Tracing A Gin-Soaked Trail In London : The Salt Around the world, new gin distilleries are popping up like mushrooms after a rain. NPR traces the boom to its historic roots in London, which once had 250 distilleries within the city limits alone.
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Tracing A Gin-Soaked Trail In London

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Tracing A Gin-Soaked Trail In London

Tracing A Gin-Soaked Trail In London

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Some longtime whiskey makers in Scotland have switched to gin. In Germany, traditional brandy makers are doing the same. Now the trend is said to be coming to America. You may not have noticed, but the world is in the midst of a gin distillery boom.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has the story from London, a place that once housed 250 gin distilleries within the city limits.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Charles Maxwell is the only man ever to have received the London Gin Guild's lifetime achievement award. His family ties to the spirit stretch back many lifetimes.

CHARLES MAXWELL: Yes, it's my eighth-great-grandfather was apprenticed in the city of London in the 1680s to learn how to make gin. And from that day to this, we've distilled gin in London.

SHAPIRO: Ten generations of gin makers. Through those centuries, the drink has gone in and out of fashion many times. The high point - or really the low point - was the mid-1700s.

MAXWELL: Things had got slightly out of hand in England. We'd actually got to the point where the consumption per person - not per adult, per person in England - was over four cases of gin a year.

SHAPIRO: That's 48 bottles of gin each - more if you leave out children, though some kids drank it too. In 1751, the artist William Hogarth created his famous print, "Gin Lane," showing chaos as a drunken mother drops her baby in the gin-soaked London streets. That print was commissioned by the beer brewers. London is not returning to the days of "Gin Lane," but there is another boom right now.

This is a bar in central London called Graphic. The menu has more than 300 gins. Manager Dom Balfour says the owners didn't set out to create a gin destination.

DOM BALFOUR: It's just something that happened over time a few years ago. Someone took an interest in gin and started to increase the amount of gins. And before you know it, you've got a hundred, then you've got 200, then you've got 300, and it keeps going.

SHAPIRO: On this night, a new up-and-comer is trying to find a bit of space on the crowded shelves. Nick Tilt is here representing Sloane's gin, a new brand from the Netherlands. He launches into a sales pitch about the flavors of fresh citrus fruits and vanilla from Madagascar.

NICK TILT: That creates a full cream and it's to the middle of the palate and holds all the other flavors together.

SHAPIRO: His colleague pulls out little plastic vials of Angelica root and coriander seeds. He deploys spray bottles to spritz the aromas. It's quite a production. There's a simple reason that so many new alcohol producers are making gin instead of vodka or whiskey.

Frank Coleman is with the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

FRANK COLEMAN: Gin has a flavor profile, but it doesn't require the lengthy aging process that you get with a whiskey or a brandy.

SHAPIRO: It takes years to produce good bourbon. With gin, can distill today and sell tomorrow and Coleman says the big brands are happy to see these new guys pop up on the scene.

COLEMAN: It's sort of like the farm team, you know. In the past they spent millions of dollars in some cases to develop new brands. Now they look at the marketplace and they can just buy a brand if they want to incorporate it into their portfolio.

SHAPIRO: On the London gin scene the wise old man is Beefeater, for decades, the only distiller left in the city limits. Today there are eight. Desmond Payne tastes his blend every day to make sure it's just right.

DESMOND PAYNE: And I'm a master distiller for Beefeater gin. Every drop of our 2.6 million cases comes from this distillery.

SHAPIRO: We're surrounded by ancient bulbous copper stills. The room smells like juniper and orange peel. Payne believes part of the new interest in small batch gins comes from the broader locavore farm-to-table movement.

PAYNE: I think people are far more interested in what they eat and drink and how it's made and you know, what the ingredients are, where they come from, what the qualities are, how natural they are.

SHAPIRO: It's easy for him to be generous about the newcomers. Small distilleries are still only a tiny fraction of the total gin market and the big brands have watched many of them come and go over the decades as fickle drinkers slurp up a trend then leave it at the bar.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London.

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