Ordering a gin martini at the bar might be a modern day signal of impeccable taste, but like other once-villainized spirits (we’re looking at you, absinthe), gin is actually marked by a surprisingly contentious history. Over the years, the juniperus spirit has experienced quite the revamp—going from London’s public enemy No.1 to one of the most popular in the world.
Today, you can find quality craft gin nearly anywhere you look. It’s imbued with flavorful, local botanicals that help tell the story of the bottle’s terroir. It’s London, though, where gin has (literally) made a name for itself. It’s also where visitors can experience some of the most interesting ways to taste a variety of London Dry Gins, from the city’s opulent gin palaces to tableside martini services fit for the queen herself.
An Abbreviated History of Mother’s Ruin
We’re not going to lie: London in the early 1700s sounds like a tough place to be. The city was practically drowning in alcohol—as the notorious Gin Craze took over the city. At the time, a reported one in four homes were distilling what they called “the mother’s ruin.” In 1730, there were an estimated 7,000 gin “distilleries” that dotted the city. Lower-class Londoners took to concocting a rudimentary and dangerous, form of gin. It’s a far cry from the London Dry variety we enjoy today. In place of the rich, herbaceous flavors we know gin for now, Londoners were adding ingredients such as turpentine, sulphuric acid, and even sawdust into their moonshine-esque liquor.
After a number of unfortunate gin-related deaths, Parliament was forced to take action by requiring the acquisition of a distiller’s license, and introducing bills to further limit the creation of gin—chief among them the 1751 Gin Act, which drastically curbed the number of “distillers” in the city by prohibiting them from selling to unlicensed merchants and increasing fees.
The London Dry style
“Following the gin craze, a time in the 1700s when many associated gin with the perils of overconsumption and poverty, gin’s image started to be rehabilitated in the 1800s with the emergence of the more refined London Dry style of gin,” says Sipsmith Master Distiller Jared Brown. “The London Dry style was synonymous with high-quality craftsmanship as it was often enjoyed neat in the gin palaces of the times.”
Brown tells us the London Dry style developed in response to new distillation methods. This allowed the gin to adopt a more refined taste. Despite its name, “London Dry” differs from other spirits like tequila and bourbon in that distillers can make it anywhere in the world. It must meet two specific criteria in order to earn the distinction of London Dry: 51 percent of the botanical mix must be juniper and no flavoring can be added after distillation.
Today, gin is distilled and enjoyed everywhere, but it was London that put it on the map. In classy, members-only haunts, high-end cocktail bars, and opulent gin palaces, the juniperus spirit remains the talk of the town.
London’s Most Iconic Gin Experiences
1. Tour the Sipsmith Distillery
When Sipsmith started making London Dry gin in 2009, it was the first distillery to open in London proper in over 200 years. It was paving the way for a “ginaissance” that has led dozens of other distilleries to open their doors in London since. Brown says that once it was decided by the founders that they wanted to create a gin true to tradition, “I went to work, researching gin recipes from the 1700s and 1800s to find the perfect Sipsmith recipe.”
“The result is a recipe that uses botanicals, an ABV level and distillation techniques, including maceration of botanicals, copper pot still distillation and the one-shot method, that were traditionally used by some of the original gin distillers in London.”
Visitors to London are able to stop by Sipsmith, located in the charming neighborhood of Chiswick. Here’s where they make magic. If you happen to be visiting London during Wimbledon, you can also sip on gin-laden spritzes from their dedicated bar. Sipsmith is the official gin partner of the iconic tennis tournament.
2. Order a tableside martini from Dukes
There is perhaps no place that delivers more of an authentic “London” cocktail experience than Dukes. It’s a small but mighty bar inside a refined hotel by the same name in the neighborhood of St. James’s. For more than a decade, Dukes has been the domain of head bartender Alessandro Palazzi, who gets to treat nearly every patron to the classic Dukes’ martini experience (it would be borderline blasphemous to order anything else there).
It was a favorite of James Bond author Ian Fleming. He enjoyed it so much that it eventually inspired 007’s signature order: the Vesper Martini. That’s how classic the Dukes martini is. Dukes prepares it tableside on a century-old rosewood trolley. Expect a cocktail so stiff that it’s against the rules there to enjoy more than two in an evening.
3. Choose your own bitters at The Connaught
The Connaught Hotel in Mayfair is the definition of posh. In fact, it’s the only hotel with permission to use the Buckingham Palace “royal red” for its carpets. Members of the British monarchy have come by for decades. Its namesake bar has been dubbed one of the world’s 50 best. This is largely thanks to its highly experiential Dry Martin, complete with a tableside martini trolley. Ordering one is sort of like a choose-your-own-adventure deal, from the gin selection (you can always stick with the bar’s own, which they distill right there at the hotel), to the flavor of bitters you prefer.
Your choice between eight house bitters could imbue your martini with flavors from cardamom to lavender to tonka. You get the chance to smell them beforehand through parfumerie-like flavor cards. Next, all there is to do is sit back and relax while they shake and pour your cocktail from daring heights—all the while infusing it with a fresh lemon twist.
4. Explore the City’s Victorian Gin Palaces
Stepping into one of London’s grand gin palaces is like experiencing a time machine. These 19th-century bars came about in the 1830s, just on the cusp of the Victorian Era. Known for their elaborate decor, having even a simple gin and tonic becomes an experience. One of the most popular includes the Argyll Arms, which dates back to 1868 and remains largely unchanged from its original design. One of the most stunning examples is the Viaduct Tavern. Open since 1869, it features etched glass panels, detailed paintings, and an original Lincrusta ceiling and a cashier’s booth. Lacking history but making up for it with quirk is Mr. Foggs Gin Parlour, which resembles the gin palaces of yesteryear.
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