Over the last decade, Gin has seen a massive resurgence, with the spirit fast becoming a favourite after falling out of favour when Vodka was all the rage. Now if you go to any cocktail bar, club, rooftop or family BBQ, you’ll find a half-empty bottle of Bombay Saphire or beefeaters, and a crowd of people sipping a concoction made using this banging beverage. Be it in the form of a Gin Tonic, Negroni, Fizz or just on the rocks. So we know the love for gin has surged, however, what is less known is the historical connection between this much-loved tipple and London. We took the trip to Bermondsey to meet Christian Jensen, a gin enthusiast and owner of Jensen’s Gin distillery, who For the past 17 years he has been on a quest to uncover and recreate the flavours of the Londons lost gins.
What were you doing prior to starting Jensen’s?
My full-time day job was and still is in the financial sector, working with hedge funds and investment banks. I started off as a software developer and now work as a project manager, currently building risk management and IT support systems for clients in that industry.
Where did your journey into distilling gin begin?
I was working in Tokyo in the early 2000s, whilst I was there I went to the bar for a few drinks. The barman asked me what I wanted, and I remarked that the gin didn’t taste as good as it did back when I first started drinking it. He agreed and fished out a bottle of Gordons from the ’60s and one from 2000. We tried both and you could really taste the difference, with the older one being much better. So for the next two years, he’d always be on the lookout for older gin which he’d buy and use to make my cocktails. When I was leaving Tokyo in 2002, he gifted me a bottle of the old style gin and as a joke said that I should go back to London and start making some like this as he was finding it hard to source it. So in 2003 I sat down with this bottle of gin and thought it would be interesting to find out how it was made. So you can say drinking gin in Tokyo is where it all began.
Why did you choose Bermondsey as your base?
I’ve lived in Bermondsey for over 20 years. I bought a flat in Bermondsey Street in 1996, back then it was pretty quiet and cheap as no one wanted to live here. Initially, I outsourced the distilling process of my gin to another distillery and had to set up a company in order for them to be able to sell me the style of gin I wanted to make. Bermondsey is an old part of London, in the past alot of things which weren’t acceptable in the finer parts of the city would fly here. So when I was coming up with names for my company I wanted something that embodied London, because it has a strong association with gin. So I thought Bermondsey Gin LTD would be the perfect name.
How did you go from being interested in learning about how gin was made in 2003, to then making your own gin?
So I started by researching the gin distilleries that were still operating in London at the time. Specifically, those who could help me create the old style I wanted to make. I found two distilleries in London, the first was beefeaters and the other Thames in Clapham. I didn’t go to Beefeater as they probably figured I was some nutjob wanting to make my own gin and wouldn’t help me. So I contacted Thames and went to meet the master distiller Charles Maxwell, who was the 8th generation of the family behind the distillery. Even he was a bit dumbfounded as to why I wanted to make gin because no one drank it in 2003, then vodka was the hot thing. However I told him I didn’t care what people drank, I wanted to make something for myself and my friend in Tokyo. I manage to convince him, and for the next 10 months, we did trial distillations and tastings, until we got the recipe right.
Aside from tasting and distilling, what was the strategy behind creating the right recipe?
So when I went to see him I took the old bottle of gin I had from Tokyo. He told me to take it home and not open it, but instead describe the taste that I wanted. He’d create a few recipes which we distilled and tasted until we created one that matched the description I gave. We then opened the bottle of old-style gin from Tokyo and compared the two to see how well it matched. So we didn’t really have a strategy, it was mostly trial and error and involved drinking alot of gin. So that’s how the recipe for the Jensen’s London dry gin came about.
So once you created the perfect recipe, what were the next steps?
As I mentioned earlier, Charles said he wasn’t allowed to sell the gin for personal use, which is when I set up Bermondsey Gin LTD. Once I did that I bought the minimum quantity which was financially feasible. So this was half a still and around 1200 bottles of gin. Initially, I’d kept it for personal use and then thought it would be a good idea to start selling the gin. The first shop that began stocking my gin was a wine shop called Bedales in Borough Market. They mostly sold wine but in their basement had an area where they kept more liquor. Again I convinced them to sell my gin and pretty much they sold most of my initial stock. After this I found an agent who had multiple locations, so they were able to distribute the gin at a larger scale. So I had a distiller making my gin, and then someone distributing it and this model worked well. So well, in fact, I kept doing this until 2012 before signing the lease for this unit in Bermondsey. So initially I didn’t really have to do much, just make sure the orders and payments were on time.
