Gin Gets its Due at Whitechapel in San Francisco
If there’s one thing you can say about Martin Cate and Alex Smith, it’s that these guys like to go all in on celebrating a single spirit. Exhibit A: Smuggler’s Cove, San Francisco’s world famous tiki bar specializing in over 75 rum-based cocktails and over 400 rare rums in a space that feels like a set stage for Pirates of the Caribbean. At Whitechapel, Cate, Smith, and a third partner, John Park, have gone all in again. And this time, it’s all in on the world of gin. With over 400 varietals — the largest gin selection in North America — and 110 gin-based cocktails, Whitechapel not only celebrates the versatile spirit, it takes you on a journey to an entirely different era. In here, drinking is done in the London Underground. Or, more specifically, in a secret Victorian-era Steampunk-fantasy gin joint built into an abandoned Underground station. Yes, every last detail of Whitechapel is dedicated to this fantastical celebration of gin.
Even the menu introduction reads more like a movie script:
In the heart of East London… deep beneath the streets… among the crumbling ruins of a long abandoned Underground station… something unusual is afoot. The fragrant smell of juniper mingles with exotic botanicals sourced from across the vast British Empire. The hiss of steam punctures the damp subterranean air, and the fires of distillation yield forth the wondrous elixir that has captivated the entire realm: Gin.
“We had to ‘Smugglize’ it,” Cate laughs when describing how deep they went into this fantasy Whitechapel world. “Opening a gin bar was an idea that Alex had while we were at Smuggler’s Cove. It was something we both got really excited about. Similar to the way we focused solely on rum there, we wanted to celebrate a single spirit in a very immersive way here, in a world that exists outside of San Francisco. Whitechapel will be to gin what Smuggler’s is to rum — the largest selection of the spirit, a cocktail menu that goes really deep, and a concept that tells a really fun story.”
Much like Smuggler’s Cove, Whitechapel’s aesthetic is not lacking in conceptual details. On the corner of Turk and Post in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, you’ll see hand-painted signs reading “Through tickets issued from this station to ALL PARTS of LONDON.” Walk through the doors and you’re in a Victorian-era Underground station-turned-gin club. The subway platform-turned-main bar is complete with custom-built barrel-vaulted ceilings and official London subway tile. (Yes, the distinct green tiles are the same ones used for centuries in London’s Underground.) There is faux water damage on the walls and a worn wood train ticket booth. Head to The Distillery room, and you’ll notice hanging electrical wires and cast-resin valves — the kind of details one might notice when inspecting the inner workings of a subway system. There is vintage lab equipment and copper distillers bubbling with juniper leaves and cardamom, as if the team is experimenting with new gin recipes on the walls above your table. The back room serves as the Gin Palace — a more sophisticated space that looks as if it was built on the other side of a roughly blown out cement wall. The parlor room mimics the kind of set up an old gin company might create to promote their spirits to local Londoners in a neighborhood pub.
As for the challenges one might expect when going this deep into one spirit category, Cate doesn’t see it that way. “We are going in depth which means we can do gin better than if we tried to specialize in every spirit. Bars continue to be this place where we are expected to be everything to everyone. No one goes into a taqueria and asks for sushi, yet some people will go into a bar and get frustrated if we don’t carry their favorite Bloody Mary mix or brand of whiskey. This was our way of saying what we are best at. And in order to do that, we had to draw some lines.”
Gin has another challenge, and that is to shake off the spirit’s somewhat stuffy reputation. The goal at Whitechapel is to showcase just how versatile and dynamic, yet vibrant and interesting it can be. “Gin can be challenging to work with,” Cate says. “But it’s also really fun. It can be a base and a modifier at the same time. Gin has this way of magically transforming drinks — it can become something entirely different depending on what you mix it with.”
Looking through the extensive menu, it’s clear the team here has found just about every way to ‘magically transform’ a drink with gin. Inside the gold filigree and leather-bound menu, drinks are divided into categories: ‘Original Cocktails’ are recipes concocted in house, ‘Honor Among Thieves’ are recipes borrowed from respected peers, and ‘Lost and Forgotten’ include recipes that the Whitechapel team revived from long forgotten gin recipes. There are also, of course, the popular classics, a whole family of martinis (and their cousins), gins and tonics (yes, plural — each a riff on a different region) as well as a classic house G&T recipe served from a tap. The house gin and tonic, like many of the cocktails, is made with Whitechapel’s custom gin, a recipe created by local Distillery No. 209. The bar’s exclusive blend is a take on a classic London Dry Gin made with traditional botanicals found across the old British empire, but also with an accent of English hops, walnuts and lemon verbana that give it a signature Whitechapel twist. A section titled ‘Kopstootje’ (which translates directly to ‘little headbutt’ in Dutch) offers a selection of beers accompanied by different shots of genever. There are gin and seltzer highballs. There are gin flights which include four half-ounce tastes of different gins based on the region where they were made. And, just when you think they have every kind of gin that’s ever existed, look to the back wall where a glass-encased collection of well-kept vintage gins dates back to 1930. All are available for the tasting.
Still hoping to dive a bit deeper into this magical world of gin? The ‘Polk Street Irregulars’ will be Whitechapel’s educational gin program aimed to turn the average gin fan into a heralded Duke of gin. Of course, just like everything else this crew does, the program goes a step beyond the average drinking club. Sign up on Whitechapel’s website, and get a downloadable gin textbook with historical context to accompany every gin “assignment” you’re given at the bar. There are 38 lessons in total, and members are able to track their gin progress and achieve titles of English nobility along the way.
If there ever were a world in which one could quite literally immerse themselves in the magical spirit of gin, ladies and gentleman: Welcome to Whitechapel. Trains leave every few minutes.