A milestone moment in the story of British Gin distilling, in 2009 Sipsmith became the first copper-pot based distillery to start up in London for 189 years.
In 2009, Sipsmith was launched by Sam Galsworthy and Fairfax Hall. The pair grew up as friends in Cornwall and both ended up working in the drinks industry in America (they were formerly of Fuller’s and Diageo respectively). The duo teamed up with Jared Brown (who in the past has developed spirits in Sweden, Norway, Vietnam, and in the US) to pursue their passion for handmade spirits. The result was (and still is) a gin full of flavour and grounded by authenticity, which is now on a seemingly unstoppable meteoric rise.
When they launched, Sipsmith became the first copper-pot based distillery to start up in London in over 180 years. A fact that made the process of being granted a license a long and tiresome affair. Undeterred and feeling inspired after spending time in the US, where a change in licensing laws led to small craft distilleries gaining popularity, Fairfax Hall and Sam Galsworthy even sold their homes to fund the project.
The major stumbling block was HMRC. At the time, the government said the quantity of gin they planned to produce – less than 300 litres at a time – was so small it was technically classed as “moonshine”. In took almost two years of lobbying for the law to be changed and in 2009 their licence was granted. Incidentally, this original licence still hangs proudly on the wall and is actually partly handwritten, because up to that point there were none in existence.
It’s hard to underestimate the impact that this change in legislation has triggered in the UK since. For example, less than a year beforehand Chase Distillery had been after a similar licence and had been denied, forcing them to buy in much larger apparatus off which to distil. Many others were forced to halt their plans altogether, as the fiscal barrier to entry was too high. Only a handful of distilleries were built in the UK in the years leading up to 2009 but in the 5 years after, well over 70 distilleries have been established. The launch of Sipsmith was the pivotal moment for craft distilling in the UK and they were, undeniably, the ones who changed the game when it comes to small batch gin.
They called the distillery Sipsmith after the name they gave themselves “sip-smiths” – a celebration of the craft of distillation and their artisanal methods. Talking about life behind the scenes at Sipsmith, Galsworthy refers to why the name still has resonance to all who work there today “Craft is a philosophy, it’s about making things by hand, it’s artisan – it’s a sort of smithery” and it’s this attitude that is followed through into all aspects of distillery life.
Today (Jan 2016), Sipsmith Gin is distilled using three different stills named Constance, Prudence and Patience. There is also a tiny (50lt) still named Cygnet, which the team use for more experimental ideas and trial recipes.
Each still can create their flagship London Dry Gin and are used separately to create the spirit depending on the distillery’s production demands (they also make a barley vodka). This may seem strange to have three separate stills making the same spirit but this (now quite large) operation wasn’t always the case and is a result of the distillery’s uncompromising stand on maintaining a single shot distilling process. Let us explain –
Prudence (named after former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s favourite watchword) was the team’s first still. She was designed in collaboration with one of Germany’s oldest distillery producers Christian Carl (a family business which has been crafting stills since 1869 and which has since created many of the stills for the smaller craft distilleries) and is as complex as she is beautiful.
Her design was fine-tuned following conversations with Beefeater’s Desmond Payne, Plymouth’s Sean Harrison and using Jared Brown’s understanding of creating spirits. Standing tall with a 300lt capacity, Prudence barely fit into the original distillery (in Hammersmith) with the swan’s neck mere centimetres away from the ceiling at the time.
Although the chamber is not used for either the creation of their vodka nor their flagship London Dry Gin, Prudence is capable of being both a pot still or a Carterhead-style still as it also has a vapour infusion chamber. More on this later…!
To create all their spirits, Sipsmith use a one-shot method (they only mix their end distillate with water to cut it to bottling strength, whereas the two-shot method used in some larger distilleries sees the distillate being stretched with more base spirit, then cut with water). As Prudence can only create 300lts per day, increasing production while staying true to this philosophy, means increasing the amount of stills on hand. Enter Patience, the second still, which is the same size and (more or less as to not go way too geeky here) the same design.
5 years on from their launch and some 800+ batches later – Sipsmith moved from their original home in Hammersmith, setting up in Chiswick in late 2014.
