Our friend Freddie is currently working as a freelance journalist in South America, covering sport and culture. When he told us about a pisco-gin fusion with an incredible story behind it, we had to share it with you. Over to Freddie!
On October 6th, I sat down to lunch with Alex James, and his wife and business partner Karena De Lecaros-Aquise James, who at this moment have 1,782 bottles of their gin, ‘London to Lima’, crossing the Atlantic on their way to London. Their gin is made from Pisco, Peruvian botanicals, and water from the Cordillera Blanca. When it arrives in the UK, it will be sold at some of London’s finest and fanciest restaurants, including the world-famous Ritz hotel, and Nobu, one of the best known Japanese-Peruvian fusion restaurants.
Alex James spent most of the early 2000’s in the army, working with light armour tanks, and operating as a parachutist in reconnaissance. This was after having graduated from Edinburgh University as a mechanical engineer. Not quite the background you’d expect for a gin maker.
“My father was in the army too, and after that he went into the wine trade and used to make wine in France, and so working with grapes was in the family. In my early days, I’d go out to France and see what he was doing; I guess I had an emotional attachment with grapes.”
Karena, whose parents are Peruvian, read Middle Eastern studies at Durham University in the UK, and is fluent in Spanish, French, English and Arabic. She worked with hedge-funds and for a bank in Lima, and helped to support Alex and their children whilst he began his experiments, before joining up with Alex full time to work together. “We decided this is it, we’re going to make it happen,” she said.
However Alex’s first adventure into the industry, in 2011, had not gone well.
“I wanted to do something in agroforestry, and I had this obsession with going to the jungle. I wanted to do something with cacao, and so I had made a few trips out the jungle, to Puerto Maldonado.”
Karena began to explain how upon returning to Lima from the jungle, Alex found himself unable to breathe, with a skyrocketing temperature, and then subsequently in hospital with complete organ failure. Karena, who was heavily pregnant at the time (and is again now), was unable to fly out to Lima, and so Alex’s mother made her maiden trip to Peru, with the expectation, Karena thought, of ‘picking up a body bag’.
Alex spent a week in intensive care, and then six months to getting back to normal. “I think I picked it up in the jungle. I’d been staying in some very dodgy places, with rats and frogs jumping around. I could’ve picked it up anywhere.”
“When we came out here permanently in 2012, I still wanted to go down the jungle route, but in the end I couldn’t justify the risks. The financial risks, the family, the stress. So I had to grow up and get it out of my system.”
“After my eight years in the army, I went to business school for two years. One of my projects there was looking at importing Pisco as a business. You can get Pisco in London but you’ve only got it if you’ve been to Peru. It’s very difficult to distill as well. Also I’m not Peruvian, and if I made Pisco I just felt it wouldn’t be quite right, because there are lots of Peruvians who have been doing it for hundreds of years, perfecting the way they do it. At that stage I didn’t feel like I could compete, but gin had some legs and it was growing in popularity…”
“So I went to the international wine and spirits competition in 2014. We did a gin masterclass that evening by an expert. I spoke to him afterwards and I said I was living in Peru, distilling and making Pisco, and that I had this idea to make gin from Pisco. He said, “Alex, this is incredible! If I had a monocle; it would have fallen off my face.” So I was quite encouraged by that. “There are so many dry London gins out there,” he said. “Express how you feel the gin should be.””
Indeed, gin tasting is incredibly popular in London, with bars running taster nights where producers teach you about their gins and let you taste them for free.
“What I like about gin, you can make it your own, it’s down to the distiller and how they do it, and it can have an interesting story.”
“So I started making pisco at home to start with. Some friends grew some grapes and I helped them with the harvest, and as payment they gave me as many boxes as I wanted. So I crushed them and fermented them myself and made pisco. I was making a pretty good pisco, but wanted to turn it into a gin. So I started again with my smaller still (distillation container), doing experiments, and I found it really tough to find the right balance of the flavour coming from the pisco for the gin, because pisco is dominant in flavour. Getting the flavour right, there were times when I thought I’d never get the pisco to work. It was a nightmare wrestling with it.”
And that’s only one part of the process…
“Most gins are typically made out of grains. The flavour comes from the botanicals, but I wanted to bring some flavour through the base spirit. Very few people make their own base spirit. I was a bit like a mad scientist, because this is the first time it has been done.”
“I use juniper, angelica, cassia and orris root, and I also use Peruvian botanicals. I wanted to use Peruvian botanicals as much as I could. I use Peruvian coriander, the small Peruvian lime, Valencia orange, aguaymanto, and a pink peppercorn which grows around our distillery.”
And then there’s the water…
“So when I was doing the gin, I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned in trying to produce what I thought was the most interesting and purest gin I could make, and water is going to make half the content. In the UK [when making gin], people will typically buy de-mineralised and deionised water. Some people use water as an interesting element, but typically it’s just industrial water. Also I wasn’t sure how I’d verify the quality of the water I was getting.”
