Who would have thought that sitting in a bar in Tokyo you might sip a gin that reminded you why you fell in love with the spirit in the first place??
Christian Jensen dreamt about gins gone by until the fateful sip….and upon returning to London he decide he needed to create a gin just for himself. That gin is Jensen’s and thank goodness he decided to share it with others.
Today he talks us through the journey he took to create that special gin he was dreaming about.
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Cocktail of the Week: CJ Collins
Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Christian. 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!
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237 Jensen’s Gin – Audio
Susan: It’s great to have you here with me. I can’t wait to hear the story of Jensen Gin, having been there in your distillery which is fabulous.
Christian: Thank you.
Susan: Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself, where you grew up, and how you started to get into gin. And I probably will interrupt you along the way to unpack some stuff.
Christian: I am Danish. grew up in Denmark, left Denmark when I was early twenties and came to London, thought I was going to travel the world, but ended up staying and basing myself in London, but traveling back and forth to lots of bits of the world.
Susan: So why did you move to London? Was it a work thing or a study thing?
Christian: I mean, I’ve always wanted to travel, so London wasn’t, I thought a very simple transition from Denmark, given that it’s very close by, but England is quite different from Denmark. Everybody who’s been in both places will know. I wanted to go and see the world. I wanted to travel, and London was a good first step, but that was 1987. So it’s been longer than I was in Denmark.
Susan: So why was there this need or want to travel?
Christian: I mean, Denmark is a small country and there’s a big world out there. Lots of things to see and explore. I wanted to go and find out what was happening elsewhere and see how people lived and did things in other parts of the world.
Susan: All right, so after London, where’d you decide to go?
Christian: I pretty much stayed in London the whole time, but I went to Tokyo in the late 1980’s after a couple of years in London for six months, came back to Denmark, worked in Denmark, then came back to London, and then back to Tokyo, back to London.
Susan: And what work were you doing?
Christian: I studied engineering back in Denmark and then I took a sabbatical in 1986. Studied, not that hard for the three years, but had a good time. Learned enough and I got a job as a software developer back in 1986. Worked in Denmark for a clothing company for a year, and when my sabbatical was up, I thought, why don’t I go to London, find a job over there working in software. So I came to London, continued that path, basically, never went back to study again.
Susan: So what drew you to Tokyo? Was it just a work thing at the first time?
Christian: Well, the first time I met a Japanese girl in London, so I went to Tokyo as many people do for love. So I was there for six months in culture shock and enjoying it a lot, but spending all on my savings that I had saved on the last couple of years after not being a student anymore and decided to go back to Denmark and start working again and look at whether I should think about studying.
But I ended up getting a job pretty, pretty quickly and got into finance at that time. So finance tech was a thing that started back then.
Susan: Now we can go right into how you fell in love with gin.
Christian: So gin and I have a long history, being Danish, you’re expected to drink and like beer, but I never really got into that. I don’t know how I didn’t fit into that national model. So when I started going out as a teenager, back in Denmark, gin was my go-to thing. Gin and Tonic usually.
That was my alternative to beer and always was happy with Gin and Tonic and gin. Clearly over the years after that went from Gin and Tonic to cocktails in general. But gin has always been a big feature in what I was imbibing when it was alcohol that I was consuming.
Susan: Before you started making your own, which we of course will get into, was there a specific style of gin that you liked or was it just a Gin and Tonic?
Christian: You think about it and you don’t think about it. When I was in Denmark, back in the previous century until after I left, I would’ve said that Gordon’s was the gin I was drinking. It’s a London dry gin – clean, crisp.
I mean, the reason I liked Gordon’s was because it was a nice flavor. It was not rough. It was easy to drink. It was pleasant, worked well in the Gin and Tonic. It worked well with other things if I decided to mix it with other things. So just a nice, nice gin. There was more gins back then. By the time I got involved with gin. And what happened with, gin is as happens with lots of things.
Things were in cycles. There used to be a lot of gin distilleries everywhere and lots of small distilleries doing things in what we would today call craft gin way or much more distributed. At some point, the consolidation of businesses takes over and takes control of that. The big companies buy up smaller companies so they can sell more and they can own those brands as well.
By the time we get to about 2000, there probably were less than 10 gins available generally. Gin was just not a thing. People weren’t drinking gin, people were drinking vodka and all of the gin companies had been bought up by the big companies. The big companies were not making gin in the same way as they have been made by lots of companies prior to that.
When you get accountants to run things and it’s all money driven, then it becomes a different product than it is when it’s made by people who do it for love. Gordon’s specifically used to be made, when I was a kid in London, they has some beautiful gin distilleries in Islington.
