The train hurtles overhead as Dr Anne Brock settles into her chair in her small airy office above Jensen’s Gin distillery. Everything about the gin is made inside the arch in Bermondsey London, from creation to production to marketing. Brock and Hannah Lanfear, who heads up business development, are the only full time people in the business. Brock has been the distiller for Jensen since 2013. She oversaw the installation of the still, the distillery build, the distillery license and she brought the production of the gin in house.
‘The brand of Jensen’s Gin is understated confidence. We create a pared back style. We make two great gins and we are happy with that. We don’t do clever marketing ideas.’
Christian Jensen, a stoic but equally charismatic Dane founded the company. ‘In 2004 the quality of gins just weren’t there so Jensen created Bermondsey Dry gin, a classic London style gin, he created it to emulate the taste of historical gins.’ What led him to this decision was when he tried a vintage gin in Japan in 2001. He came across a batch of gins from the 20th century, ‘that were a bit less juniper centric, less perfumed but more floral and rounded.’ On return to London he worked with Charles Maxwell, the founder of Thames Distillery, on reverse engineering a vintage gin style. Maxwell’s family have been making gin in London since 1680. Thames Distillery helps people develop their gins, a tailor for the gin world if you will. They helped create Bermondsey Dry.
The other gin they sell is Old Tom. It’s an older gin from the 19th century. They took the recipe from the public records, it was written in 1840. ‘We make a genuine Old Tom gin. We don’t put sugar in, as it’s known for being a sweeter gin, however we put in a lot of liquorice root which gives it the illusion of sugar sweetness.’ The best way to drink Bermondsey Dry is in a martini and Old Tom is great just with tonic.
The process of distillation is a controlled act as one would expect, taming the wild ingredients into a tasty ratio. The main ingredient of gin is juniper, a wild shrub. Botanicals is the term given to the other ingredients in gin. You can have a single botanical gin which will just consist of juniper, typically a traditional gin will have eight to twelve different botanicals.
Brock has her laboratory of flavours beside the still. A crisp mist of lemon zest hangs in the air as rinds of citrus fruits lay severed on a chopping board. Jars of mushrooms and other infused fruit and vegetables float in the background. Her slim frame moves with dexterity amongst the apparatus, pointing out ingredients with a warm enthusiasm. ‘We just operate the still twice a quarter and export to the United States, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Belgium, Denmark and Italy.’
Here’s a random piece of information, did you know that the Philippines has the highest consumption of gin in the world? Well they do. They also pour a shot on the ground to share with their ancestors every time they open a new bottle of spirits.
‘I walked away from a medical degree when I was eighteen.’ Brock said that she can remember when she was fifteen sitting an A Level exam, she got 98% but was horrified that she didn’t get that extra 2%. ‘I walked away from being that type of person. It was a decision that took a long time to make, but I made the decision by myself and accepted the reality that went with it.’
She then spent four years working in the hospitality industry, bartending in summers and traveling the world in winters. ‘I loved every country I’ve been to, choosing a favourite is quite difficult. Recently I spent some time in Vietnam which was amazing. The country is so diverse and I traveled the length of it from Hanoi down the coast and into Ho Chi Minh city. The food, the people and the landscape were all brilliant. Closer to home I’ve also been exploring Scandinavia a bit more.’
Willingly turning away from control towards the random highlights the pioneer spirit in Brock, a trait that eventually led her to gin making.
Brock decided to return to university and attended Oxford whereupon she got a PhD in organic chemistry. After several years she knew that she didn’t want to stay in academia but she didn’t know what she wanted to do. ‘Being a scientist I was targeted by investment bankers and management consultants because with a science background you have logical reasoning. Put more simply, they like the way that your mind works, I left every single meeting feeling demoralised and uninspired.’
It wasn’t till she went to a friend’s wedding that she found her calling. ‘At the wedding a friend said to me that he met another chemist who is a distiller. A light bulb went off,’ she laughs. ‘I was really lucky that I discovered this calling as distilling is going through a massive Renaissance, if it was ten years ago I may not have been able to get into it.’
She always knew that it was gin that she would distill as it was always her drink of choice, when she taught in Oxford her students would give her gin as a thank you.
Ironically, the origins of gin can be traced to medicine. It used to be administered by the Dutch as a remedy for upset stomachs and other ailments, they used juniper to make it more palatable.
‘People think that it’s unusual for women to be distillers but actually it’s not. If you start looking at very traditional brewing and distilling it was always the woman’s job, it’s not till it became commercial that more men got involved.’
That is from a historical standpoint but in the modern gin world there are some very prolific female distillers. Joanne Moore is the master distiller of G & J Distillers, Lizzie Bailey is the master distiller of Hayman’s Distiller and Leslie Gracie is the master distiller of Hendrick’s Gin.
She cites the East London Liquor Company and Cotswolds Distillery as companies that she contacts if she wants to discuss work. ‘I just came back from the annual spirits conference and vendor expo in Louisville Kentucky, I got to meet people that do what I do! I came back enthused and inspired.’
The steady babble of excited voices can be heard below. On the weekends they open up the distillery to coincide with the Maltby Street Market. At the end of the short stretch of food vendors the distillery displays it’s library of gins, speckled with vibrant colours of limited edition gins and infusions that you can only get in person. They don’t do big marketing campaigns as Brock said earlier but they do create an exclusive sense of community.
‘The love of our gin started in London. The bartenders got behind it ten years, we just made sure that we were in the right bar, then we got them enthused.’ They in turn passed that on to their customers and they in turn spread the word. If you would like to try Jensen’s Gin for yourself you can order it in Ashtons in Clonskeagh or The Dew Drop Inn in Kill, County Kildare.
Brock is keen to point out that if you are new to gin you should start seek out gin that is made nearby. ‘I would go to your local gin distillery so that they can talk you through it.’ She highly recommends Shortcross Gin in County Down and Dingle Distillery in County Kerry.
Brock embodies the Jensen brand, understated confidence. Her journey to a distillery in Bermondsey is a colourful one, it is aching for a gin based cocktail to be created in homage.