“I went and did the Santa Cruz Trek in the Cordillera Blanca, and on that trip I brought down some water. I’d had this idea about two years before, but I hadn’t needed the water yet, so basically I had to find somewhere on the map that I could get close enough to with a vehicle. Originally I had wanted to get straight to a glacial lake, but I thought it wouldn’t be the right thing to do, to cut bits of glacier off. I wanted to get something pure, without causing any harm to anybody.
“Rain has minerals in it so, in order to get as high as I could, on the subsequent trip I met a guide called Carlos Callupe, who trains local guides in the Huaraz area. I called him up a few months later, and I told him I was looking for some spring water, the wildest spring water you could imagine. He thought it sounded fun so he asked around.”
“He came up with some options for springs. I went up there to have a taste and to see the setting. The one I really liked was the one almost at the end of the road, with nobody up there except for a local community, a few huts. The spring was a couple hundred metres up the hill at about 4000m. So I took some samples and I sent them to a university lab in Lima to get an analysis. It came back exactly how I would’ve wanted it. We compared it to Evian, and it was much purer than that. I didn’t want the minerals, and distilled water is supposed to be very healthy but has to have things put in it so it’s not harmful. But this had almost zero mineral content. It also had an incredibly low electrical conductivity, and a pH of 7.8. The problem was, the location was hard to get to.”
“I went the first time on my own. I hired a pick-up truck, and filled a 1,000 litre tank imported from Germany. Again, I wanted to get a decent container that wasn’t going to pollute the water. I’m not going to buy a second hand one here in Peru, because I don’t know what’s been in it.”
“But I still had to get the water down from the hill, so I got some water pipes from the central Lima market – 200m worth of pipes! So the water comes down and I blend it, do basic filtration, conduct some more tests to make sure nothing has happen to it [in terms of treatment]. Then I blend it into the gin.”
“This last trip, I didn’t want to just take water without doing something in return if I could. The local community nearby has a few little huts, and through my guide Carlos, I asked if there was anything I could do for them. They said that if I could get the water to them, it would save them carrying buckets up and down the hill. So the week before last, I tapped the spring, and put piping to their houses, so they got 240m of pipes and running water to their house. The next trip I’ve got to get it to their sisters! It’s a small valley, but I’ve got to get them plugged in to the water. They were very grateful and made us some pachamanca.’
Water was the last ingredient, but the bottle also pays homage to the Huascaran national park. Alex had brought a bottle along (pictured above), and the design, by French artist Bénédicte Wayrn, is as impressive as the gin itself. The spectacled bear represents the affinity with the UK as a nod to Paddington Bear. The monocle the bear wears is a subtle reference to the original feedback Alex received from the gin expert years before. On the reverse side of the sticker is a map of the Cordillera Blanca, the first scientific drawing from a 1932 expedition, and features the Santa Cruz trek. The light blue wax top is coloured to represent the glacial lakes from which the water is taken and the bottle itself is shaped intentionally like a hip flask.
I wanted this bottle in my house; I think I’d pay for it even without the gin.
Last summer the pair took to the streets of London to advertise their products. They joked about the image of Karena, at this point noticeably pregnant, walking around London peddling gin. She was incredibly successful in selling the story of their gin, heading straight to the Ritz and Nobu: “It was such a relief, because they were my two first cold call meetings.”
Confidence running high, she tackled many other high-end restaurants in London, and they’ve also got it onto the shelves of Hedonism Wines and Bury Bros. & Rudd, the oldest wine merchant in London. They also targeted ‘anywhere Peruvian related’, including Ceviche in London’s Soho district.
“I love the marketing, and going to bars and talking to people,” explained Karena, “and I love the social media, Instagram, Facebook, and posting pictures.” It’s not just the story that sells it though, it has to taste good too, and the gin, by the way, does taste wonderful. I have been to gin tasting classes, but I lack the knowledge of a connoisseur to put into words just how exquisite it was to sip. London to Lima’s taste matches the extraordinary effort that has been put into it.
The London launch was on the 19th of October, and the pair hope to hit the shelves in Lima in November, if they can get the tedious paperwork sorted. After that, Karena tells me, “Paris maybe, Milan, the Middle East, Cairo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, maybe Germany, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and a few years down the line the South American capitals. So, world domination basically.”
The pair are certainly ambitious, and rightfully so; they have been buoyed by their success in London’s extremely competitive market, winning a silver medal at the International Wine and Spirits competition, and Gin of the Year runner’s up award, in the ‘Contemporary Gin’ category in 2017. The water of the Cordillera Blanca will be all over the world if all goes to plan.
You can follow their story and their progress on their Facebook page ‘London to Lima Spirits’, and their Instagram LondontoLima_Spirits. You can now buy their gin online from Hedonism Wines. They hope to have their own website up and running soon.
– Freddie Clayton