James Sceats’ story starts in a humble part of Hackney and ends up in the cocktail bar of the Waldorf Astoria New York...
James SCEATS was born in Homerton, Middlesex in England in 1851. His parents Joseph and Susannah were 37. By the 1861 census, James was a schoolboy living at the family home in Kings Road Finsbury, just North of the City of London.
His parents were of modest means, his father's unusual career path took him from gardener to florist to milliner; but Joseph was successful, and the family moved to a large house at number 10 Gt. Ormond Street London.
After leaving school, James started as a trainee cooper (barrel maker) and by 1870 working in London's (then) Brewing Quarter at 12 Great Crown Court, Pulteney Street Soho. His connections in the trade led to James becoming a wine & spirit merchant and moving up in the world.
He met a Coventry girl on his travels who had moved to Liverpool with her wealthy family. Her father, Thomas Hill, was a renowned watchmaker. He married Elizabeth Briant HILL on 30 June 1881 in Liverpool, Lancashire.
In 1890, James's father emigrated to New Zealand following his children William Henry and Bessie.
James and his wife moved into a large family home called "Elmore" in East Dulwich. Things were looking good and were about to get more interesting...
James met Basil Willis, whose business was based in nearby New Cross. James and Basil teamed up to become "Sceats & Willis Wine Merchants". By 1895 they had offices in the Crosby Buildings in the City of London just off Bishopsgate (where the "22 Bishopsgate" skyscraper is now...).
In 1898, a distillery in the historic spa town of Camberwell came up for sale. The partnership planned to use their skills as wine and spirit merchants to expand into distilling. Aside from regular distilling, James Sceats pioneered a concept to recover alcohol from barrels for the medical trade.
The Camberwell Distillery was conveniently located on the south side of the now leafy and elegant Addington Square, a stone’s throw from Camberwell Wharf where the Grand Surrey Canal connected the distillery to the River Thames and the Port of London.
The distillery’s grain and botanicals would arrive by canal boat and complete the short journey around Addington Square by horse-drawn delivery van.
The company’s profitability was affected by a change in UK alcohol duty and James’ gin recipe was sold to an American company in 1901 as a “Sceats & Willis” brand.
Basil Willis left the business and sadly, James Sceats died on 10 October 1903 at Creighton Mansions, Brunswick Square London at the age of 52. It was a sad end to an otherwise successful career, but that is not the end of the story...
The first gin advert based on the Camberwell Distillery recipe appeared in New York in 1905 under the "El Bart Gin" brand. The label carried the Sceats & Willis name underlining its "London Gin" roots.
By the start of the First World War in Europe, supplies of British gin to the USA were being disrupted and El Bart was one of the only London Dry Gins available; as such it gained great popularity.
El-Bart became the house gin of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel and was the gin of choice for Hugo Ensslin, the German-born cocktail maestro of the Wallick Hotel in New York and author of the most influential cocktail book ever written. James Sceats’ gin had 40 years of profitable sales across the USA.
James Sceats’ El-Bart - the London Gin that travelled the Atlantic, survived the 13 years of Prohibition in the USA and two world wars - was purchased by a multi-national drinks company who mothballed the recipe and the brand so it could not compete with their own branded gins...
For decades, the El Bart brand disappeared from cocktail bars and was seen only in cocktail books and in the trade of its beautiful advertising posters and signs.
Of course, James Sceats did not get to reap the rewards of his hard work, but the Sceats Family was to have the last word… The Sceats Family bought back the recipe, trademark and copyright of El-Bart and the brand has returned.
El-Bart Gin will be made to James’ original 1898 recipe.