We can find pictures of it. And that got brought up by one of the big companies. The production moved to Scotland and that’s where it’s today. I’m sure they’re making good business, but in terms of the gin I’m sure that it was, maybe my memory is wrong, but I’m sure it was better back in the 1980’s how they did it then.
Susan: I don’t know. You can always find a bottle at one of the vintage bars and see if that’s actually true.
Christian: And that’s what happened to me in Tokyo. I was working in Tokyo in 2000 for two years. Tokyo’s a lovely place. It’s full of small and quirky businesses. It’s much more broken up into different parts than it is here. The big brands don’t seem to be able to get the same foot hold, I don’t know what it is, but one of the bars I went into one night, I was making casual comments about gin not being as good as it used to be and the bartender agreed with me.
From under the counter, he fished out gin from the 1960’s, Gordon’s from the ‘60s and Gordon’s from 2000’s, which was on the counter and let me taste the difference. And we all agreed that it was a different product, not just because of the age, but it was just a different product. It was made differently.
Susan: Do you remember, I know it’s a long time ago, but do you remember what was the difference between the two?
Christian: I mean, one was smoother and more well balanced and nicer, easier. It was well balanced and had a soft palate. It was a classic London Dry gin. it was nice. Whereas the one that was from 2000 was more artificial and rougher and not as smooth.
It felt more like an industrial product versus, I mean, it’s a little bit like comparing a craft beer to Budweiser. I’m sure that at some point if you could compare Budweiser now to Budweiser as it was in the beginning, it would be a different thing as well.
Susan: Of course, of course. Now, after that fateful drink, did your whole world explode and you say, oh my god!
Christian: It wasn’t just one drink, it was many drinks. So for the two years I was working there, I spent a lot of evenings and happy company in that bar. Drinking, not just Gordon’s, but all kinds of gin that he was very good at finding and enjoying the experience of good quality old gin that was made with more TLC than the modern products.
Susan: I was going to say that was one big bottle if you were drinking that for two years. But the ones that he found after that bottle was finished, were they Japanese gins or they were just his collection of things that he had from the years before.
Christian: It was stuff that he either bought on the internet, which wasn’t that much, or on the weekends, he’d gone out into the mountains and found some shops. I mean, alcohol doesn’t go off, so a lot of shops will just keep things in the back. He was very good at finding all bottles of gin from all kinds of companies.
They were mainly English, but American, Italian, Japanese, all over the world. People have been making gin everywhere. But it was not just one gin, there was a lot of it. England has an advantage in gin, I think, historically. The old gin bottles from the UK were always nice, but it was not just the UK, it was all kinds of products.
Susan: Yes. I see you, it’s so romantic, in my head, I’ve just had this movie of you, this romantic movie of you going into this bar and this journey of gins over two years and how exciting it must have been for both of you, the bartender and you to explore that.
Christian: It was great. It was lovely. I mean, it’s a great bar and now not the only one enjoying these old gins, but there was a small group of us. It was nice. It was fun and interesting to do that and, in itself was nice enough. But then of course, when I left Tokyo, he gave me an old bottle of gin as a leaving present.
I’ve been there so much and enjoyed so many old gins that he basically thought I should take it to London and make some nice gin because he was finding it more difficult to find these old bottles. I think he was saying it in jest and not really serious about it. But I took the bottle with me back to London and got made redundant, so I had freedom time on my hands and decided to take a sabbatical.
I’d never really taken a sabbatical before, always been either working or trying to find work. so the mental state of taking a break was nice and I had stored lots of air miles up and I was free and jolly.
So one of the times I came back to London from one of my travels around the world, I looked at this bottle of gin and thought it would be fun to find out how you make gin and started looking into that in 2003. I wanted to make the gin in London because I think London has a strong connection to gin.
So I ended up making inquiries on how many distilleries there were in London. There were two gin distillers in London at that time. There was there a company called Beefeater which still exists. And then there was another company called Thames Distillers, which I spoke to, because I didn’t think Beefeater would be very much interested in entertaining my silliness, wanting to make gin.
But Thames Distillers, the guy there called Charles Maxwell was curious. He also thought that was completely mad. His first reaction to me wanting to make gin, was “What’s wrong with you? No one drinks gin anymore, you should make vodka instead. That’s what people drink.”
But my come back on that was that I wasn’t really interested in what people were drinking. I wanted to make a gin for myself. I had a little bit of money saved and I wanted to find out if I could make gin and the intention was to make gin for me and me alone.
Susan: I love that.
Christian: So I went down and visited him down in Clapham and saw the distillery and talked to him, and he got convinced that it would be okay to make this for me.
We talked about what the cost would be, the time and how to do it. And then we started out on this journey to create a gin for me.
Susan: Now, did you take the bottle that you had with you as an example of what the gin that you wanted to make or had you tried his gins?
