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New London distillery ready to start

London’s first whisky distillery for over a century is about to commence production; Caroline Hampden-White meets founder Darren Rook.

Darren Rook. Photo credit: Colin Hampden-White

With its designer flats and trendy businesses, Battersea is not an obvious location to set up London’s first whisky distillery for over a century. But that is exactly what Darren Rook, aka The Whisky Guy, is doing.

The distillery itself can be found just off Parkgate Road, Battersea. Through an alleyway you step into a world of beat-up industrial units inhabited by a variety of trendy businesses, more reminiscent of Downtown New York than SW11. In the far corner sits Rook’s enterprise where there’s a lot of heavy labour going on. And that’s where the fun really starts.

Rook describes their outfit as a “boutique urban distillery”. The products will be gin initially and whisky later including some aged malt spirit “just small bits, about 300 bottles a year.” The plan is to sell through the website and a few very select retailers. Harvey Nichols has said it interested alongside Master of Malt, a shareholder in the enterprise. Selfridges is also on the cards.

“London is an iconic brand in its own right” says Rook, “We’re looking at the top 10 bars in London, the top 5 retailers.”

Tours are also planned and they will open their doors to the public early next year.

After initial finance from angel investors, they needed to raise additional money for the project. Rook got talking to Alex Kammerling from Kamm & sons at a Vinopolis tasting, who suggested Crowdcube. Three weeks later, they’d jumped from 18 investors to 68, including key people in the whisky business, and raised the cash they needed.

Sipping a cup of plain hot water (“I’m cleansing my palate”, he explains, “to keep it fresh”) Rook talks about the Crowdcube experience. “It was more about the evangelical side of it; we now had 68 really engaged investors. If you own a little bit of something you’ll want to promote it and those investors become our ambassadors.”

After a lull completing the legal details, they could finally look for space and the units were suggested. Rook says: “It was a bit of a disaster area; a white box, full of packing crates. But I thought: this could really work.”

Looking around now, the place is really taking shape. There’s been some serious renovation, including stripping off three inches of cork that lined the walls of this Victorian dairy cold room. The gin room is nearly finished, awaiting the installation of its steam generator, and the still is on order from the oldest German manufacturer, Christian Carl. On track financially, they’re just weeks away from the end of the build when they’ll start to distil gin.

This will become the gin still room

A well-known figure in the whisky world, Rook’s worked for the likes of Scottish Malt Whisky Society and Master of Malt, but who is the man behind this imaginative project and what brought him to this place?

Rock-climbing enthusiast Rook returned to hometown Newcastle in 2006 to study. Combining evening social life with earning some cash, he started working part-time in a cocktail bar.

“I met a rep from Bowmore and we built up a spirits range. We did a whole pile of stuff and he invited me up to Bowmore. It was fantastic; that was my first proper introduction to whisky and the whisky community. I met Colin Dunn, now the Diageo ambassador, though he was working for Suntory in those days. I love Japanese whisky.”

He returned to Newcastle hungry for more. Things just seem to happen in Rook’s life and, like a magician, he transforms them into good things. “The manageress of the cocktail bar became pregnant and went back to Sicily so I ended up running it.”

After a lottery-funded renovation closed the bar, he was offered a new job by Canadian-born private chef Nicole, who was later to become his wife.

“Nicole and I worked really well together. There was an old-style Victorian bar upstairs. I said: ‘We should build a whisky bar up here’. And we did, but then one of the owners passed away and he’d been the glue that held it all together.”

After moving to Canada for a spell and marrying, they returned to England eight months later. Rook called the Scottish Malt Whisky Society looking for a job. As luck would have it, and Lady Luck does play a big part in Rook’s life, someone had just left. Rook landed on Tuesday, interviewed on Wednesday and started work in Edinburgh on Saturday.

Then an opportunity came up in the London branch. He stepped into the breach and after a two-week trial asked for the job permanently. And got it.

“It was 2009 and that was when this really started. I’d knocked around the idea that it would be cool to have your own distillery but never thought I’d build my own distillery, and never in central London.”

Where the whisky stills will be at the London Distillery

Business partner Nick had read an article on the rise of Australian whisky micro distilleries and they started business modelling. But plans had to go on the back burner until Rook’s son, Miller, was born.

After a brief stint doing whisky product development for Master of Malt, including cask selection for prostate cancer charity Movember, on 24 June 2011 The London Distillery Company was created.

Andrew MacLeod Smith is Rook’s right-hand man and distiller. He contacted Rook when he heard about the project and turned down a job at Chase to work there. Rook describes Andrew as mature. At 28, Andrew’s lived in New York, got three degrees and worked in the oil industry. “I feel quite privileged, he’s got an amazing CV.”

Following a stratospheric learning curve, Rook ponders the sagacity of his undertaking. “If I’d know this time last year what I was getting into, I might not have done it, but at the same time it’s been incredible. Don’t do it on your own, find someone you trust, but not your best friend.”

Asked what he drank last night he smiles and says: “A 6 year-old Willett Rye – they make an incredible family reserve.” As to single malt Scotch, Rook describes himself as a “Die-hard Ardbeg fan.”

Rook’s next plans? Well he may be in the distillery on Christmas Day; it’s a nice quiet time to go down there with Nicole and Miller.

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