Back to the recipes quickly, so you have the London dry gin, where did the idea for the Old Tom gin come about?
A friend who worked in the industry said you have to try something new, as gin was becoming fashionable. It was becoming like the new vodka. So if I did only the dry gin he said it would be easy to replicate. He suggested I make an Old Tom gin, which he thought was a sweetened gin. So being the geek I am, I researched the Old Tom style and found it was a different recipe, made prior to the invention of the continuous still by Aeneas Coffee in the 1830s. The base spirit used at the time was rough, with a heavy amount of botanicals being used to add flavour and make it drinkable. In 1830, clean alcohol became available and then this meant fewer botanicals were needed and the gin was smooth. This was then sold in barrels to old gin palaces who’d water it down and use three ingredients to mask this doctoring. Cayenne pepper to maintain the alcohol burn, sugar to sweeten it and turpentine oil to give it that juniper flavour. So the Old Tom wasn’t really supposed to be a sweetened gin. I was then challenged to make an original Old Tom from the 1840s, so found a recipe book from a distilling family. Took pictures and went to Charles and said we need to make this, which we began making in 2008.
What prompted you to make the change to then start your own distillery?
The main reason was that in order for my operation to be credible I’d have to start my own distillery. So I signed a lease for this unit, ordered a still for my birthday and by August 2014 when we’d got all the licenses and everything was set up we began distilling here and every bottle of Jensen’s gin since 2014 has been produced on this site.
How would you describe Jensen’s Gin?
One of my friend who was a bartender was tasked with deciding the house gin for a new bar he got a job at and he described it best. He said each one has its own personality. The London dry is like your friend that is always there to support you. Reliable and doesn’t really get noticed. The Old Tom is stronger and is like the friend who’s always the centre of attention.
What’s has been your biggest challenge since you began distilling here?
Keeping it as a side project and not my main job. Distilling gin is something I enjoy, it’s something that keeps me occupied outside my day job, kind of like a hobby. I’m very reluctant to stop my day job and start working on this full time. I guess that might impact the growth of the business, but with my team, we balance things well and are now stocked in over 10 countries. Without any external investment and keeping full control over our operations and growth.
What has been your biggest success?
Starting early. I mean when I started I’d go to bars with my own little bottle of gin, people would be interested as no-one was distilling gin. Now there’s one popping up every week. So we started early which has helped us get into alot of amazing bars. Honestly, the biggest success is seeing people enjoying the gin I produce.
What three people dead or alive would you like to invite to Jensen’s to drink some gin with you?
Aeneas Coffey and John Dore, two very influential figures in the history of Gin. Then finally my favourite bartender Erick Lorincz who runs Kwant cocktail bar in Mayfair. His cocktails are hands down the best I’ve ever had.
What’s your favourite Gin based drink?
I like them all as I love gin, but it all depends on my mood. To be honest, though I like to go to bars and let the mixologists use their skills to put together something magical. I’ve found when you let them freestyle, the drink you get is just spectacular. One memorable drink I remember is when a bartender put lemon oil and orange oil on the outside of the glass at different areas. So based on where you drank from you’ll get different flavours.
Finally, where are your favourite bars to drink?
Three favourites, the first being 214, a gin dive bar on Bermondsey Street. Second is the Botanical Bar on HMS Belfast who we are collaborating with. Finally is Kwant in Mayfair where my favourite Bartender whips up some magical concoctions.
If that journey through gin has got your tastebuds tingling, then head down to the Distillery which also doubles up as a bar. It’s open on Saturdays and Sunday, right next to Maltby Street Market. So get some grub and head over to Jensen’s after, it’s the perfect way to spend a Saturday in Bermondsey They also sell their gin online and do tours of the distillery, to find out more, head over to their website.