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How to Drink Gin in the City of London with William Borrell, City of London Distillery

William Borrell - City of London Distillery

Heading to the City of London is like going home! Fleet Street, one of its most famous addresses, was always the denizen of journos who were known to enjoy a tipple or two. My guest today welcomes me back with a Gimlet that’s pure London through and through.

Very few businesses are allowed to use the livery of the City of London and William Borrell, the Director of the City of London Distillery and Founder of Vestal Vodka, explains how it all happened, plus so much more on today’s episode, sponsored by the City of London.

Did you know the City of London is just one square mile and forms the oldest part of London and was founded by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago.- it even has its own mayor, the Lord Mayor, and government, and is run independently from London? 

The City has so many things to see and do, before and after work, from quirky independent cafes to internationally-renowned cultural institutions, world-class modern architecture to historic heritage sites. From high-end shopping to vintage stalls, from street food to Michelin-star restaurants, and, of course, from small boozers to glitzy wine and cocktail bars, there is a little bit of everything for everyone.

The City of London is a vibrant part of London with its own unique atmosphere, culture and history just waiting to be re-discovered.  The “Square Smile” campaign is designed to raise awareness of the benefits of returning to the City and face-to-face interaction as firms increasingly give their staff more flexibility on where they locate through hybrid working.  It showcases the City’s vibrant offerings – ranging from world-class culture, heritage, cuisine, entertainment, retail, architecture, BARS and so much more.

Our cocktail of the week! – City of London Distillery Grapefruit Gimlet

City of London Distillery Grapefruit Gimlet
Adding grapefruit to the traditional Gimlet cocktail recipe takes the zing to another level! Don't be afraid – it is a fabulous twist!
Check out this recipe
City of London Distillery - Grapefruit Gimlet

Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with William. Just remember that I own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of Lush Life podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as my right of publicity. So if you want to use any of this, please email me!

This transcript is sponsored by:

City of London Logo

William: Now my story starts 30 years ago. We have a family farm in Northern Poland. My father was a war correspondent, but he moved there and it’s probably the most rural place you will ever see in your life. Okay. Really the middle of nowhere.

So, as a child, I was there every summer for about 30 years. About 11 years ago, I came to the conclusion that why don’t we start looking at the way vodka used to be made. So, we started regionally looking at these kinds of moonshine. Some of them were amazing, like unbelievably amazing. They were the love child of an eau-de-vie and tequila. If they went to Cancun and had sex, this is what we were making. Unfiltered vodkas incredible!

Skip to 11 years and our small family farm and distillery partnered up with a company called Halewood, a really amazing family spirit and wine in the UK. And that’s where we are today. I not only look after Vestal Vodka, but I’m also here at the City of London Distillery, in the heart of London, and actually the only distillery in the walls of the City of London. Do you know about the City of London at all?

It’s funny that you say that because when I moved to London, I just assumed the City of London was all of London. But then I found out very quickly that no it wasn’t, and it was an actual distinct part of London, but tell me more.

It’s got its own police force and it’s got its own jurisdiction. It’s got its own planning and, I think, there are some archaic laws that date back several centuries, I guess, in a way it has a little bit of that Vatican vibe. It’s a little bit onto itself.

One of the most amazing things about it is their desire to preserve this incredibly olde world approach to the City of London. The City of London, when you see it, unfortunately it’s had things like the Great Fire, but again, that’s several hundred years ago, but it’s gone through these resets. When you go to the City of London, and any tourist who has been here or any Londoner, I would suggest come down and have a little look. It’s all of these small little lanes and buildings and the architecture is a mismatch.

You’ve got everything from St. Paul’s Cathedral to these little lanes and old pubs, like the Cheshire Cheese, where you can sit where Wordsworth would be or Samuel Pepys, and it’s dark and it’s got lit fires and stuff like that. So it’s unbelievably interesting, the City of London. We’re very lucky to be the only distillery within the City of London because we were given permission to use their livery.

