By Jack Hayes
If it weren’t for a keen eye, you would be forgiven for walking straight past a rare jewel of Melbourne history.
Nestled in the north-east corner of the CBD, squeezed tight among skyscrapers, you’ll find 17 Casselden Place – a quaint late 1870s cottage with a chequered past and an appetite for all things wicked.
The cottage, which was once a booming brothel in Melbourne’s notorious red-light district, also operated as a sly grog shop, attracting attention from degenerates and law and order alike.
Almost 150 years later, 17 Casselden Place has returned to its former glory, albeit far more virtuously, in the form of Little Lon Distilling Co.
Working out of the cramped confines of the cottage, whose footprint would be no larger than 30 sqm, co-owner Brad Wilson, a film and advertising creative director, admits he was captured by its charm, not practicality.
“I tried several red-brick buildings along Little Lonsdale St, sadly most of them were already earmarked for development,” Mr Wilson said.
“I was aware of the cottage and the history that surrounded it but was apprehensive given its logistical and heritage limitations.”
Despite the many shortcomings of running a business out of a tiny red-brick cottage, no bigger than the average garage, the allure of its history became too hard to ignore.
Paying homage to a bygone era, Mr Wilson, together with his brother and co-owner, Jared, relive the stories of infamous Little Lon characters through their four styles of gin.
“Ginger Mick, a fictional CJ Dennis character, known as a larrikin throughout the area and small-time criminal. Our second gin follows the story of Constable Bill Proudfoot, a plain-clothed police officer patrolling the area Monday to Friday, and captaining premierships for Collingwood on Saturdays – often prone to stopping by the thriving brothel for a ‘cup of tea’,” Mr Wilson said.
“Our third, Dutchy Thomas, named after Arthur ‘Dutchy’ Thomas, a crook and joker, who was partial to a drink or 20.”
Among the four narratives driving 17 Casselden Place’s revival, none fascinates more than Little Lon Distilling Co’s final character and flavour – Little Miss Yoko.
Tiecom Ah Chung, or as she was commonly known, Yokohama, was a prostitute of Chinese descent working out of the cottage for over 15 years.
With the help of Melbourne crime historian, Michael Shelford, the team at Little Lon were able to track Yokohama’s journey from leaving China for Hobart, getting caught stealing a pound of biscuits, then jumping ship in the Port of Melbourne after being forced to return home by her family.
“Michael [Shelford] found a mention of her in a 1920s police report. When he found out we were naming a gin after her, he travelled down to Hobart and dug up the only known photograph of her – a mug shot,” Mr Wilson said.
The cottage is now licensed for 20 people, with a small bar occupying the previous waiting room, and a 10-foot gin still, custom-built to fit through the narrow doorways, standing in Little Miss Yoko’s former room of “business”.
On Saturdays, gin masterclasses run from 3 pm for $65. Guests receive a drink on arrival, a cocktail of their choice and a tasting of four different gins.
For more details, visit littlelondistillingco.com.