If you drink gin, you’ve more than likely sampled a gin made at the Langley Distillery. With over 350 gins made on site, their own, and those made for other people, it’s a distillery that creates spirits for others, and helps some budding distillers realise their dreams.
The company was formed in London, it specialised in French polishing – importing and distributing products like beeswax and spices on the docks in London. Over time it grew and diversified, expanding into their Tottenham site in the 1920s – which too was chemical processing/distribution led, and includes a partnership with Shell as a distributor for over 60 years.
The Birmingham site was bought in 1978 – the company eyed the central position for distribution, and when it was set up, it too was bought for chemical processing and distribution. Even now, there’s a use for the remnants from distilling (screen washes, ethanol in baby wipes, pharmaceuticals, toothpaste, mouthwash, plastics etc etc).
Three weeks after they bought the site, they opened a room and, so the story goes, found some stills. Though the history is hazy, the belief is that the stills were brought into use on the site of the brewery in the 1920s. The whole setup was mothballed during the war, and abandoned following a fire in 1954. Langley is a the perfect site for both given Crosswells – three natural wells exist on the site, providing fresh water for the brewery and now the distillery.
Nobody is sure how or why, and if the conversation actually happened, but the Palmer family weren’t ones to look a gift horse in the mouth and decided in the 1970s to take advantage of the stills and try their hand at distilling – and according to Master Distiller Rob Dorsett who I met on a cold Tuesday in December, it has always been gin.
The site is rather unassuming. Inside the main building, wood panels surround you and reception is mostly a sofa, a hatch into the office next door, and a giant 18th century safe. There’s a particular scent to old offices, there’s a particular smell that accompanies decades of paperwork. It’s musty, soft, with hints of old tobacco and aged varnish. For me, it was like stepping back into roles that I’ve long left behind, nudges of nostalgia.
Of course, there were two rules to us going into the distillery proper. 1. No pictures (there’s concentrated alcohol vapour). 2. Foxy safety gear.
It’s a look.
On site the stills give an insight into how things have grown. Along with Rob’s small 10 litre mini still for test runs, McKay is the smallest of the commercial stills at 150 litres. Connie and Angela are both 500 litres, then Jenny will produce 20million bottles per run.
That’s a lot of gin.
Part of this is due to the method they use. Rather than a one shot method which many new distillers prefer (pure spirit, plus botanicals per run, plus water into the still, distilled, then water added afterwards to the right strength), their gins are produced using a concentrate method. Concentrated botanicals , then is let down with more spirit and water to the correct strength.
So, from the recipe they multiply it into a concentrate – 12, 24 times, up to 33 times the original recipe. The resulting gin can be let down with alcohol and water, and perhaps more interestingly, the resulting gin can be varied in strength and in style by these additions. And both Rob, and his second in command Sion Edwards (previously of Warner Edwards) believe that they get a more consistent product. Moving from a few grams per batch, to a few hundred grams, or kilos per batch will balance the consistency.
Of course, it can also be argued that what you gain in consistency, you can lose in ‘batch’ distinction, where batch number one will be different to batch number ten – something smaller distilleries enjoy.
It’s this efficiency, and that it can be transported and stored easily as a concentrate that brings in the bigger brands. That and their Master Distiller. Having spent a few hours with Rob, his knowledge is astounding and there is much that he knows, that he couldn’t possibly reveal.
So what can I tell you?
There was a chocolate and lime gin which whilst delicious, the botanicals coated the still in such a way that it was never recreated.
His process for creating is instinctive. Crushing botanicals in his hand to release their oils together to create a blend that’s pleasing.
And he likes his clients to come prepared. If they’re wanting to create something new, then start with bottles, labels and licensing. Then they’ll ask what you want in it. If it’s citrus, what citrus do you want? The prospective client suggests styles of gin they like/want to create and it goes from there.
He’s also been instrumental in the creation of the distilleries first own release – Palmers Gin – the first time the Langley Distillery have released something themselves.
Both Sion and Rob see strong growth in the sector -we’ve got the taste for it gin, and the new drinkers emerging are entering a market where gin and tonic is already popular. This will keep driving the sector, along with those of us who’ve been drinking it for a while. And given they’ve already got a bigger still on commission, Natalie, they’re pretty certain.
Personally, whilst I agree for the most part, I also think we’re in for a little refinement of the sector. There are already a few brands who are starting to go a little quiet – and as the bigger brands get more involved and bring out their own ‘craft gins’ there are likely to be some smaller distilleries who may not be able to compete. We’ve already seen similar in the ‘craft beer’ sector. But there’s no doubt, there’s still growth to be had.