Ross William Butler, the founder and creator of Butler’s gin, is a sprightly 24- year-old with a studded snapback cap, skinny shorts and stretched ear piercings. Ross is not your conventional gin maker, and his gin offers a taste of the alternative too.
Gin has long had associations with London; going back to the 17th century when London was the world’s biggest city and those with less disposable income drank it as an alternative to French brandy. So gin became associated with the poor.
But the gin craze really took hold when imports of brandy were limited in the 18th century and gin production was encouraged in England. Gin palaces became a common sight all over London. Hogarth’s picture of Gin Alley is associated with London’s gin craze and gin had a reputation the wrong reasons.
Now young entrepreneurs are leading a renaissance of gin. New brands are springing up all over the city, with new micro-distilleries producing small but exclusive top quality gin for a new market.
I discovered Butler’s Gin at 214 Bermondsey, a specialist gin bar on Bermondsey Street, and was enticed by the taste but also the fact that it’s made in Hackney Wick.
Butler’s is part of a new wave of boutique gin makers in London. Very much the new-kid-on-the-block, Ross doesn’t appear to conform to convention, nor does his gin. As he leads us towards his speed boat, moored on the river Lee, he says “ I like to get people out of their office environments and come down here on the boat and see what it’s all about”.
Ross regularly takes clients, friends and business partners out on the boat for what he calls “Drunch” a drunken lunch, giving people the chance to sample his creation but also to come and enjoy themselves with him in a relaxed and carefree way, and explore the Hackney waterways that he so loves.
He helps us board the boat, named Fletcher, and before we cast off he pours us all a generous glass of his gin to try over plenty of ice, and tops it of with Schweppes and a slice of cucumber. When asked why he created a gin brand he says: “I like gin. It’s like baking a cake. Once you have the recipe, the cake’s ready to be eaten, you just have to make the cake look good. So it could have been gin, but it could have been jelly or jam basically”. He goes on to admit, “I’ve never been such an enthusiast until recently.”
For someone who wasn’t a massive fan, he knows how to make a very fine gin. Butler’s Gin is flavoured with lemongrass and cardamom, with notes of fennel; it has a crisp light taste that’s dangerously easy to drink.
“It was two years in research and development just to understand where I would sit in the market and who I would target” says Ross “I’m still going through a two and a half year hit-list of people I need to target and engage with and it will keep me busy until Christmas.”
Ross is a one-man band; he makes the bottles, labels and signs every single bottle of Butler’s that is made. “I handle everything myself to the point of craziness – making the actual gin, the bitters and aromatics, bottling it, labelling and signing every bottle that goes out; handling the marketing and the digital strategies, and I’m going out to Los Angeles in October to launch out there too.”
He tells me that he’s just hired some “facilitators”: “I don’t like calling them assistants, it’s too poncey – They’ll be assisting me in productions. And I’m going to focus on marketing the brand itself.”
“It’s named after me – I’m Ross William Butler – It fits. It’s all about playing with your name. What is a butler? Is a butler me, or is it a character I need to develop? A butler is a responsible gentleman who brings charm and wit to any social experience.” By that definition Ross certainly lives up to his name.
Born in Northern Ireland, he moved to Hackney five years ago, after three years living in Cyprus. He left school without going on to higher education but mastered product design and business.
“My typical day, I get up each day at about 6.30am and then go for a run with my little Chihuahua and when I get her back she sleeps for the day and that allows me to work. I get my emails done, I start production chopping up the raw ingredients, make some bitters create the gin and bottle it, label it stamp it, hand sign it and box it up. Then I take a quick hour break and come out on the boat. When I’m back, I’ll finish emails and do my end of day admin, and then the courier shows up to take the produce of the day – that’s when I finish work. That time could be anything from 12.30pm or 1.30am but I won’t stop working until the courier turns up.”
Ross is an active member of his community, and has a tour-guide-like-knowledge of the river. He tells us that we’re going for a cruise northward along the canal past Clapton towards Walthamstow, and as we chat he points out local landmarks, new workspaces, cafes, historical points and old mills. He waves at his riverside neighbours – he knows the canals and it characters – from a couple that sell tea and cake aboard their canal-boat home to even the river birds (he seems to recognise one with a broken wing). It’s evident that living in Hackney is not just about being somewhere cool; he genuinely cares about his adopted community.
“I want to take on trainees – people who are having difficulties with their education. I myself didn’t finish school so I, want to show people how I got from where I was to how I wanted to be, and allow them to be confident enough to go out there and do it themselves.”
Butler has plans to expand the business, and as we pass a large old riverboat he talks animatedly about his hopes to purchase a larger boat with facilities and a larger capacity, but this creative gin-maker is also keen to ensure that the local area benefits from his business by employing local people.
Butler’s Gin is now being stocked in bars all over the country. In spite of its success across the UK, Butler’s heart remains firmly in Hackney. Describing his drink he says: “It’s a premium spirit, but I’m not a premium guy.”
For more information on Butler’s Gin visit: http://butlers-gin.myshopify.com/ or