In Conversation with: Bloomsbury Distillery

Bloomsbury Distillery_Alan McQuillan

Bloomsbury was historically the home of many of London’s distilleries dating back to the 18th century. This included the original Gin establishments of Gordons and Tanqueray, before they moved out of the City in modern times. Hogarth’s famous “Gin Lane” painting, awash with drunken mothers and anaemic alcoholics, was an image supposedly inspired by Bloomsbury life in the 1700s. Whilst there is a lot less debauchery in modern-day Bloomsbury, and the original establishments are long gone, distillation is back in full swing following the opening of the Bloomsbury Distillery in spring 2017.

There are good reasons as to why Bloomsbury was at the heart of London’s Gin industry: unfettered access to the River Fleet (one of London’s seven underground rivers) and an easy route to London’s main trading thoroughfare, Covent Garden. According to Bloomsbury Distillery co-founders Alan McQuillan and Ben Harriman, the decision to base themselves in Bloomsbury today was more about engaging with the bustling food and drink culture of present-day London. With a real working distillery in the heart of the City, sommeliers, bar owners and chefs can pop in and see the artists at work, as well as partaking in demonstrations or tastings of some of the incredible concoctions being created there.

Prior to being a distiller, Alan was a sculptor. While studying at the RCA he became interested in distillation and began building his own out of copper, exhibiting them as works of art. It wasn’t long before Alan began investigating the physics in distillation and saw a common thread between his sculptural work and the changing forms involved in the distillation process. Since his first experiments with distilling rum in 2011, Alan has been experimenting with a wide range of materials, creating unique exotic spirits for top bars and restaurants – both in London and around the world. International recognition came in 2017 when Bloomsbury Distillery was awarded a Gold Medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition for their Peated Vodka.

Initially the Bloomsbury Distillery was set up to create bespoke products, made-to-order for private clients. For example Chris Moore, Head Barman at Coupette and previously at the Beaufort Bar at the Savoy, came to Bloomsbury with a request to produce a bespoke Amer bitter. Chris brought an original 19th Century bottle of Amer Picon to the distillery, which they tasted together and compared to the modern-day version. He wanted Alan to try and produce a stronger, more concentrated Amer, akin to the original recipe from the 19th Century. After much experimentation they succeeded and this is now sold at Coupette.

In 2017, Bloomsbury launched their first three spirits made widely available to the general public. These three spirits were a Peated Vodka, an Amer and a Pastis. FINE+RARE paid a visit to the Bloomsbury Distillery to taste the range, along with a selection of fascinating “experiments” which we hope will potentially lead to some exciting future projects. During our visit, Alan explained that the distillery is more akin to a perfumery than a traditional operation. The focus is on the material of the alcohol they use, the qualities of the oils from the botanicals they pick, and an endless search for flavour in all its forms. As Alan attests: “We don’t limit ourselves to tradition. If we think there is interest to be found in something obscure, something rare, then we go hunting for it. Our world is one of searching, trying to find a moment where all the smells and flavours harmonise to create a unique impact.”

When it comes to the actual distillation process, Alan explains: “We use a range of approaches that allow us to access all the flavours we can via different methods. Sometimes we distil under vacuum (cold) and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we macerate for 2 months, sometimes for just 20 minutes. We use different approaches, because different botanicals require different treatment. Particular alcohols behave differently under one approach versus another. We constantly maintain quality over quantity and capture the power and delicacy of each botanical and its flavours.”

The Bloomsbury Distillery has an exciting future ahead of it, with several new projects in the pipeline involving intriguing ingredients and methods. “There are a number of incredibly exciting spirits we’re working on at the moment. They’re innovative; they’re completely new, not made by anyone else before. They take inspiration from all across the globe and aim to uncover the elements of taste and culture that are rarefied or hidden, capturing them in a spirit that can allow a journey to the heart of another place.” The more we talk, it becomes clear: Alan has always had an interest in exploring the flavours of the world and how exploration of taste is a powerful way to experience the variety of life out there. “Distillation is a map of the world charted through flavour. A tool to discover cultures through experience and encounter. A formula to enter the terroir of the very soul of a place. At Bloomsbury we create spirits that encompass art, passion and pleasure.”

Watch this space for further news on upcoming projects with Bloomsbury Distillery. To keep up-to-date with all Spirits related news from F+R, click here.