Updated: Apr 21
The Only Way Is Gin may be looking to open our distillery near Harlow, but the town isn’t new when it comes to gin distilling. Harlow was once the home of the iconic Gilbey’s gin as we discover in this article. It seems we have a lot to live up to!
Where it all began
At the turn of the 1800's Henry Gilbey was an innkeeper and ran a passenger stagecoach service. He had 7 children and his eldest son, also called Henry, became a wholesale wine merchant. Two other sons joined them in 1857 to open a wine and spirits retail business in Oxford Street, London.
At this time the tax on wines and spirits from France, Portugal and Spain was high and could only be afforded by the upper classes. There was a gap in the market to supply wine to the middle classes providing the price was right. The Gilbey brothers filled that gap by importing wines and spirits from countries of the British Empire. Within a few years the business had become a runaway success and continued to grow. By 1861 they had become the third largest wine importer in the UK. The Gilbey's are perhaps the people responsible for bringing wine within the reach of the everyday man in the UK.
In 1869, wine merchants Gilbey's moved into the Roundhouse in London to use it as a storage warehouse for their stock of wine and various liquors. The business rapidly expanded, to the point where Gilbey's took over the Pantheon in Oxford Street by 1867. Meanwhile, the bottling department was moved to Camden, commencing the Gilbey name's long association with the place.
By 1914, the Gilbey empire occupied a staggering 20 acres of Camden Town. There was even a train, the Gilbeys Special, which left for the docks every day to ship Gilbey products on the global market.
Tom Gilbey, great great great grandson of the Gilbey gin brothers, says of the move from the Roundhouse in 1963, "I believe this coincided with the Government of the time urging industrial business to move out of London, hence Gilbeys moving to the large site in Harlow".
The move to Harlow
The Gilbey's Gin complex was built between 1962 and 1963 at Fifth Avenue, Harlow, Essex. The Gilbey’s Gin complex comprised of an office block and factory block -warehouse and distillery and bottling plant. Unusually for a New Town factory it was sited not in a peripheral industrial zone but on a hillside site adjacent to the town centre; a privilege accorded by the Harlow Town Development Corporation on condition that the building design be worthy of so prominent a location.
The windows of the office block were set in vertical panels, with blue slate above and below. The office block was linked to a rectangular warehouse block. The warehouse block, partially burrowed into the hillside to facilitate the cool storage of wine, was ‘blind to all faces' of the office block except to a part of its rear façade. When viewed from a distance, it appeared as a podium on which buildings in the town centre could seem to stand.
On the other hand, the factory/distillery, with a single storey section, positioned on the rear of a second block which was almost three times the height. The single storey section, which once housed the distilling equipment, was clad in blue engineering brick and had a tall south-west chimney, towering above everything. A vertical strip of glass separated both blocks. The taller block had a fully glazed north wall, designed to exhibit the sculptured shape of the stills, particularly when lit up at night.
In 1872 Gilbey's had started distilling their own Gin; 12 botanicals are used, which remain secret to this day.
On the nose is pine (juniper) and citrus (lemon and sweet orange) with hints of spice and faint floral notes. On the palate this medium-bodied and slightly smooth spirit has juniper and citrus (lemon and coriander) plus faint herbal and spice notes. In the close the citrus continues with an alcohol bite and a dry finish. It is, of course, a well-balanced Gin.
Baileys: The Irish Cream Liqueur that originated in Essex
It’s been an after-dinner favourite since it launched in 1974, and you would be forgiven for thinking that Baileys, the world’s number one selling liqueur brand, is as Irish as the cream it’s made from.
The drink's recipe, a combination of Irish whiskey and cream, was actually devised by the Irish division of Gilbeys at their head office in the new town of Harlow.
By 1971, Gilbeys were looking for a uniquely Irish drink to catch the imagination of the modern consumer.
The trick was to combine Irish whiskey and cream to make a new drink. The task was passed on to the project technologists based in the ID&V head office in Harlow. It was their job to devise and perfect the unique technical process that would become the iconic drink that we know today.
The Take Over
Unfortunately, the company eventually faced financial difficulties and to try to stop a take-over, they merged with United Wine Traders in 1962 and became International Distillers and Vintners (IDV). This proved relatively short lived as a decade later they finally lost control of the business when taken over by Grand Metropolitan in 1972.
Despite achieving listed status in 1992, the complex was demolished a year later. And Sainsbury's was built on the site.
Today, Alfred Gilbey's great-great-great-grandson, Tom Gilbey, continues the family tradition of selling wine through his company ‘The Vintner' (www.thevintner.com).
Gilbey's gin is today made for Diageo by Beam Inc. (of Jim Beam fame).
The copper gin still, once part of the nearby Gilbey gin distillery, can now be found in the gardens of Harlow Museum.
We are looking to open the distillery for The Only Way Is Gin in or around Harlow as soon as premises can be found. Follow our progress with this on our socials @theonlywayisgin It has been fascinating speaking to many people who used to work at Gilbey's in the town. They all speak so animatedly and fondly of their time there. We would love to hear more of your stories about the iconic gin company in our town of Harlow. Get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org