“The first five years or thereabouts, I spent my life learning to distill—learning about our family recipes, learning how to select the botanicals, and about the two-day gin process we have. And it’s not something you can learn overnight. You have to actually do it by practice. Distilling is more of an art—I believe it’s more of an art than a science.” — Christopher Hayman
Christopher Hayman, head of Hayman’s of London, celebrated 50 years in the gin trade in 2019. There are only a handful people in the world who can match his knowledge of gin history and his skill in gin making. From the origins of London Dry gin, to the Martini, to 1980s trade wars, to today’s competitive market, Hayman’s lineage resonates.
Christopher joined his family company in 1969, just out of university. James Burrough Ltd. was named for Hayman’s great-grandfather who established a distillery in London in 1863. Burrough pioneered what would become the world’s predominant style of gin, London Dry, with Beefeater. By the time Christopher joined the firm a little over a century later, Beefeater was a global brand and, in the U.S., accounted for three out of every four bottles of gin sold.
Fast-forward to today. The gin business is booming like never before. Christopher and his son and daughter, James and Miranda, run their own independent distillery, which has deservedly become a destination for visitors from near and far.
Trained as a chemist and pharmacist, Christopher’s great-grandfather James Burrough was also an entrepreneur. He traveled to North America for business opportunities in 1855, and later created an insect repellent and a toothpaste. “Fortunately for us, he fell in love with gin,” says Christopher. He moved back to England and purchased a small distillery—one among many at the time—on Cale Street in Chelsea that had been in operation since 1820.
“Gin at that time was not the best of quality,” says Christopher. “The alcohol that was being used was a little bit rough around the edges. So when they made gin in those days, when they could get their hands on botanicals, they used to add sugar to it to make it more drinkable—and that really was what we call Old Tom gin today. James Burrough, when he started this thing, thought that gin should be improved. It took him quite a long time to do it.”
While meeting the demand of that era with a quality version of Old Tom gin—revived as Hayman’s Old Tom in 2007—Burrough brought a chemist’s understanding to selecting gin’s primary botanical, the juniper berry, and harmonizing it with others such as citrus peel, angelica and orris. Improved distillation technology and, importantly, a copper pot still and a one-day maceration of the botanicals, helped Burrough in his quest to produce not only an array of sweetened and unsweetened gins, but a consistently clean and crisp style of dry gin that came to be known as London Dry.
In its first century, James Burrough Ltd. produced several brands of gin, including Black Cat and Olde Chelsey. The popularity of London Dry through much of the 20th century propelled Beefeater to the top of the company’s portfolio.
“I think one of the reasons that London Dry gin began to grow is that it is a better mixer for Martinis than sweet or Old Tom gin was in those days,” says Christopher.
Christopher’s mother, Marjorie, was one of three cousins, all grandchildren of James Burrough, who controlled the company in the decades of Christopher’s youth. Marjorie’s husband, Neville Hayman, was an accountant who brought his skills to bear on the distillery’s continued success.
“Very sadly, my mother died when I was 17, so she never knew I entered the gin trade, or joined the family business,” says Christopher. “I was still at school at the time. But hopefully she looks down on me occasionally and says, ‘Not bad, not bad.’”
When the young man began training as a distiller in 1969, the gin trade was dominated by a handful of firms. Relations between the competitors were cordial, with executives gathering each January to set the price of gin for the coming year. Christopher chuckles at the memory of blatant price-fixing. “You don’t find that today, do you?”
He ticks off other bygones of the midcentury era: deliveries of gin in wooden crates, the empty bottles returning to the distillery to be washed and filled anew; the ubiquitous customs and excise men monitoring every drop flowing from the still and notorious for sample-taking; laborers capping each workday with a slug of gin; formal dress at board meetings; communication by post and Telex.
“Life was in black and white in those days. It was a slower pace,” he says. Lunches, too, were leisurely, often with the ulterior aim of testing one’s tolerance.
“The first time I came to America in the mid ‘70s, I was set up—there’s no doubt about it—because I was taken out for lunch by our importers, and they said, what are you going to have to drink? So I said, I’ll have a gin martini. Well, we had three of them. And that was quite a struggle. I have to say, the afternoon wasn’t quite as I would have planned it.”
Christopher was instilled with a sense of responsibility and stewardship early on. “One of the things that my mother and father taught me was that I was going to be in the fortunate position to inherit a gin distilling foundation. I was very clearly taught that through my lifetime, my responsibility was to make sure we maintain that heritage, try and improve it, and then pass it on to the next generation.”
That ongoing mission faced some challenges. A trade war between the U.S. and the European Community (a precursor to the European Union) in 1987 prompted the U.S. to threaten a 200% tariff on British gin imports, among other goods. Britain’s economy at the time was surging, but also volatile. “Fortunately, peace was made, and [the tariff] never happened”—but the specter of disruption daunted gin producers, says Christopher.
Later that year, a majority of Burrough family shareholders voted to sell James Burrough Ltd., including Beefeater, to the brewing giant Whitbread. Christopher nevertheless stayed on as director of operations for Whitbread Spirits Group. The very next year, he bought back part of the family business, along with a share of Thames Distillers in London, to allow him to continue distilling and bottling gin.
