Features Leyton

London’s first absinthe distillery on repairing the spirit’s mad reputation

Devil’s Botany in Leyton drew on the wild plants of Walthamstow Marshes for their first product
By Victoria Munro

Absinthe distilling at their premises in Leyton (credit: Devil's Botany)
Absinthe distilling at their premises in Leyton (credit: Devil’s Botany)

In 1900, British newspapers around the country reported rumours an absinthe distillery was opening in London, often in tones of mild horror. One paper warned that the “taste” for absinthe “grows rapidly once acquired”, adding that it was deemed responsible for the “growing degeneration of the lowest classes” in France. 

For a little over 120 years, nothing came of these rumours but the journalists were finally vindicated in November 2020, when Devil’s Botany distillery opened in Leyton. 

Owners Rhys Everett and Allison Crawbuck, who also own The Last Tuesday Society’s cocktail bar in Hackney, have been on a mission ever since to repair the reputation of this iconic spirit, most commonly associated with madness, illegality and Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.

Rhys and Allison with their London Absinthe (credit: Devil’s Botany)

Drawing inspiration from the plants that grow wild in nearby Walthamstow Marshes, they produced their first bottles of London Absinthe in January last year and followed up with Absinthe Regalis – which boasts the more traditional green colour – in October.

Speaking to the Echo, Allison said: “There’s a lot of misconceptions about absinthe – we often get asked if it’s illegal or if it will make people go mad – but traditionally-made absinthe doesn’t have anything harmful in it other than alcohol.

“It has a long history in this city that has never been explored or celebrated. When we were researching its origins, we found apothecary recipes being made in London for medical purposes going back to the early 1800s. 

“It’s one of the only spirits that still comes with so much history and mystery, people are always very intrigued. There’s not many spirits you can offer that immediately create conversation.”

They currently produce two versions of the spirit (credit: Devil’s Botany)

Allison explained that traditional absinthe always contains the “holy trinity” of anise, fennel and wormwood, which were used as a medicine “to excite the appetite for thousands of years”. 

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It is wormwood, and specifically a chemical in the bitter herb called thujone, that urban myths claim lends the spirit its supposedly hallucinogenic properties. 

In actual fact, thujone is toxic in large quantities but not hallucinogenic and the prevalence of madness among Parisian absinthe drinkers, which in 1915 saw the spirit banned in France, was far more likely the result of alcohol poisoning or adulterants added by cost-cutting manufacturers.

Allison said: “Just like the UK had its gin craze, there was an absinthe frenzy in France and a lack of regulations around what was being sold. Here, people were drinking bathtub gin with toxic ingredients and, in Paris, you would have absinthe being made with added chemicals to help change the colour or make it go cloudy in water.

“If you want to make absinthe properly, it’s quite difficult and takes a while. It’s made in a similar way to gin but the volume of botanicals that goes into it is far higher and it requires a lot more time. You have to allow it to rest to get that vibrant colour.”

(Credit: Devil’s Botany)

From the first day of preparation to the final result of each 500-bottle batch, Absinthe Regalis takes three months, while the clear London Absinthe takes slightly less.

Though lacking the iconic emerald colour, London Absinthe resembles many of the “elixirs” that would have historically been sold in London’s apothecaries and drew on the neighbouring marshes as the inspiration for its recipe. 

Allison said: “We live right by our distillery and were lucky to be able to walk around the marshes during lockdown so we got to know the botanicals that grow wild there, like elderflower and meadowsweet. 

“If you walk through the wetlands right now, meadowsweet is in full bloom and completely blanketing the place, it’s really beautiful. It smells a bit like almonds and has been used in alcohol since the ancient days, it actually got its name because it was used to sweeten mead.” 

These plants lend the London Absinthe a “floral and herbaceous” taste, while the Absinthe Regalis is “super spiced” with cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg and galangal root.

In the future, the pair are excited to continue experimenting with new flavours, production methods and ingredients to prove the “green fairy” is not a one-trick pony.

For now, you can find their current range on their website or at Tavern on the Hill, Wild Card Brewery and Clapton Crafts.

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