Meet the man reviving Camden Town's gin distilling history

Thursday, 25th September 2014

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CAMDEN'S forgotten gin history is being revived by one man, inspired by stories of the distilleries of days gone by.

Mark Holdsworth, 41, a born and raised Camdenite, decided to delve into the area's hidden history after his daughter shared stories of the the Lock's lesser-known past that she discovered on a geography trip.

“Most people think of Camden as being all about music and markets, but it was also a real hub for making gin… this heavy goods industry was facilitated by the canal, before the railways came in in the early 1800s,” he said. 

Alcohol manufacturers Gilbeys moved to Camden in 1869, and transformed a vast chunk of the area around the Grand Union Canal and Chalk Farm Road into spaces for production, storage and transportation of alcoholic drinks. Starting off as wine merchants, they established a gin distillery in underground vaults in the 1870s.

It is in a small space within one old vault that Mr Holdsworth has set up his own distillery, where he concocts the flavours and infusions that go into Half Hitch gin, including wood and pepper and bergamot and black tea, adding a modern vacuum distillation technique to the classic production process. 

Delving into the area's history, the Roundhouse, now a music venue, was once a bonded spirits warehouse where goods were stored. A 16ft high, unscalable wall was erected before it to stop people from stealing booze from the building. Parts of what was dubbed the “Great Wall of Camden” still remain to this day. Rail tracks within the Roundhouse were later replaced, in favour of wooden tracks for barrels of booze to roll down. Street names including Gilbeys Yard and Juniper Crescent are throwbacks to the days when distilleries were at Camden's heart.

The name, Half Hitch, was inspired by a knot used to tie up barges that arrived on the canal with loads of cargo. Mr Holdsworth spotted the twisted indentations in the wrought iron railing of a bridge crossing the canal, caused by the motion of the water pulling on the barges. “It just made me think of all the work that had gone into the industrial age. I, like many people living in Camden, have walked over this bridge so many times not noticing any of this.” 

Many of these barges used to go through trapdoors on the sides of the canal, to hidden warehouses where they would offload their gin. Other relics from past times include the Ice Wharf Wetherspoon pub on the canal-side, named after the spot where ice from Norway was brought in a canal boat for people to buy. 

With a 15-year career in the spirits industry, Mr Holdsworth took a step into founding his own brand a year ago. Half-Hitch gin was launched last week and is available to buy exclusively in Camden's bars and pubs. He will soon be selling from the back of his Land Rover in Camden Lock – a throwback to his youth, and the “very fond memories” he had of working in the market aged 17. 

 

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