“Try this”, said my friend, a true foodie who takes his 2 year old daughter to Michelin star restaurants. “It’s the best gin in the UK”. I look at the name on the bottle he hands me. Sipsmith. There is a picture of a swan’s head elongating out from a still pot on the label, next to a depiction of juniper berries with the words “Copper Stilled in London” below. The gin is clean and crisp, displaying enticing notes of juniper, citrus and spice. Having opened my eyes, I soon notice how ubiquitous this gin is around London. Heathrow duty-free. The fine wine retailer Lea and Sandeman. Upscale supermarkets such as Waitrose and Harrods. Not only that, the gin has been winning awards left and right at international spirit competitions.
An admirable achievement for a business that started up just four years ago. While working in the United States, co-founders Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall were struck by the number of craft distilleries making spirits such as gin, vodka and whisky in small batches, by hand. Extending this movement to London was an incredibly exciting idea for Sam and Fairfax, and it seemed only natural that they focus on that most British of spirits, gin. “I always loved gin,” says Sam. “I think gin flows through the blood of every British person, and now, suddenly gin is becoming very popular again.”
The Sipsmith distillery is located in a quiet residential street in Hammersmith, London. It is so nondescript that I have to double-check the address before entering the small, 500 square feet premises. About a third of that space is taken up by Prudence, a copper pot still that stretches from floor to ceiling and burbles happily as she gently transforms neutral spirit into the aromatic product that is gin. The distillery is young, but it has already earned a place in the history books by being the first copper pot distillery to open in London in nearly 200 years. Sam proudly shows me the distiller’s license which took nearly two years to obtain due to the fact that no one in the government knew how to issue one.
The Sipsmith recipe utilises classic ingredients – juniper berries, orange and lemon peels, orris, liquorice and angelica root, cinnamon and cassia bark, ground almond, and coriander seed. These botanicals are macerated overnight in neutral barley spirit to release their flavours. What differentiates Sipsmith from other gins in the market is the one-shot distillation process that produces smoother and more intense flavours. In this traditional process, each batch contains just enough botanicals so that the final product is a high-strength gin that only needs to be cut with water. Sam explains that most companies with larger production facilities will add in a greater quantity of botanicals to produce a concentrate that is then further stretched with neutral alcohol and water.
The small scale operation of Sipsmith means that they can only produce 300 bottles a run. When I was visiting, the Sipsmith team had just received delivery of another still which they have christened Patience. Patience will be initially be used for the overnight maceration, freeing Prudence to concentrate on the distillation. Sam and Fairfax took the name Prudence from UK prime minister Gordon Brown’s call for citizens to be prudent during the financial crisis, an inside joke for as Sam puts it, “We didn’t think that there was anything very prudent about starting a business while the economy was tanking”.
The gin category as a whole is still in the doldrums, with the lowest growth among international spirits according to just-drinks. However, as Sam points out, “Total global gin sales are going down, but a lot of that is really bad, cheap gin, mainly made in the Philippines. If you talk about premium gin and super-premium gin, that’s growing very, very fast and we are doubling sales every year.” Sipsmith has even launched in China, although Sam admits that it is a difficult market to crack. “China is the biggest consumers of spirits in the world,” says Sam, “but their spirits are very different. Right now our market is mainly expatriates in high-end bars. I think if you ask me the same question in five years (about sales), I’ll be able to say, now, it’s beginning to happen.”
Besides the London Dry Gin and Barley Vodka, Sipsmith also produces flavoured spirits such as a Sloe Gin, Damson Vodka and Summer Cup. The latter is a gin-based liqueur blended with earl grey, lemon verbena and cucumber. A characteristically British concoction, it is mixed with ice and lemonade and drunk during the warm summer months. There are also plans in the pipeline for a high strength gin scheduled to be launched next year.
Note: You can find Sipsmith in Singapore thanks to the folks at 28 HongKong Street.
Contributed by Chek Wong, Associate Member of the Institute of Wines and Spirits