Christian: I took the bottle with me and he knew the distiller that had made that bottle of English gin. He had been at his funeral some years before and the company didn’t exist anymore and had been bought up by the same company that bought up Gordon’s and the product had disappeared out of the market, not really ever come back.
He said, “Why don’t you just hold onto that bottle until we have something that we have done where, we make a product that you like and then we can do a comparison because we are not going to be gaining much from drinking that bottle and like playing around with it.”
So, his reaction to me was, instead of looking at that bottle and trying to work it out, and then tell me what it is you like about gin, what we should put in the gin to make it nice.
It’s like, I have no idea what went into gin.
Susan: I was going to ask, did you know your angelica from your orris root or your juniper at all? Did you know any of that?
Christian: Nothing, I mean I knew juniper was in gin, but apart from that, and whatever was on the sides of bottles, but it was not anything I’d ever really thought much about. I mean, it’s like going to a gallery and then seeing paintings in museums and you think I like that painting. I don’t like that painting and that’s the level of knowledge I had about gin.
I knew which gins I liked and that was as much as I needed to know as a consumer. I didn’t need to know what ingredients were in there and how they’re made and anything else. As long as the product was good, I was happy.
When he started asking me what to put in there I mean, my answer was relatively naive and simple. It’s like anything that could have been put gin 200 years ago in London, it’s okay.
So don’t come up with any new and weird things. I just want a classic London Dry gin, that’s what I remember liking. We ended up with classic botanicals which meant he was able to drive that. So juniper clearly, I wasn’t specific about what I wanted other than I wanted it to be a classic London Dry Gin, so I wanted it to taste of gin. I didn’t want it to be a vodka, so that gave me some direction.
Then I said I like the citrus flavors on some of the gins. I like the citrus notes, but I didn’t know what anything else came from in gin at that point.
Then it was an ABV conversation and the bottle of gin I had with me from Tokyo was 43%. And he said, look, it’s a good idea if you like the citrus notes, then we should make it more than 37.5%, which is the minimum.
So why don’t we just keep it at 43% s an ABV, because data allow the citrus notes to be retained longer, than it would with the lower ABV. He said, “If you’d like a well-balance gin, if you like a classic, if you like it smooth, if you like it citrusy, why don’t we do this? In my lab, we’ll make three small distillations of something that fits what you’ve told me. Then you can come back and try them, and then you can say which ones you like and then we can work out what it is that you like and develop that.”
We talked about cost of that, and he said, No one’s really done this before and when I get to produce it, I assume you’ll have me producing it. So we’ll just take this as part of getting you to order some stuff at the future.”
That sounded good to me. So no money outright. Then he would be making some gins try to fit my taste, which was perfect. I went traveling and I came back and called up Charles and asked, “What do you have?” I’d come down, and he said we have some gin, come and taste it. So I went down, tasted the gin. I would say I like this one. Why do you like this one relative to that one? So I started to describe what it was. Why I liked one versus another of things that he put in front of me.
We ended up like, I like this of this one, I like this of that one. And at some point, he said like, that’s good. We know what to do next. So next time you’re in London give us a calling and we can do another session.
Susan: How long did this take?
Christian: A year.
Susan: Oh boy, really!
Christian: Yes, so it took me years. I mean, it was every three weeks roughly. I was down there tasting three gins and playing around and evolving the recipe. And at some point, we had something that we thought that was good stuff. I felt this is what I think is good.
Then we opened the old bottle and compared it to see if there were things, I’d forgotten about all of these old gins I’ve been drinking in the past. Then we made some more adjustments, but at some point, I basically had a recipe and though this is nice gin, I would be happy to make some of this. Can you please sell me some of this?
Susan: Did you both come to consensus about that one?
Christian: it was my gin, so it me. I had to come to consensus with myself and I agreed that this is what I wanted to drink. I think Charles was happy that he’d made a good gin for me that I liked. So, but in spite of that, he said that I couldn’t buy the gin.
Susan: And why?
Christian: Because he couldn’t sell to an individual.
Susan: Oh, no way.
Christian: So the deal was I had to set up a company and get registered with HMRC to be able to place an order with him, because otherwise he couldn’t. His license for production didn’t allow him to sell to individuals. So that was a bit of like, what’s wrong with this picture?
We have a gin and I can’t buy it. I had to get something like a permission to own duty free alcohol, which you need to have. So for me to place an order to buy the gin, because he’s working with duty free alcohol, I have to have permission for HMRC to be able to own duty free goods, even though I don’t have my hands on them.
Susan: Oh boy. So how long did that take?
Christian: It took some months because I had to register a company and then I had to apply for a license to own duty free goods. And when I did that, as part of the process, they sent two people around to interview me for three, four hours. Because it’s a must. It’s a big business. Make selling alcohol for the government. The duty is huge. I mean, do you have any idea how much duties on alcohol?
