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Blog: Laura Heywood turns her hand to gin making

Published:  04 November, 2011

Making my own gin - now that's what I call fun.

The creative folk at Portobello Star bar on Notting Hill's trendy Portobello Road are onto a winner with their new scheme to get Londoners and tourists alike enthusing about all things gin. After all, what better way to ensure people are buying the spirit than by offering them a chance to create and blend their own.

Frequented by royals, scallywags, urchins, beggars, scarlet ladies, drunkards, intellectuals and musicians, or so the founders say, the site now occupied by Portobello Star has been serving alcoholic beverages since 1740. So it's pretty well versed in the history of gin.

The aim of the newly opened Ginstitute is to not only give visitors the opportunity to create their own, but to also tell the story of distilled London Gin in an entertaining and educational way. From its use as a medicine and anaesthetic in the disease-ridden slums of London, to its creation of an epidemic of extreme drunkenness during the hedonistic Gin Craze of the Victorian era and its altogether more genteel libation when mixed with tonic for the well to do drinker of the post war twentieth century - this is a spirit with a riveting history.

Housed on the first floor of the bar and claiming to be London's second smallest museum, the Ginstitute is a recreation of a Victorian Gin Palace bar, complete with cabinets full of antique bottles, archive material from the most famous distillers of London Gin, vintage advertising pieces and collectable cocktail books. Bringing all this history to life is mixologist maestro Jake Burger, who oozes with passion. He's evidently very proud of the collection, sharing anecdotes of how he came by the rare bottles, including laying his hands on an impressive haul of pre-prohibition spirits from a house clearance sale in Connecticut.

Pride of place in the collection is a signed business card of Professor Jerry Thomas. For heathens like me, Thomas is the chap considered to be the father of the cocktail. He was the creator of flair bartending and wrote the world's first cocktail book in 1862. Described fondly by Burger as "a legendary showman", this larger than life character was also well known for his eccentric dress sense, which included a top hat complete with two white mice called Tom and Jerry that scurried around the brim. It's facts like these visitors won't forget in a hurry.

But the real appeal of the Ginstitute is the Still Room on the top floor, which houses London's smallest working copper pot gin distillery. After a few early hiccups (including an alarming but luckily small explosion), the still is up and running, producing traditional spirits made using centuries old techniques and recipes. In the Still Room visitors have the opportunity to sample, taste and blend 25 different single botanical flavoured distillates. The result is a bottle of their own unique recipe gin to take home, show off and enjoy.

Smelling and tasting the distillates is fascinating - each one with such contrasting notes and flavours that you soon appreciate the skill of a master blender. With so many on offer the possibilities are endless - will you go for spicy, crisp, floral, fruity, peppery, herbal or Christmassy? Even the most complicated recipe will get recorded on Portobello Star's database, so if a visitor hits on a stunner re-orders can be made instantaneously.

There's something immensely satisfying about walking out of a bar clutching a gin made entirely to your own tastes and by your own fair hand. And with small nuggets of gin history still lodged in my brain, I quite fancy myself as an expert master distiller. We'll see how long that lasts when I crack the bottle open later ...