So that defines the City of London. And that’s one of the key points that, I think, we maybe got a bit lucky, but I think they came round and they saw us and they were like, “You guys are making gin, the way that they used to make gin.” I think it’s close to traditional London Dry Gin production, as you can probably even imagine it’s got that Hogarth feel to it.

All right. We need to unpack so much of that. Let’s go back to where you said you’re the only distillery in the City of London right now. There must have been a whole lot more gin distilleries throughout the years. How did you end up being the only one now?

I think we look at this gin resurgence and, what happened is  probably we could say maybe about 11 to 15 years ago, the gin market and even like the spirits markets were, well it was quite bland. When you went to a bar, there was maybe one type of gin, one type of vodka, and then this craft distilling thing opened up.

Now, what we had was that wonderful gin boom. Where everyone went crazy. I think it’s been well-documented on your podcast. Every man, woman and child was drinking liters of gin. They were throwing the baby out with the bath water and stuff like that. There was lots of consumption and home distillation, and a lot of that was unregulated. I’m skipping through history here a little bit, but I’m sure have most of your listeners and viewers have gone through this before.

We then go for this period where there’s not very much variety or innovative. Suddenly people start to prove that you don’t have to be a large corporation to deal with the paperwork that goes with the tax and the duty on liquor and spirits. People figure out that it’s actually just paperwork. It’s a pain, it’s a real pain, but if you can dot the I’s and cross the T’s and be patient, you can get a license.

So a lot of these distilleries start popping up around the City of London about 15, 16 years ago. Because we’re very close to Fleet Street and one of the things people should understand is that Fleet Street used to be this production hub for all of the newspapers in the UK. The tabloids, the broad sheets, they were all here. It had that real sense of production about it.

Now, like New York, where you’re from, the Meatpacking District has gone a bit hipster and they don’t pack meat so much anymore. They don’t make papers that are much anymore here. Fleet Street was this amazing place and this particular building was actually called the Golf Club. I imagine when the Don Draper’s of this world, like Mad Men, went to their secretary, “Doris I’m just going to the Golf Club,” they were going to this bar. This bar had this reputation with all of the journalists and writers and people of the day and I have to say, this only happens in the City of London.

As far as I can tell these guys were drinkers, the three, five, martini lunch vibe. That’s what these guys were doing.


Hey, sorry about that. We were just grounding out some juniper, but don’t tell anyone because that’s our secret. That’s how we get a maximum flavor. Don’t tell anyone. No, one’s going to know Susan, right?

It’s funny. I would have edited that out, but now I’m not going to.

Why would you? Okay. I just had to escape and then, …

Juniper grinding happening!

Yeah, we did used to do it with the mortar and pestle, but now we do it with a machine, but don’t judge us. Okay. We still make the stuff as you can see.

We’ve got Fleet Street and these people are drinking to excess. Sometimes when you inherit a bar, there was a bar before. It was a pub before and you’ve got the ghosts going around and the ghosts here are very comfortable drinking Martinis and Gin and Tonics. So we’re happy with that.

Then Jonathan set up a bar here, he ran it again for that purpose of Gin and Tonics, and then came upon this idea. “Why am I pouring somebody else’s gin? Why don’t I put in a big still and then I’ll make my own gin?” So, he put in something and the City of London Distillery was born. It’s been through many guises, but now the City of London Distillery, and the City of London Gin, and now predominantly, the Whitley Neill Connoisseurs Cuts.

He then put in this still and he created something that is still here today. Although what we are doing is we are building on that. And so we’ve got the biggest still, Elizabeth, and she’s 400 liters. And then after Elizabeth, we’ve got Clarissa, she’s 130 liters and she’s got her sister called Jennifer and she’s like 130 liters.