“There were all these family recipes,” he says. “I started to make small amounts of gin, selling it in the UK, and shipping some overseas. And then we added our surname to it. So there has been continuity in terms of gin distilling.”
The first Hayman’s gin, actually a gin liqueur, was released in 2004 by Christopher and his two new partners: his son, James, and daughter, Miranda. It was near the beginning of a popular revival for gin, which had been eclipsed over the previous decade or so by vodka.
Driving gin’s growth was yet another revival, that of the classic cocktail. Bar books of the late 19th and early 20th centuries are chock-full of gin cocktails, from the Tom Collins to the Aviation to the Martini and its many variations. The most popular gin of this era? Old Tom.
Just as their ancestor James Burrough provided mixologists of the 1800s with a key ingredient, the Haymans began to do the same for mixologists of the 2000s.
“Miranda and James were talking to some bartenders,” says Christopher. “One of the bartenders said to them, why don’t you produce an Old Tom gin? And Miranda and James said, that’s not a bad idea. So they came back and asked, have we got a recipe for Old Tom gin? And we had. So we were the company that brought back Old Tom gin.” The resurrection occurred in 2007 after a roughly 50-year disappearance. Many a happy bartender since has been able to re-create the Martinez, Ramos Gin Fizz and countless other classics.
Echoing the charge from Marjorie Burrough Hayman and Neville Hayman that their son maintain the family’s distilling heritage, the current generation’s philosophy is to make traditional, or what they call true, English gins. In a crowded market where the definition of gin is being “pink-ified” and otherwise stretched beyond recognition, Hayman’s gins are centered on juniper but also a fine balance between nine other botanicals.
The current distillery is the family’s sixth distillery in London, just four miles from Burrough’s original Cale Street storefront. Hayman’s of London is very much a place that encourages visitors to experience the processes of botanical selection and distillation, to learn about the family’s history in the gin industry, to taste and evaluate different gin styles, and to enjoy special events such as Ginema (movies and cocktails).
The Hayman distillery embodies the traditions of London gin making at the same time that it signifies how much the gin trade has changed in recent years.
“Back in the 1970s, gin was very much a lifestyle—people who drank gin, drank gin,” says Christopher. “They didn’t worry what was in it. Whereas today, people like to know what’s in your gin, and the provenance of it. They want to know all about your botanicals, your authenticity. And I find, actually, that’s one of the best things that’s happened. It’s great to talk to people about my passion.”
The distiller uses ten botanicals, in varying proportions, for all his gins: juniper, lemon peel, orange peel, cassia cinnamon, Ceylon cinnamon, nutmeg, angelica root, orris root, coriander seed and licorice root.
Hayman’s London Dry
“You’ll find on the London dry, you get that sort of juniper nose coming through, which is a very important characteristic of gin. You’ve got some crisp and citrus flavors coming from the orange and lemon peels, and a little bit of coriander, and then, as you go through, you get a bit of earthiness, which comes from the angelica. We’re looking very much for a balanced finish to our gins. We may have ten different botanicals, which are all good in their own way, but it’s rather like a ten-piece orchestra. You may have trumpets and violins; they’re all capable of playing their own solos. But if you put the ten together with the right piece of music, you get beautiful music.”
Hayman’s Old Tom Gin
“Old Tom gin is really how gin was drunk in the 1800s. When you nose and taste this gin, you’ll find it’s botanically more intense. It’s richer, as such. And it’s got a degree of sweetness. One of the questions I often get asked anywhere in the world is, is Old Tom gin aged? And the answer is, no—it did not age intentionally. If you go back to the mid-1800s, yes, gin would be exported either to America or wherever it was going in a wooden barrel or cask. We guess that the barrels that were being used the most were delivering gin hundreds of times to gin palaces in London. So the impact of the wood was minimal. The barrel was purely a means of transport.”
Hayman’s Royal Dock Navy-Strength Gin
“Back in the 1800s on British sailing ships, everything was in wooden casks or in barrels. And as you all know, wooden casks and barrels can leak. And so when the gin went onboard ship, it was standing above the gunpowder, and if it happened to leak, if it was less than 57% alcohol, the gunpowder wouldn’t work. If it was more than 57%, it would still go bang. That’s why navy-strength came about at 57%. So when we make 57% gin, what we try to do is to maintain that balance, what we’re looking at with all our gins, so that when you drink it, it’s got a smoothness, it’s got a good mouthfeel. It’s quite bold on flavors. But it doesn’t bite. It’s great for mixing cocktails, or some people just sip it.”
Hayman’s Sloe Gin
“One of the hedges [that British landowners historically used to mark their boundaries] was blackthorn. And blackthorn produces a berry called sloe. One story I always like is that in the countryside, people had some gin. They saw these berries growing on the bushes. They used to pick them in October, and then they used to put them in the gin they had. It was quite a Christmas festival drink. The way we make our sloe gin, we use London Dry gin. We then add the sloes. After about three months, we’ve got sloe-flavored gin. It’s a bit bitter, and it’s got like an almond taste to it. We then add sugar, so it actually becomes a liqueur. I think sloe gin has got a great versatility. People put it with sparkling wines to make a royale sort of drink out of it. Some people put it with lemonade. Some people add tonic. It goes into quite a lot of cocktails.”