Incidentally, it’s worth noting the original garage turned distillery was once the site of a former microbrewery and later became the office of legendary drinks writer Michael Jackson. When the team first saw the space, it was still lined with his beer and spirits bottles, amassed in a lifetime spent reviewing and appreciating drinks from the world over. It may be an aside to their current story, but worth recording for the history books as in years to come, that little garage may well become the stuff of legend given its role in the history of craft distilling in the UK.
Having pledged to make each and every batch of Sipsmith London Dry Gin using the traditional one-shot method, the team took the opportunity of moving to a larger space to install their third still, Constance. Much larger than her sisters, Constance can make just under 1,500lt of Sipsmith Gin per day and helps future proof the distillery
So what about their Gins then? The distillery has a few expressions in their portfolio, along with a transient series of experimental gins that are part of the “sipping” service they offer to subscribers and for those who visit the distillery.
Balancing a whole host of aromatic botanicals to create a gin that is dry, spicy, and full of character, Sipsmith is made using ten carefully selected botanicals from around the globe: Macedonian juniper berries, Bulgarian coriander seed, French angelica root, Spanish liquorice root, Italian orris root, Spanish ground almond, Chinese cassia bark, Madagascan cinnamon, Seville orange peel and Spanish lemon peel.
Each botanical plays its part but the noteworthy few being liquorice, coriander seed and angelica, which play distinctive roles. The liquorice is not just used for its own flavour nor solely for its sweetness but also for its ability to counter some of the tannin in the other botanicals thus allowing for a truer, zestier taste.
The coriander seed and angelica root gives the Gin a more traditional London Dry profile. On the palate Sipsmith has strong notes of juniper but there is also a definite citrus zing and a depth to the liquid that lingers beautifully. The cassia bark and cinnamon help with the finish and the overall impression is that of a classically styled gin that’s well rounded and smooth. We like serving it with a lime wedge in a Gin & Tonic for that crisp edge, but for those who enjoy more adventurous garnish combinations – dehydrated orange wheels are also a treat.
Made using Dartmoor Sloe Berries and their London Dry Gin, Sipsmith Sloe Gin is the perfect balance for those looking for a versatile offering. It hasn’t got the sugary sweetness of most industrial commercial or even homemade versions, but just enough to bring out that ripe fruity tone and almond-like depth. It’s vibrant and rich but underpinned by the gin’s inherent warming tones, which gives it a lasting finish and enviable depth. Be warned, it slips down with intoxicating ease…
Launched in 2013, V.J.O.P. stands for Very Junipery Over Proof – and in a nutshell describes what the product is all about. It’s bottled at a higher strength of 57% ABV, and uses around 75% more juniper than their original London Dry. The distillation is different too – the recipe uses a ‘triple juniper’ method which means that they add the botanical to the distillate at three various stages.
To start, much more juniper is added to the usual recipe which is left to macerate for slightly longer than with their original gin. More berries are then also added to the pot-still after the three-day maceration period has ended. Finally the last dose of juniper is given by adding berries into vapour infusion chamber (their steam basket inside the still).
The result is, as one might expect, a bombastic juniper explosion. The citrusy element and coriander seeds feel more focused but the main draw here is that this is a big behemoth of a junipery gin. It’s Sipsmith, but almost like with a bigger brother, there’s a family resemblance that has its own idiosyncrasies. In this case there is a stronger cinnamon and drier finish – with a more pronounced lime note lingering instead. The higher ABV suits the resinous qualities of juniper and the Gin is a great addition to both the Sipsmith range and well worth seeking out. We found it is at its best in a Gimlet.
Sipsmith Raffles 1915 Gin:
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ‘Singapore Sling’, Raffles Singapore partnered with Sipsmith to create a custom gin named Raffles 1915 Gin. The collaboration is rooted in history, with Sipsmith’s co-founder Sam Galsworthy being the great, great, great nephew of Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore for whom the Raffles’ flagship hotel was named.
The botanical lineup is inspired by the Malayan peninsula and includes ingredients such as jasmine flowers, fresh pomelo peel, lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaf, nutmeg and cardamom – distilled alongside some of Sipsmith’s classic gin botanicals (including juniper, coriander seed, angelica and orris root).
