Saturday, September 13th, 2008
Today was a very different day than yesterday. Very different.
Yesterday was all about a glamourous cocktail competition, an exquisite dinner in a private salon, and an exclusive tour of some of London’s most luxurious bars. Today was about a wretched hangover, six hours spent in a cramped Peugeot with three other people, driving in the pouring rain, miserable traffic, discovering the hard way that I’m allergic to airborne botanicals in a cold Birmingham distillery storage room, being fed cheese and pickle relish sandwiches from a gas station (twice) and being subjected to some very, very bad singing.
It was also my favorite day of the trip and I’d never give back a single second of it.
Our 8 AM distillery tour time was delayed in typical London fashion by several hours due to the various hangovers, traffic issues, communication problems and breakfast woes that seem to often accompany scheduled events in this city. However, things eventually made their way back on track and I found myself in the seat of that cramped little Peugeot with three of the ladies from Martin Miller’s gin on our way to the distillery in Birmingham.
London doesn’t like to see you leave, however, and makes it as hard as possible to get out of the city. So at a snail’s pace we wove our way through the towns and highways west of London. I was pleased to see that there really is a Slough (from The Office) and that it looks about as lovely as I imagined.
Slough might have been the site of the auto plaza where Martin Miller’s treated me to my first meal of the day: a cold sandwich, cut on the diagonal and encased in one of those triangular plastic sandwich containers we have back in the States. However, unlike the gas station sandwiches back home, the English varieties only come in flavors such as egg salad with smoked fish, chicken with boiled potato, bacon with butter, and aged cheese with pickle chutney. Being the brave soul that I am, yet fearing anything containing convenience store meat, I opted for the cheese and pickles.
And let me tell you, oh-my-god, I have a new favorite sandwich. I am not kidding. Cheese and pickle sandwiches from the BP in Slough are really, really good.
Back on the road, and fortified by our bizarre sandwich selections, we braved another hour of English-style directions (“follow the garden wall until you see the pub with the fox on the door, then turn into Butterbank road”), nonsensical roundabouts and near-misses, until we happened upon the distillery, which was set apart from its other Industrial Revolution-era brick neighbors by a small sign in block letters that read “Alcohols”.
This is the home of Alcohols, LTD, and is where Martin Miller’s gin is made,
We were greeted by Peter McKay, and Master Distiller Rob Dorset and given a brief introduction to the company. Alcohols, Ltd. is owned by W.H. Palmer, a family-owned firm that is 203 years old. This particular site has been part of the family since the 1970s, but the buildings themselves are the remains of what used to be a brewery in the 1700s. It was sometime during the Seventies that a still was discovered on site, and the English being the English, they started making gin here.
Over the years, more stills were added and additional contract accounts were added (Peter wouldn’t tell me the names of any other gins that are produced there, such information is held pretty close to the vest). Martin Miller’s Gin has been produced here for nearly ten years.
Each still is given a female name, and each is cared for with a great amount of love and respectful attention. The still that makes Martin Miller’s Gin is named Angela, she’s 105 years old and has a 3,000 liter capacity. Angela’s neck is handcrafted from a single thick sheet of copper, and Rob went on at great length to me about his refusal to use metal polish on any of the stills or brass fittings around the distillery, as he worries it would disrupt the integrity of these special, antique stills.
They won’t, of course, tell me how much of everything is in their proprietary recipe, but I was able to learn that Martin Miller’s uses juniper berries from Macedonia, coriander from Russia, orange and lemon peel from Spain, nutmeg, Angelica root, licorice root, cinnamon and cassia from China, and Florentine iris root powder.
One thing that makes this gin unique is that the citrus peels are distilled separately from the other botanicals and then blended back in after both distillations – by hand, of course. This does result in a product with a unique citrus experience – hardly overpowering but present and always in balance with the other ingredients.
Each of these old stills has their own particular quirks and needs, and Rob seems to have formed a very personal attachment with each and every one over the course of his 27 years making gin. Rob is a dying breed in England: a master distiller that does everything by hand and nose, never aided by a computer but always by an assistant who will one day become a master craftsman like him. Together they inspect the arrivals of neutral spirits by climbing atop the tanker truck and smelling its insides. They run their hands, eyes and noses through the bags of botanicals that arrive, and weigh them on a big analog scale before they’re loaded to soak in the still over the course of 24 hours before being distilled (Miller’s is not made with the Carterhead process, and they’re very adamant about it).
Everything is so accessible, and analog, and personal here. We were able to reach into the bags, smell and taste the botanicals, taste the neutral spirits made from genetically unmodified wheat, and feel the thickness of the still walls with our hands. It’s a hands-on process, and not a product cranked out by a giant machine. It’s a really beautiful thing to be surrounded by.
As I mentioned before, the site was originally a brewery back in the days of the Industrial Revolution. Breweries were special back then, because they were very location-specific: you had to have access to clean, fresh running water. So as you’d expect, this site is sitting on top of an underground river, one we were allowed to inspect only by first crawling down a very cramped, rickety ladder into something resembling a cold, damp cave with a little creek running through it. This water helps provide steam power to fuel the distillery, but due to its high concentration of metals and minerals isn’t the water they use to cut the gin. No, we’ll have to wait for the second part of that story, which takes place on a glacier in Iceland later this weekend.
At any rate, the day was growing long and we’d taken up more than plenty of Rob’s time with our curious questions and open-mouthed fascination, so London was calling us home. And so, with another three hours of traffic jams and torrential downpours, a second round of cheese and pickle sandwiches and a very strange bag of potato chips that resembled fried calamari, we finally made it home to London and collapsed. A terrible, beautiful, exhausting and energizing day.
I’m on my way to Iceland as I write this, so stay tuned for more in the story of how Martin Miller’s gin is made. And thanks for reading.