Susan: A lot.
Christian: So the current duty is £28.74 per liter of pure alcohol. So if a bottle is 43%, 70 centiliters, that’s about it’s about 0.3 of liter. So the duty on that is £8.65.I’ve done the count a few times!
Christian: £8.65 is what they take when you move it out of bond. As a payment for the duty, and then you pay 20% VAT, 20% VAT on the value of the gin that you created in the first place. But it’s a huge portion of the price. If you think the cheapest gins can get, they probably cost £6 or £7 in duty and then VAT on top. So if you can buy a bottle for £10, it’s probably cost very little to do the gin and the bottle and the packaging and making profit anywhere else because there’s not much money left from £8 or £6, £7 plus VAT up to the cheapest gins you can get.
Susan: Yes. You get what you pay for, right?
Christian: Yep. Having set up this company and gotten the permission and time had gone by, it was time to call Charles and say, Charles, I have my permission to own now duty free goods. Can I now please buy some gin? And he said, yes. So that was good. And of course my next question was, how little gin can I buy?
Because it was for me. So there’s two elements. One is the distilling, so to make a commercial quantity, half a still. So that’s going to cost X amount of money. So yes, that sounds okay. And again, that’s all duty free. So the costs are not that crazy. And that gin distillate is then used to blend with alcohol and water to make gin, which I then needed to bottle.
And he said, look, the time you start a bottling line to make anything, it costs the same whether you make one bottle or a hundred cases, so you might as well buy a hundred cases. And the cost of doing that is not that much and most of the cost is actually going to be taking it out of the bonded warehouse.
So we can make these hundred cases, that’s going to cost X amount. Then when you take them out of the warehouse, you can come and collect a case every now and again, and then you don’t have to pay all of the duty and tax up front. So that sounds like a good deal to me.
I ordered other cases of gin for myself, 12 bottles in each, so 1200 bottles of gin, of my new recipe that I had worked with Mr. Maxwell to develop, which was not what I had planned to start with, but it was where I ended up in 2004. So I had a company, I had permission to include free goods and I had a team that I have developed and I ordered hundred cases.
Susan: When did you decide, okay, I’m not going to drink all of this myself. Maybe I’ll share it or sell it to other people?
Christian: There’s actually one thing that happened before that. I got traveling again and Charles says like, it’s going to be x amount of time before we ready to do stuff. So a couple of months goes past and Mr. Maxwell calls saying so we have distilled in and we’re going to bottle it in three weeks’ time.
What bottles are we putting it in? And this was then my prompt to be, what’s wrong with you? That’s a silly question. You put it in gin bottles, what else would you put it in? And he’s like, that’s not how it works. You have to actually pick the bottles. And he said, why don’t you come down to the distillery, the company next to us makes bottles, and they have things to stock and that’s the only stuff that you can actually get in time for us to bottle it.
So I went down to Clapham to visit Charles, the glass company next door, and looked at the bottles. And the bottles that I use now are the bottles that they had in stock, the clear bottles. I liked them. They’re square. For me, they’re classic gin bottles. it is actually an old Johnny Walker shaped bottle.
Susan: Yes, it is!
Christian: Johnny Walker used to be made in those bottles. but everybody used to make them back then. I like the shape, so I thought my job was done. I was out of my chair on my way out, and Mr. Maxwell said, well, actually, we also need labels. It’s like, come on. It’s like, I just wanted some gin.
What’s on with these difficulties? So he said well, for us to bottle it, we have to put a label on it, because when a bottle of gin is consumed, you need to be able to know basically like what’s the name of it, who’s producing it, so you can find the person. If there’s something wrong with it and it needs to be recalled or anything happens, you need to know the quantity and the ABV of the liquid in there, and that has to be on the bottle.
Everything else is optional, but you can’t put things that are going to make you smarter or more intelligent or more beautiful. That that is illegal to put on the label. So he gave me the rules for how to make a label and then he also gave me a phone number and an email address of the company that could make it in the time because, and he said, don’t play around with colors, because if you start playing around with colors, it’s going to take longer than they can get right.
So stick with black and white and then keep it simple. So that was fine. So I had my recipe for a label and I went home and called up one of my friends in Copenhagen, who was a graphic designer, artist, and asked what he was planning to do that evening. He didn’t have any plans, so we ended up making a label that evening.
So the label, the first label got designed pretty much overnight by me and my friend Denmark, and the recipe from Charles.
Susan: Was it similar to the one that you have now?
Christian: It was more minimal than that. And I mean, if you Google it on the internet, you’ll find the old label, just look for images of it. The old label didn’t have any information about anything on it, just had the things that had to be on it. So it was very terse and it looked like an IT guy could have printed it on his laptop, on all his computers on his printer at home. It was very basic and very minimal, but it reflected that I care about the liquid, not so much about the packaging.