So, all of these ladies, very sophisticated ladies, who lunch – let’s not beat around the bush, Elizabeth will produce something like about a thousand bottles. She’s a 400 liter still. She’ll do a thousand bottles a day of gin, so it’s genuinely something, this is not just for the tourists. This is a space where it’s a production facility, then it’s also a bar as well.

So, as we say, you can have a Gin and Tonic anywhere in the world. But there’s not many places where you can have a Gin and Tonic and see it being made. And if you’re very lucky and, Susan, I hope you don’t tell the government about this. Okay. But if you’re very lucky and you creep in you can actually put your finger under the still, and just taste it off the still!

If you haven’t been on a gin tour, I’m not saying come on ours, go on any gin tour around the world. Any spirit tour and taste the spirits fresh off the still, and you will taste flavors that are so zesty and effervescent. They’re like those kids’ sweets that fizz on your tongue a little bit. Those incredibly sharp flavors coming through and, at 80% ABV or thereabouts, you’re not tasting it. I’ve always thought that coming off the still like that what happens is you’ve got that, like cooking, there’s a freshness there, it’s amazing. It’s amazing.

Since we are in London and the City of London, was one of the first gins that you created a London Dry Gin?

100% London Dry, 100%. What’s been crazy is just to see the gin market now. Susan, I’m a vodka chick through and through. Okay. I love my vodka. I always will do, but at the moment, what we’ve got with gin has been this explosion of lots of craft gins and London Dry’s and stuff like that. But then we saw this explosion of flavors within gin and that’s been amazing to see. They’re both incredibly strong categories and people still love those styles of gin. But I’m going to let you in on a tiny little secret and I’m looking into the future here.

Okay. And I have to say, my track record has been okay making these predictions. We recently held something called the Grand Martini competition, where bartenders from London had to create their own distillate and then make a Martini from it. We had these incredible entries.

Now the person who won was actually a guy called Giuseppe from a place called Nightjar. The famous bar called Nightjar. Amazing. Now Giuseppe was not what I call a star tender. Okay. He wasn’t one of the big names. He was a junior bartender, but he produced a gin with parmigiana and porcini mushrooms. That was unbelievably umami in a Martini.

Now so much so that we looked at all of these different gins being produced. And again, let’s say I love a London Dry. I love flavored gin. I’m into all of those, but we took inspiration from that. And I don’t think anyone’s seen this yet. This is like super new. I just opened the box 30 seconds ago. Spiced Gin.


So, what you’re looking at is, you’re looking at a gin with all of these incredible botanicals. There’s a large amount of turmeric, ginger, there’s a little bit of chili in there. What that shows us is that we pick up on these zeitgeisty ideas. If all the bartenders who came down for the Grand Martini competition were predominantly making savory or umami gins. Maybe there is a general psyche, maybe there is something in the air that these things lead from the bartenders.

A good example is about three years ago, there’s a spirit called Midori. Midori became this  thing, Japanese watermelon. Bartenders were going crazy for it. And there were bartenders for the first time, “Oh my God, you’ve seen this new Midori thing.” It’s like, yeah, I’ve seen it. I’m on the third cycle of this one. And then, I started to see these Watermelon Negronis or watermelon as the flavor became very popular.

So if you do look at the bartenders and what they’re doing with flavors at the moment, it could be really interesting because you could take those little points of reference and then see maybe, and I say, maybe cause, it’s just like putting money on horses, what is going to be the next big thing.

We see spiced and savory as a really interesting segue to keep people interested in the gin market, because all of these things are very cyclical and they go round, and they’ll become popular again and then drop off.  That’s what happens. So yes, spiced gin.

You heard it here! It’s funny because gin was originally, if you think back to the 1800s, 1700s was quite sweet like the Old Tom Gin and now, 300 years later, our palate has become used to more savory things like Amaro. Champagne was always popular with sugar until the English and American started to drink it. They took that out. And now I guess we’re getting spicier and spicier. So from bitter, we’re transitioning to spice.