Sipsmith Raffles Gin is little bit sharper on the nose than other Sipmiths, the lemongrass and zesty citrus are pronounced, with undertones of cinnamon. There’s a distinct nuttiness to taste, with the classic gin shackled by dusty spiced elements and fleshy fruits. It’s juniper lead all the way and makes for a complex and interesting proposition.
It’s quite hard to get hold of as it is made exclusively for the hotel to use as part of a limited release, however keep a look out for the red wax top and red label (to echo the Singaporean flag) as it’s more than worth the £44 price tag.
Sipsmith House of Commons Gin:
In 2015, Sipsmith were awarded the contract to produce a gin for the House of Commons and released an exclusive bottling for the House of Parliament visitor centre. We haven’t tasted it yet, but have understood this to be the same gin as their regular Sipsmith London Dry, bottled at a lower ABV of 40.7% ABV. We will update this section of the article once we know more.
Anyone who has visited the Sipsmith distillery will have noticed their restless enthusiasm for experimentation. There has been Truffle Gin, Smoked Venison Gin, Mince Pie Gin and Lemon Drizzle Cake Gin to name just a few of the ones we’ve tried on their flavour wall, yet as they are made as experiments, all of these gins are seldom allowed out of the building. They are not core releases and are intended as both fun experimentation and educational prototyping to better understand their still’s capacities and what they could make from their lab.
In December 2015, Sipsmith floated the idea of making an at home delivery service of these experimental gins and placed it on crowdfunding website, Indigogo. A month later and 300% oversubscribed, the Sipsmith sipping service began with 600 thirsty fans. Every 3 months the distillery selects the 4 best gins they have trialled during tours that season – and send them directly to subscribers in 4x 90ml bottles. Each season’s sipping gins are a surprise to those who receive them.
For those reading on in envy and wanting a delivery of their own – Sipsmith has temporarily closed the option to sign up in order to implement the idea to those who subscribed. They do plan to reopen it once more for the next batch of eager sippers, so click on the link to see when their follow up subscription entries go ahead once more: Sipsmith Sipping Service
Production aside, (as with all good brands) the bottle designs haven’t let the liquid down in any way. The heavy based, smooth labelled, embossed and tactile bottles are a masterful touch that really tantalises you into wanting to drink the contents.
The labels depict a stylised pot-still with a swan’s neck and head – a reference to Prudence and a symbol that has come to represent the distillery. Perhaps most satisfying of all however is the bottle top, with its wax coating and a cork that makes a faint sound so appealing that it has come to mark the beginning of Martini time here at Gin Foundry HQ.
So what next?
It might be a fair assessment to state that Sipsmith benefited from being the first in the new wave of craft distilleries, but in many ways, as we pointed out earlier in this article, it was actually them who paved the way for many of the others to follow.
They created a business template for craft distilleries that was (and still remains) incredibly savvy and intelligent, making use of their niche and harnessing their know-how in the drinks industry.
Many others have tried to emulate this, most even do so openly as without doubt Sipsmith is now “the” reference for a craft distilling success story. The key fact that many other distilleries don’t realise is that Sipsmith’s real success is not just in producing high quality spirits or riding the “craft” wave, but in their ability to convey their story which is, fundamentally, about people. It’s a story about people who made their dream a reality and are now living their passion, their craft and ultimately – their smithery on a daily basis.
Their main advantage isn’t just that they came first – it is that they, even years after their launch and the countless number of brands that have emerged, still offer a very human alternative in what remains a relatively faceless market. Ultimately, this is why they have captured the imagination of Gin fans around the world.
Talking of the human touch… the Sipsmith team host 1.5h tours, which can be booked via their website. If you get the chance, it’s worth visiting them and enjoying a Gin and Tonic directly next to the still. Be warned however, the effortless charm and personable nature of both the team and the distillery is something that might just have you dreaming of what could be possible, should you give up the day job yourself…
On a personal note, as outside commentators who have seen them develop over the 7 years since inception – It is not surprising to see that both the gin and the distillery have been so well received, as the liquid is truly exceptional and could well be a new benchmark in what a London Dry should taste like. Furthermore the Sipsmith team have an enthusiasm and a charm that is both contagious and inspiring, all of which contributing to why they are considered as some of the nicest gents in the drinks industry and why their gin is on everyone’s must-stock list.
For more information about Sipsmith, visit their website: www.sipsmith.com
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