For me, that was fine. He was also the one that insisted I had to put my name on the bottle. I was expecting the gin company. I said I was called Bermondsey Gin Limited. It’s the part of London I live, and therefore I decided that was a good name for it. And it was also a part of London where all of the things that the Puritans in the city didn’t allow, tended to happen on the south of the in Bermondsey theaters, gin, brewery, all kinds of stuff.
Susan: But your friend made you call it Jensen’s.
Christian: He made me put Jensen’s on it, so I reluctantly did that. It was a good idea. He did the right thing to insist on that. So we had the labels and got the bottles produced. And then I got the call from Charles. He said, you have some gin, do you want to come and get some? So yes, went down, got a couple of cases, took them home and enjoyed them very much.
In the first couple of cases, I got a little bit worried about myself and a hundred cases of gin. So thinking that it would be a bad idea to either try to drink them or use them as presents for everybody that I know over the years. It just didn’t seem like it was the right amount of gin for one person to be dealing with.
I thought maybe I should sell some. As a software developer, you don’t have a lot of experience in selling gin. So I started carrying bottles of gin around in my jacket. I had a nice jacket that has two pockets on the inside, basically like if you have a normal jacket and there are pockets at the bottom on the outside, on the inside, there were some inside pockets that could fit a bottle of gin each.
It was like one of those jackets where people had 400 watches that they opened up. I had two bottles of gin in my jacket. I’d go into shops and restaurants and bars and say that I make gin. how do you buy gin? where do you get your gin from? I was trying to find out.
So, in 2004 when I went into a bar and said, I’m making gins, everybody was like, wow, that’s interesting. Why do you do that? No one makes gin anymore. It’s very strange. So it was easy to get people interested in hearing my story back then. So it was nice to have that, but most of them were buying from this company or that company.
There was not really any easy way and the shops were curious, but again, not really interested. Who would buy from a single guy walking around with two bottles of gin in his pockets. I ended up going to Borough Market which is local to where I live as well. There I found a shop there that sold wine. In the basement of the wine shop, they had a little alcohol store. I went in there on Friday night and asked if they wanted to sell gin, I don’t think they really wanted to, but I left a bottle for them to try and next morning I came back, and asked if they tried it and they hadn’t!
Surprise, surprise, one of the owners was there. David and a French guy who was the wine person and a journalist was there. So I asked them to taste it. And oh, you could see that they were not really that interested in tasting gin but managed to get the bottle open and managed to get them convinced to try the gin. The owner was clearly the key person and he was sitting on a chair.
When he got this little plastic cup with the gin, he closed his eyes and sniffed that in. And then he tasted it, kept his eyes closed through the whole thing. And then like 20 seconds later, he rub his eyes and said it was amazing. This is gin. Just like I remember from being a kid, it’s proper London gin. They’re started selling it.
That shop in Borough Market which still exists is called Bedales on Bedales Street, they basically decided to sell my gin on that Saturday morning. And, they sold most of the hundred cases starting in 2004.
Susan: Did you continue making it then?
Christian: I mean, again, this was not planned and was just going with the flow. It was interesting. I mean, I was working or traveling or doing stuff, but when I went to the market on Saturdays or for market, I’d go into the shop and go down to the basement.
My fear usually was that they were selling gin to some unsuspecting person, telling all kinds of stories about this mad person making gin. Cause they’re telling all kinds of stories that Clearly, they had good marketing and good sales, but I had no idea what they were saying. I didn’t want to get dragged into a story about stuff that I had no idea what the context was.
There was no script for any of this. So it was quite funny. But they did a great job and it was nice because back then there was not that much marketing and not so much social media. So finding out when people were making comments about my gin on the internet was relatively straightforward.
I could see that there was a liking for it, that people enjoyed it ,so when the hundred cases started running low it was very tempting to call Charles and ask him to make some more. We made some more and it snowballed from there.
Susan: When did you decide it was time to have your own distillery?
Christian: That was quite a bit later. So many people over the years kept telling me I should make my own distillery. It seemed like a good idea. I had a very qualified company making it for me that’d been very instrumental in making my recipe for me. They did a fine job. It was like I didn’t need to invest anything.
I had companies that sold my gin for me. So again, that was relatively straightforward. It was a nice and easy side business to have a good hobby for, a fun project to do. And it gave me good reasons to go to a nice bars and talk about gin, which clearly, I enjoy.
Not until, I mean, Sipsmith was a big thing and happened in 2009, they started making gin and gin was starting to be a thing. Then in 2012, I can’t remember what the event was, but basically my birthday in 2012, I decided to buy a still for myself for my birthday party and to sign up for lease under the railway arches where you’ve been.
