasts.
On the first floor is Portobello Road’s dedicated, and Spanish-inspired, gin bar GinTonica. The copper theme continues upstairs but the atmosphere is distinctly lighter and more modern. This is a true homage to our favourite spirit with over 60 gins on the menu, and many more behind the bar, which can be served as G&Ts in their signature Copa de Balon glasses. Alongside this is a selection of more modern “Gin & Tonic Plus” and Cocktails including La Marianito (featuring Spanish vermouth, Portobello Road Gin, a herbal spray and olive bitters) and Clara (with Portobello Road Gin, mahou, lemon and grapefruit). GinTonica will also serve a selection of tapas cooked in front of guests at the chef’s counter, and if the sweet, juicy prawns and rich, spicy chorizo we sampled are anything to go by, these will be exquisite!
On the floor above can be found the stunning boardroom and the three bedrooms intended to offer a refuge for The Ginstitute Ginterns (although they are likely to be in incredibly high demand in their own right). One of the three was open for viewing, and was simply stunning with a mini-bar to die for (in-house spirits only, naturally!), a bespoke handmade record player with a Rough Trade-curated vinyl playlist, and an ensuite with a stunning Spanish-inspired tiled floor. It’s not big but it is beautiful.
Despite all this opulence, the origins of Portobello Road Gin itself are rather more humble. Following on from great success in the drinks industry in Leeds, Ged and Jake moved to London to open the Portobello Star in Notting Hill in 2008. While the pub itself dated back to 1836, it was failing badly when they took it over, and the fact that they opened on the day that Lehman Brothers collapsed was far from auspicious either. However, by 2010 things were going well and when Jake moved out of the flat above The Star in 2011, Ged hit upon the idea of creating a tiny museum dedicated to the “long, and frequently miserable, history of gin” alongside The Ginstitute where guests would get the opportunity to create their very own gin.
Boys being boys, they couldn’t resist playing with the botanicals themselves and, after nine months of experimentation, Portobello Road No. 171 Gin was born. Even then, Ged had his doubts about the commercial viability of such a project but decided to give it a go, figuring that if it wasn’t successful, the gin could be used as a house spirit in their bars. Ged took the recipe to Charles Maxwell at Thames Distillers (who also produce Gin Lane 1751 amongst others) and after a breakthrough at Selfridges, the bottles started flying off the shelves. It is now widely available, including in Waitrose supermarkets.
“Making gin started as a hobby, but it could become the tail that wags the dog.”
As a consequence, the history and the heart of Portobello Road Gin, and indeed my heart, now lie in the basement of The Distillery. The Ginstitute’s new home was much needed, for it had outgrown its original premises and is always booked up months in advance (including, it transpired, on the opening night!). Ginterns begin their experience in The History Room; a respectful reproduction of the gin palaces of Victorian times which houses Portobello Road’s mini-museum of antique gins and other gin paraphernalia including vintage advertising pieces and the business card of Professor Jerry Thomas; one of the pioneers of the cocktail and author of the world’s first cocktail recipe book.
Across the hallway from The History Room sits the, surprisingly small, distillery itself. It houses three splendid stills; Copernicus III and IV – both 30 litres – and King Henry, the new 400 litre copper pot still. While the official company line suggests that The Distillery will return the distillation of Portobello Road Gin to Portobello Road, this is looking incredibly unlikely. The Distillery simply doesn’t have the space and facilities on site to compete with what Charles Maxwell can offer them, particularly when it comes to bottling and packaging. Besides, keeping the status quo increases the opportunities to expand the Ginstitute and pursue other lucrative spin-offs.
“The most exciting parts of the project are the new and unexpected opportunities that have come with a development of this size and scale. We are proud purveyors of London spirit and we look forward to exciting guests from around the globe with amazing gin and other wonderful new distillates and aged spirits.”
However, their small batch Director’s Cuts, such as 2015’s Asparagus Gin and 2016’s Smoky Gin, will be distilled in-house and so it is likely we will see considerable growth on that side of the business. The on-site distillery will also allow them to pursue their more creative experiments, which include a reimagining of the gins of Dickens’ time and some wacky vodkas! Jake kindly took some time out to introduce me to their sweet and creamy Celebrated Butter Gin, and their salty and herbaceous King Theodore of Corsica Gin. We were also blown away (almost literally!) by their powerful Worcestershire Sauce Vodka and look forward to experimenting more with their Characterful Vodka, featuring avocado and olive oil! At the moment they can only be sampled on site but perhaps, in the future, the most successful of these products will be added to their core range alongside Portobello Road No. 171 Gin.
The Distillery is one of the most talked-about openings in the gin world, and in London, this year, and is well worth visiting as a top bar destination or, indeed, to learn about, and make your own, gin. More excitingly though, it signifies that Portobello Road Gin is set for great growth and is truly the gin to watch!
Bookings for the soft launch are now open with 50% off food in The Resting Room and GinTonica from 16 December to 30 December 2016 when you book online.
With thanks to The Distillery and Abbot Kinney for inviting me to the press launch on Thursday 15 December 2016.