On a blustery winter’s night we huddle largely unnoticed in a corner of The Oxford. The gentleman with purpose in his eyes slips a battered suitcase onto the table, clicks it open and begins.
He is William Borrell, purveyor of some very special spirits. And although the vodkas he proceeds to serve from beautiful bottles couldn’t be more Polish in constitution, their story is deeply infused with Kentish Town notes.
His company, Vestal, produces vintage vodka, the particular variations of taste and limited annual production runs being more akin to good wine than the triple distilled, tasteless spirit base to which we are probably all a little too well accustomed.
As wind lashes the darkened High Street outside, Willy offers to warm our cockles with the white labelled ‘Podlasie’ variety. It’s still unmistakably vodka, but hugely more complex, rustic and earthy, yet smooth to sip. There’s a lot going on. Then we mix it with tonic and the botanicals change everything once again.
We’re summarily educated in the careful choice of young, ripe ‘virgin’ potatoes (hence the name), the relentless effects of the local soil and weather, plus the need to retain impurities via the single distillation to create character and a drink more true to the artisan spirits of yesteryear.
As we move on to the black label – which proves a more familiar taste, but still provokes plenty of discussion and revelation – Willy reveals how his local school days at William Ellis were offset by summers spent in Poland, where his journalist father had settled after a career of probing the Mugabes and Ceaușescus of this world.
It was the home distilling experiments of those Polish summers that lead to starting Vestal in 2009 (via a formative stint helping turn Camden’s Hawley Arms into the go-to spot for early noughties bands, including his brother Johnny’s mob Razorlight, that is.)
Willy pauses to return to the suitcase, from which emerges a box containing his latest product. This heavy, cornered bottle is Vestal Amber, a vodka liqueur made with elderflower, elderberry and its stalk. Traditionally taken with a nice slice of cake after a day’s work on the farm in Poland, its Kentish Town incarnation also, he says, makes an unusual alcoholic cordial or a mean party-starting champagne cocktail.
It’s clearly our guide’s latest passion, as he somewhat breathlessly extolls its reported aphrodisiacal properties. Our cheeks might redden – but it’s a delicious warmth from the methanol rather than the carnal conversation that does it. Honest.
With his father overseeing the micro distillery in Poland, Vestal’s home base has always been right here in NW5, where William now carries his signature 40% proof suitcase and boundless enthusiasm for his vodka door to door, attracting a growing set of good shops, bars and restaurants and some loyal devotees.
But tonight he is not out to party. A wife and family await at home. And so with that our charismatic drinking partner packs up his case for another day – and is gone.
Interested? You can try Vestal Vodka at The Oxford and Pineapple in NW5, or purchase a bottle from Melrose & Morgan in Primrose Hill. Or cut out the middle blokes and buy direct: as a special offer for our readers, Willy will personally hand deliver local orders if you mention the Kentishtowner. Make sure he brings that signature suitcase now…
Words & Pics: Tom Kihl