Christian: So it was in 2012 that happened around June when my birthday is, and not really looked back since then.
Susan: Yes, and if you think, that’s 11 years ago, gin still was just starting to become what this craze that it is now. It was really still those early days. Yes.
Christian: At that point, I’d been making gin for seven, eight years already. So it was weird. But the distillery was a fun thing. When I started thinking I should do it, I started doing some research, what still should we buy. I talked to Charles as well and found out what they do.
Christian: They were in England. They used to be the Rolls Royce of gin stills and there’s still gin out there that were made from them in the past. And of course I wanted to have something that was similar to what they were using, because it impacts the product when you move from one production area to another production area.
So getting a still, which was relatively a copy of what they had was desirable. Plus it was a classic London still, which fitted in with me trying to make gin in London, which I still believe is the right place to make gin, at least for me, maybe not for everybody.
Susan: The romantic in me wants to know, was it hard to break up with Charles?
Christian: I mean, yes, it was, but it was not acrimonious or difficult in any way like that. It was, “Charles, don’t you think I should start my own distillery?” And he’s like, “Yes, sounds like a good idea.” They helped and he was aware that I was doing it.
He gave me the name of the company of their stills and explained about it. I found that the company still existed. It was down to one person at that time, but he was willing to make a still for me. So we met and talked about getting a still made. It was just very similar to the ones that they have at Thames Distillers, but not quite the same, but same size and roughly the same.
They were made in the UK. Most of the metal work in Kent, but bits and pieces from other companies made it up. So when we got the still finally like a year and a bit later and we had all of the permissions and the licenses and what have you that we needed, the deal was to go to Thames Distillers to make gin with them, to see how they were doing it.
We learned how to distill gin from them. All of the ingredients, the first time we distilled, came from them. So we basically got all of the juniper, coriander, and orris root, angelica, and so on and so forth from them. Then we got the alcohol from them.
I think we even got the water to just make sure that there was no variation in anything. So whatever went in this still, when we tried to distill the first time, we wanted to be as few variables from the prior production. Clearly, they were all helping us. They’re all part of that. So yes, it was difficult, but it was also easy in another way.
Susan: Now there are two bottles behind me, one is your London Dry and one is the Old Tom. So I was wondering when did you decide to start creating the Old Tom?
Christian: The Old Tom happened much before my distillery. It happened back in 2007, 2008. Basically one of my friends in the industry was saying, look, vodka sales are falling, continuing to fall, and all of the big producers are looking for an ornate spirit to start making and they’re going to start doing what you’re doing. You had the market, yourself, you and interesting gin, but that’s not going to continue. So given that your main market is good cocktail bartenders and in nice bars in the hotels, why don’t you make the other gin that everybody knows from the classic recipes, which is Old Tom gin.
Then he told me that it’s easy to make Old Tom gin. You just take your gin and put sugar in it, and then you have an Old Tom gin. So it was like the London Dry, the dry element was what he thought was going to make in an Old Tom gin. and being the nerd that I am I decided to do a bit of research and find out how Old Tom gin used to be made and found out that actually the Old Tom relates to the other part of the London Dry, it was the recipe that changed clean alcohol in 1831.
This type of distillation started being possible that made London gin the London thing because the company that started making distillers for clean alcohol distillation was based in London. They started selling to distilleries in London that made gin. What the gin distillers found was that with clean alcohol you could make a different style of gin that was lighter and more elegant in its profile.
Less botanicals, less cost of botanicals, of course, but also a different style of gin because it was starting, not with a rough unaged spirit that really was not nice, but a nice clean alcohol. So the recipe changed from lots of botanicals to overpower the flavor of the alcohol to something that was using the same botanicals, but much easier to drink and consume in nice drinks and cocktails.
Of course, this happened around the time when the cocktails bars started happening. So the American bars and what have you was a thing that started happening around just after London Dry gin started happening. It was also the time when the empire was growing and there was a need to get people to take their tonics, which was the anti-malarial drug that we had.
It’s unpleasant. I mean, if you ever try the tonic syrups that are available now, you’ll understand why. I mean, they’re full of sugar, but they’re still very bitter because quinine is a really bitter compound. They found that one of the ways to get peoples to take their tonic was to put gin in it. So gin and soda and a bit of the tonic was a way of getting people to take their anti-malaria drugs out in the colonies.
So gin transformed around that time. but the transformation was really a recipe change. So the Old Tom, from a distillers point of view back then was a change in recipe. The Dry was really not at that time done in the distilleries. It was done in the next part of the chain, which was the pubs, the gin palaces.