I think that bitterness is incredible. And I think actually the bitterness is incredible in America because they were a later adopter to bitterness than the Europeans because of obviously, inclusion of bitterness, but as you say, Amaros and, various products, from Campari to Aperol.

They have that bitterness, that gentian root, going through. I think that was a newer thing for the US market, but to see them embracing that, it definitely then becomes a bit more of a global palate and you’re right, because they’re all very different palates around the world.
Something that works somewhere. It might not work somewhere else. And just on the point with the gin, it’s amazing. You can buy all of these wonderful old gins from like the 30s, 40s, and 50s. And there is a lightness and a sweetness to them.

If we go further back to Genevers they had quite a bready, one-dimensional note. So I think those gins originally, I think, would have been fairly one dimensional. They wouldn’t have had a lot of what’s going on at the moment. I’m sure the juniper would have been there, but I think it would have been like an overly predominant juniper with a few other bits and bobs.

One more thing we have to unpack is the livery thing. So tell me exactly what a livery is and why you’re allowed to put it on your bottle.

This is the coat of arms for the City of London Distillery. We were very privileged. It’s almost like a Royal Seal in a way. We are recognized within the City of London as being reputable producers of gin and they were happy to put their coat of arms, their seal of approval on what we did, for lots of reasons.

I think the quality speaks for itself. When you come down here and you see the production and I have to say, if I took you back there, it’s like a little warren and there’s an old beer drop where they used to drop barrels of beer down and that’s where we put things up and down.

We’ve got an electric forklift truck that has to maneuver in a space this big. Then there’s people manhandling hessian sacks made of cloth. If we had the Black Plague, I think we would be in an official visitors attraction of ye olde England. It’s incredible what they do back there.

So for all of those reasons, we were allowed to do that. And then secondly, one of the other things is the City of London recognizes that tourism is important. They want to let people know that this is an area that is not just now full of lawyers, insurance, finance, all of that stuff. There is a genuine point of interest and I think our proximity to the church of St. Brides is just over there. Again, if you just go on Google maps, you’ll see we’re on a tiny little lane that meanders down.

Susan: Yes, totally. It must feel really special to be the only City of London distillery, especially when the City of London is one of the oldest sections and had the history of gin production. Then it lost it and then you’ve come back. It must, I don’t know, feel fab.

It makes it worthwhile when nice people like you take an interest because we are  subterranean, we’re little mole men. We sometimes come out for a bit of light and we’re just making gin and stuff. So yeah, it makes it cool.

Well, I love it. It’s a great bar. I know that you make lots and lots of different cocktails. And so even though I don’t usually talk about the cocktail of the week there, you gave me so many to choose.

Well, so I thought.

No, it’s a good thing!!

Well, a cocktail menu should be very simple, but I don’t know. Maybe we just went overboard.

Three. Okay. Usually people just send me one. So you sent me three. Tell me a little bit about them and how they came about and who created them.

So with the Gimlet. Are you into fresh lime juice or…?

Well, I love the Gimlet. It’s one of my favorite gin cocktails actually.

There’s lots of debate about it. I think the Gimlet weirdly seems to have this subsection of society. There’s almost a Gimlet appreciation society. And I feel like, what do they say? The Gimlet is gin’s equivalent to a daiquiri. It’s got that bartender feel to it, but it’s a little bit more sophisticated and, it’s strange, if it’s not on the menu. I think it’s one of those drinks that if you go into a bar anywhere in the world and say, “I’ll have a Gimlet,” they’ll look at you and they’ll be like, oh yeah, you’ll either a big boozer or you work in the industry.

So why did you decide to replace the lime with grapefruit or enhance it?

I think we’re going to put the spec up on your site. I think the thing was, is just to hook on a twist. The grapefruit that we produced, the amount of grapefruit that goes into it is alarming. And that just felt like it was like a zesty-on-zesty vibe, which I really did enjoy.

