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Fred Van de Walle’s journey in gin

Fred Van de Walle shares his journey from finding gin shipwrecked at the bottom of the ocean to founding his own brand

Fred Van de Walle Marcel Gin Liqueur

We spoke to Fred Van de Walle, shipwreck conservator, artist, and now gin liqueur maker. He shared his journey from finding gin shipwrecked at the bottom of the ocean to founding his own brand.

Salvaging the SS Mantola

In 2011, a salvage operation began. The UK government contracted Odyssey Marine Exploration (OME) to recover the SS Mantola, a British India Steam Navigation Company cargo ship which was sunk by a German U-boat on its way to India in 1917. Lifeboats were dispatched, but the ship and its cargo were abandoned.
The ship carried silver, goods, and 18 passengers. Among its cargo was an impressive array of alcohol, given the privation that the First World War had imposed. Captaining the ship was David James Chivas, a member of the Chivas family, whose forefathers had founded renowned drinks brand Chivas Brothers in the previous century. 
Among the salvaged cargo, OME retrieved what they believe to be wine, whisky, port, and about 40 bottles of gin, still stoppered. The gin caught the interest of shipwreck conservator Fred Van de Walle, who at the time worked for OME (the company has since refocused from shipwreck conservation to deep sea mining). 

Further inspection

Curious about the gin’s past — and its possible future — Van de Walle and his client from OME, who now owns the salvaged gin, arranged for samples of the shipwrecked gin to be sent to Tobias Gorn, gin expert and co-founder and partner at International Drinks Specialists, for review. The three are seeking to identify the flavours of the gin for potential recreation, and to gain greater understanding of the recipe and aromatics that were behind early 20th century gin. 

“I got very excited when something very special landed on my desk,” recalls Gorn. “These over [one] hundred years old samples are intriguing but also difficult to evaluate given that instead of a slow oxidation and maturation in an oxidative environment, they have been resting sealed if not with some reduction. 
“We have consulted a couple of gin expert friends, and we narrowed down the possible origin of this gin to one specific historical brand.”
Most of the gin recovered was from Boord & Son, a brand established in 1726 and known for its Old Tom gin. The distillery’s former office — designed by Aston Webb (architect of the Buckingham Palace façade and the Victoria and Albert Museum’s main building) and now a Grade II listed building — still sits on Tooley Street, London. The team have analysed the samples, hoping to recreate the recipe behind the 20th-century gin.
Bottle seal; shipwrecked bottle
Images (left to right): A Boord & Son bottle seal; One of salvaged bottles. 
“The story continues with more research,” says Gorn. “I have started to draft a recipe that will be a close recreation if not resurrection of this lost brand based on the salvaged marine samples. It is tricky as sadly the original samples are not necessarily in their original intended condition, but we managed to get enough information to confirm the main style and botanicals [that] potentially have been used.”
Gorn is hopeful about historic gin’s future. Working alongside him on the project will be Van de Walle, whose interest in gin goes beyond the history. Five years ago, Van de Walle began work on Marcel Gin Liqueur, which was also evaluated by IDS, and which Gorn calls a “wonderful creation”.  
“Working with Fred will help to get this project in motion,” concludes Gorn. “It is something very special that will take people on an exciting journey that started over a hundred years ago.”

An explorer’s gin liqueur

Van de Walle’s career has taken him worldwide, uncovering secrets beneath the sea. Marcel Gin Liqueur is inspired by Van de Walle’s travels, and the flavours and experiences he discovered along the way. 

Originally from Belgium, he drew on his country’s heritage of genever, united with aromatics from around the world. To develop and distil the recipe, Van de Walle teamed up with Zum Tröpfli Distillery, spirit makers based in Switzerland, where he now lives. The result is a gin liqueur, which he says has prominent flavours of marzipan, nuts, and orange. 
Although Marcel can be served neat or over ice, Van de Walle likes it best mixed into cocktails where he can experiment with the flavours it brings. He likes to get people involved in the process, giving samples to bartenders or friends to see what they can create. 
“I don’t have one particular style,” says Van de Walle, who is an artist as well as conservator and spirit-maker. “It’s more of an exchange of ideas or techniques… it doesn’t have to be just art. I do it with everything, like in the kitchen.”

Fred Van de Walle with Marcel Gin Liqueur

To Van de Walle, mixing the liqueur into cocktails allows the creative process to continue, long after the liquid itself has been created and bottled. He is now in the development process for his next spirits: whisky and tequila. As ever, he is led by flavour first and foremost. 
Reflecting on the process of making Marcel, Van de Walle says, “I didn’t intentionally set out to create a drink that didn’t exist. I just tried to make something that I thought would be interesting and nice. And it did. So that worked out.”
Image: Fred Van de Walle and Marcel

4 April 2024