Christian: They’re making more money by diluting the gin they’re buying from the distilleries basically. And to make it less obvious that they’re doing that, they did three things to the gin that is very well documented. One of them was to put sugar in it. Because sugar is apart from people being addicted to it quite easily just as they can be with alcohol, it enhances flavors. It gives it more flavor.
So if you put water in something and put sugar in, it’s not as obvious that you put the water, the water in it is diluted. Also to give it more alcohol burn with less alcohol, they used cayenne pepper. and because it was stored and transported barrels at that time, that didn’t really cause any problems with the color.
It probably helped the color be more similar to what it was before dilution. and then the last thing they did to give it more than Juniper flavor was to use turpentine oil.
Susan: Right. Yes!
Christian: Yes. So those three things, I mean, very well documented, lots of different sources that talk about that, which is surprising in some ways and not so surprising in other ways. Then they’re those instrument makers trying to sell instruments to the pubs to make them consistent in their dilution and then doctoring the product afterwards.
What happened with Old Tom Gin is, as London Dry gin started becoming more popular, the Old Tom Gin disappeared out of existence over time? I think there was still Old Tom being made up in the 1960s, maybe ‘70s, but it was very much smaller quantities than was London Dry Gin. London Dry Gin basically took over completely and the thing that happened that confuses the sugar or the dry is that when the parliament in the UK decided back in the 1860s that gin should be sold in bottles and not in barrels anymore, then the preparing of the bottles became the part of a new job in distilleries that they had to bottle things.
Of course, they had two recipes, the Old Tom recipe and the London recipe. Then they had the products they were selling without sugar. Then they had the products that were diluted and sweetened that had been sold in the pubs. So they ended up making four products, making the two recipes and the sweet and unsweetened version, and the only one that survived is the London Dry.
The Old Tom I have is an Old Tom Dry, if you want the two elements of the name. The Old Tom relates to London and the Dry relates to the dry. But from a legal point of view, there’s a lot of regulations about what a London Dry Gin is, and there’s no regulations about what Old Tom gin is.
My interpretation of Old Tom gin is based on my research and finding a distiller notebook from the 1840s and finding an old recipe that I could use whereas other people can do whatever they want with what they call Old Tom gin. I try to be historically accurate with my product rather than creating some more interesting product for sales marketing purposes.
Susan: Now, you said you found it in a book. Were you looking for a recipe and just happened upon one for an Old Tom Gin that you decided to use?
Christian: I was trying to find out how Old Tom gin was made and there was not a lot of information available but being an IT guy and being good at Googling and researching and finding things on the internet, I found books.
I found documentation about gin production from back in the time. But I also found that one of the companies that had been bought by one of the big companies had given all of the family’s records to the London Archive in the area of London they lived in.
I thought I should go and have a look at what they’d given to the local archives, which was a bit of a nightmare because no one had ever heard of it. That was another goose chase around town trying to find out whether these records actually existed. I managed to locate them in the end. And there was, amongst the gems, a distiller’s notebook where he was making notes of what he was producing day by day.
I took pictures of lots of stuff from there, including the recipe that is the Old Tom recipe.
Susan: I feel like it was meant to be.
Christian: In some ways it was, but it was a lot of work finding it, but it was also interesting creating an Old Tom gin. If it had been exactly the same flavor and tastes like the dry gin, it would’ve been pointless. But the main thing historically is Old Tom gin would’ve been made with dirty alcohol.
I did find that it’s not worth experimenting with, trust me. you want to clean alcohol. So the recipe is the difference. That’s the only difference between the two. I mean, technically, I could probably get away with calling the Old Tom gin a London Dry gin as well, because it follows all of the rules and regulations or a London Dry gin potentially, with the exception of the main flavor, having to be juniper, but that’s always a very subjective judgment.
Susan: Of course now that you have this in bottles, have you seen your friend, the bartender in Tokyo, and taken him a few of the bottles?
Christian: I’ve seen him many times. Yes. And he likes the gin a lot, so he’s very happy with it. And at some point, I’m sure I’ll find an importer in Japan that’s going to be able to sell it to him on a regular basis.
Susan: Oh, that’s so bad. I thought you were going to say it’s his house gin now.
Christian: I mean, he buys it and he gets it. So the Japanese market is difficult to get into. It’s a relatively closed area to sell out from Japan. I’ll get there. I was just about to do it before Covid and then it became quite difficult to go back to Japan.
Susan: Hopefully one day will be his house pour when it can be sold in Japan.
Christian: I mean, when it can be sold in Japan, it’ll definitely be his house pour. There’s no doubt about that.
Susan: So now, what is the future of Jensen’s Gin? Do you feel that you need to produce any more? Are you just happy what you’re doing and you’re going to leave it the way it is and just have the two, or you can explore and do some more stuff.