Some of these cocktails that do come from those old cocktail books, whether it’s the Harry Cradock’s, the Savoy is that those old cocktail books, I think arguably you could say they’re quite boozy cocktails. If I have a friend, right, and I say to them, oh, “Hey, would you like a Gimlet?” or any of those cocktails of that era, then I’ll present it to them and they’ll take a sip. Their face is like, whoa, this is boozy strong and I think those cocktails did tend to rely a lot on an intensive burst of flavor, but also booze.

I think the intention of those cocktails, now we might have gone a little bit off piste, with our consumption, but those cocktails, it was one or two, you weren’t having on that five, six Gimlets. You were going to a place very quickly, and it was then, it was a cocktail before dinner.

And then at dinner, you’d have wine and everything, but you weren’t going to a place where you were stumbling and falling about and all of those things. So I think, the way that we drink cocktails, certainly we drink older recipes of cocktails has changed quite a lot. I don’t think we appreciate that they were there for sipping and savoring. I think a lot of people go at these kinds of cocktails, quite full steam ahead.

Absolutely. You said you were going to talk about your gin, so do you use the Connoisseurs Cut in that? Well, that was something that we were actually, the Connoisseurs Cut was something, another thing, we had to unpack.

So the Connoisseurs Cut! What’s been amazing about the Connoisseurs Cut is first of all, it’s a London Dry Gin, but for those gin lovers out there, it’s 47% ABV. So already, this is not normal. This is something to be savored. It gets made here daily in that larger still over there, Elizabeth. Within the Connoisseurs Cut, it’s the overriding flavors of that London Dry, but with that incredible zestiness with, for me, the pink grapefruits coming through, the orange, the licorice, all of those lovely notes, obviously your juniper, coriander seed, angelica roots, stuff like that as a base.

Because it’s produced in a one shot and what you see is what you get, it passes through.  One shot gin tends to be very uneconomical to make, if you want to make the best gin in the world and win awards, then what are you going to do? I’m sure if you were running a Formula One team like Ferrari, that’s very unprofitable, but you do it because you want to push the pinnacle of your heart and your craft.

That’s what the Connoisseurs Cut does. The Connoisseurs Cut was born because it was very much something that those bars in predominately London were asking for and it gave a sense of exclusivity to it. It’s a very bespoke product that’s made with an incredible amount of care, in the same way as if a Michelin star restaurant would go and source its meat from the best meat producer. A lot of these top 50 bars, if they want to make a gin that is equal to a Michelin star restaurant and their ingredients, then this is really what they’re going to go for. That was really the whole idea behind that.

We’re actually developing a spirit library. I think was Mr. Lyan just opened a new bar called the Seed Library, which is a lovely concept. I remember reading about that in New Scientist about 10 years ago. This idea that you need to keep the seeds. People think that they’re more valuable than gold. We’re doing a spirit library and today we are doing, don’t tell anyone, Susan. Okay. This is just between us, right? I’ve given you far too many new product development ideas.

Okay. If I see you producing a new gin like this, I will know where this is. We are distilling in avocado today. We’re interested in avocado. It’s given us some interesting notes. It’s a difficult one because avocado is a lot about the perfect avocado, the ripeness, the consistency, in conjunction with eggs or salmon, or even a salad with feta, that kind of thing.

But actually when you put it into a smoothie or you could have put it into places like that, it’s got this interesting nuttiness to it. It’s something we’re interested in. A good example of the spirit library is yesterday we did unroasted green coffee beans and it didn’t work. It was nothing. It was a bit rubbish. So, it’s not all success. It’s a lot of trial and error.

Susan: When you make that avocado gin let me know, because my partner is allergic to avocado. One sip of that and…

It’s funny, my partner’s allergic to ginseng. So it’s something you do tend to see it quite a lot in cocktails, so we have to give a bit of warning.

Well, so the other two cocktails you gave me were very simple, very classic, the G&T and the Martini. And now we know we have to use the Connoisseurs Cut for that!