Christian: The future for Jensen’s Gin is many different things. I’m very happy with the two gins that I’ve been making for a while, so they’ll definitely continue every now and again. I think I should make some other gins as well. Some other distilled gins – a Navy strength one is an obvious one. Maybe another flavor is another one that would be interesting.
So I have a couple of ideas and it’ll probably happen at some point, but I’m quite slow in developing new things, so that might take some time. The other thing that happened to me over the years is, when I was doing research on gin and gin history, I noticed that pretty much all the distilleries used to make four other gins on top of what the gins that they distilled are.
They pretty much all used to make sloe gin and damson gin and lemon gin and orange gin. Having had access to irresponsible quantities of gin in Borough market meant that I started buying fruits and vegetables and flavors in Borough Market and putting in gin to make lots of different infusions.
Most of them are quite interesting and nice, but they’ve mainly been for private consumption. Slowly we’ve been making a little bit of it that we’re selling distillery, but it’s not really super commercial. The problem I have with infusion is sourcing the botanicals, the flavors.
So whether it’s apples or pears or rhubarbs or oranges or lemons, I want to know where they come from. I want to know the history of them, and I want to have a steady supply of them so that I can make a quality product that’s as consistent as can be when you’re dealing with a natural ingredient, which we will do.
Finding that has been difficult. We are working with somebody who has a good supply of quality fruits and vegetables that we will be using to make infusions. I can see infusions being part of what the future is and I think that’s the main things we’ve been doing cocktails as well.
The cocktails happened, we started making premixed cocktails probably eight, nine years ago. We started making them because I enjoy cocktails, but when I’m at home, I don’t really want to be making cocktails myself and I don’t always have the ingredients of the patience for it.
One of the people that worked in distillery is a very, very qualified bartender. She came up with some recipes for pre-mixed cocktails that we could bottle and I could take home and stick in the fridge and freezer. So it’s driven by me and my drinking again. It’s been working quite well. We’re doing six, seven different pre-mixed cocktails in the distillery and we’re probably going to be selling them slightly more commercially all the time as well.
Susan: Well, that’s a reason to come down to the distillery if you’re in London.
Christian: Definitely. There’s always something special you can get. We haven’t quite gotten around to make fully commercial yet.
Susan: Well, I can’t wait to come down and try some of those. I think I actually had when I was there, the Damson one and it was fantastic.
Now, I always end with asking for my top tip for the home bartender. I would love to know what you think is the top tip for either making the Gin and Tonic or making something with gin.
Christian: people always ask me how they should drink my gin, and there’s a couple of things around that. One is by the time that somebody’s drinking my gin, it’s no longer my gin’. They have bought it and it’s their gin and they should drink it in any way that they enjoy drinking it. So that’s the main thing.
In terms of what I think about enjoy drinking with my gins. Both of them work well in the Gin and Tonic, but my personal experience with Gin and Tonic with these two gins is that tonics are usually a quite strong flavor. So if you want to taste the gin, stick with the Old Tom because you don’t need as much gin unless you really want to get a lot of alcohol, then go with a dry gin.
I end up using more gin when I use the dry gin cause of the power of the flavor of tonics being much stronger than it is for most gin. So that’s my recommendation around Gin and Tonics. Martini is the other drink that gin has to work with. So for martini with my two gins, if you think of the flavors often, usually in a martini you have the gin supporting a vermouth.
That is usually the main flavor ingredient. Even if there’s not a lot of vermouth, most of the flavor comes from the vermouth and the gin creates the punch of the alcohol in the Martini. The dry gin is a very friendly gin. It just supports whatever else you throw at it, which is why gin is a popular cocktail ingredient because it doesn’t need to be center of attention.
It just works with lots of other things as a supporter and provider of alcohol. So with any vermouth, whatever vermouth you like and whatever level of dryness or wetness of the Martini, the Bermondsey Dry Gin will be happy to support it.
The other gin, the Old Tom gin, has more of a personality and wants to be center of attention. So every now and again, it’ll disagree and fight with a vermouth, so you’re not having this strange experience where two strong flavors disagree and cancel each other out. So it becomes disappointing. You just have to be picking the right vermouth for the Old Tom when you make a Martini with it.
Susan: Fabulous. Last but not least, I always ask this, if you could be drinking anything anywhere right now, what would it be and where would you be?
Christian: I would probably be drinking a Tom Collins in a small, really good bar in Copenhagen called the Barking Dog.
Susan: Okay. Fantastic. Thank you so much for being here with me and it was great to learn all about Jensen’s Gin. As I said, I’ve been to the distillery as you well know, and it is a jewel and the gin is just so good. Thank you again. It’s been great to hear the whole story.
Christian: Thank you very much for taking the time to hear the story and look forward to seeing you in the distillery again.
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