So the Gin and Tonic, I think this might be a bit controversial, but I’m of the feeling that a decent Gin and Tonic should be that first sip, how it hits you. I am a believer in a 50/50, as much gin as there is tonic.


 And a generous squeeze of grapefruit. I prefer it because with fresh grapefruit you get that zestiness. I know that there was a trend for people to have dehydrated fruits on things as garnishes which gives a candy to it. I didn’t really feel that. It  wasn’t my cup of tea. I think, the fresher you can do things right. If you’ve got the technology, the better.

Absolutely. And last but not least the Martini!

So the Martini, I really think the trick for the Martini is, I know this sounds a little  superstitious, but you need to leave that bottle in the freezer for a good 24 hours. If you do that then your spirit becomes thick and viscous and syrupy, and it’s already at that lovely,  mercurial consistency.

That’s where the Martini starts to me. Now, look, whether you want to be James Bond, shake it, or you want to stir it and be like a professional, it’s up to you. Or if you want to go super fancy on the garnish? Or you just want to squeeze a little bit, put it around the rim and then throw it away. It’s up to you.

I think that the Martini is very subjective and, unless you’re making them at home to your spec, I think you just respect what the bar gives you and just go with it because there must be a million connotations of the Martini.

Susan: Of course! Usually as we finish, I ask for your top tips for the home bartender. And I think putting the bottle in the freezer for at least 24 hours is a huge tip. Do you have any others?

William: I’m going to go next level, but your viewers and listeners are going to love me and hate me in equal measures. And I have to say Susan, most people who meet me, there’s a line, there’s a love-hate thing going on, but you all, you either take some vodka or you take some gin.  Υou take out about 50 ml or thereabouts of vodka. So that could just be a double measure, or a little shot. Okay. And you replace it with some vermouth and you put that in the freezer!


That becomes your ready to pour Martini. Now, if you’re super organized and this will make the difference, you’ve now got your Martini in a bottle. Okay. So ready to pour, get your glassware in the freezer. Get everything super cold. Everything’s super cold.

The last thing I always ask is if you could be anywhere drinking anything right now, where would that be? And what would it be?

I’m going to be unsurprising like millions of other people. I would be at Dukes Bar in Mayfair with Alessandro watching him be a legend, a word we use way too much with star tenders. Okay. Some people can get propelled to fame very, very quickly, but if you have the time and it’s a little bit quiet and you listen to his stories and where he’s worked and his rock and roll attitude.

He is not beholden to anyone. He is his own man and he is just day in, day out Mr. Hospitality. He has a drink that I don’t even know because it’s shrouded in mystery and it’s a secret. It is the Truffle Martini and it happened because he made a mistake. He got some truffles from Alba and he’ll tell the story better than me, but he had them in a little cheater bottles, one of those little bottles that you have putting bitters in and stuff like that.

He had some in there, but he’d left them in there, but he opened them up and smelled them. Something had happened that they had created something quite beautiful. Umami, savory, zesty, lots of everything going on, all the good components of a great Martini. And so to this day, once a year, truffle season, he gets some truffles from Alba. He infuses them for a certain period of time.

Then this drink with, I have to say, I’m very proud, some Vestal Vodka goes on the menu and it is the Truffle Martini limited time. Only once it’s gone, it’s gone for the year. And if you get to try the Truffle Martini you have hit the pinnacle of martinis. Just have one drink. I think, Susan, he limits people to two Martinis and that’s it.

I know that. I understand why, because I had one, I’ve had one and it was plenty! Yes, they’re fabulous. Well, this has been so much fun talking gin, City of London, City of London Distillery, a little, teeny bit about vodka. Finally it was great to have you, so thank you so much for being on the show.

William: We got to see the seat with your name on it.

Susan: Well, I can’t wait.

William: Thank you very much, Susan. Bye.

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