The Sipsmith Sipping Society
Whether you’re a Groucho Marx type or a Clubcard-point-counting subscriber of just about anything, there’s no denying that there’s one kind of club – or rather, society – that holds a greater appeal than most: one that send you Gin. In this case, it’s the Sipsmith Sipping Society, where members part with a pretty penny to join, but what they get in return is a year’s worth of delicious and strange experimentation, delivered to their doorstep.
The Sipsmith Sipping Society is the brand’s way to push the limits of what Gin is and can be without compromising the integrity of their core offerings (more on that later). Sometimes the experiments and their results are spectacular (hello, Barrel Aged Martinez), at other times they’re… well… popcorn flavoured.
Members of the society receive 6 packs a year, and each pack contains two 20cl bottles of very limited gin. It doesn’t take much of a mathematic mind to work out that the liquid inside is on the pricey side: an annual membership costs £180 (those who don’t wish to fork out in one lump can pay a bi-monthly fee of £35). For that cost you get 2.4 litres of gin per annum – equivalent to just under three and a half bottles.
But while the liquid certainly ends up at the higher end of the price spectrum, the packages themselves are utterly beautiful and a true joy to receive in the post. If it’s the small luxuries in life that make up for the fact you’ll never be able to buy your own super yacht, then receiving these gorgeous green boxes in the post are as good a place as any to start. We’ve got hold of the April, June and August boxes from 2018 to showcase some of the offerings so far in order to provide some insight as to what to expect, so keep reading for some tasting notes.
April: Blood Orange Liqueur
Lemon Drizzle Gin, a former Sipsmith Sipping Society experiment turned full time member of the Sipsmith family, lends the remainder of its lemons to the periphery of this gorgeous sipper. Sipsmith are not about wasting resources, so while the lemon drizzle gets hold of the peel, this makes great use of the juicy centre.
Still, it’s the super rich, ruby red blood oranges that are the star of the show here. The Moro variety, developed in 19th Century Sicily are added to Sipsmith’s mini-still, Cygnet, and distilled alongside a selection of other botanicals. The gin is then left to rest with more blood oranges, which have so much natural sweetness within them that barely a dash of sugar is required to bring the gin down to liqueur level (albeit a strong one, at 32%).
The smell is of rich, candied orange, so vibrant and vivid you can feel almost imagine yourself tearing open the flesh of the fruit and chomping down right there and then. There’s a medicinal hint about it, too; not in a bad way by any means, but somewhat soothing, like cough mixture or throat spray. The orange is so forcefully rounded and juicy, a genuinely world class liqueur. It’s infinitely shippable even at 32% too, with the spice of the gin serving only to warm the throat, rather than burn it in anyway. We’re absolutely hooked and can’t get enough!
The Popcorn Gin was inspired by Cannes Film Festival and saw Sipsmith employ a whole new method of gin making! Inspired by New York bartender Don Lee’s bacon-infused take on the Old Fashioned, the team borrowed his method of “fat-washing.” In short: the gin was distilled with three types of corn – kernels, popped kernels and Kellogg’s. Then it was butter washed and frozen, allowing all of the fat to be scraped off and removed. To bring in the sweet and salty vibe, salted butter was used, with vanilla and liquorice added in to bring a sugary hit.
On the nose, there’s little to come through but spirit burn. Cut it with a dash of water and more of the creamy corn comes through. More corn on the cob than popcorn, but intriguing nevertheless. This translates to the tongue as well (the burn and the flavour), with a great big white spirit hit punching through. With a little patience, you can discern the cereal notes on the tongue, but the popcorn almost certainly needs help to bring out its sweetness. The fat washing, in fairness comes through in terms of a buttery texture on the mouthfeel. Liquorice root sweetness emerges on the finish, but the entire thing is very similar to the really badly made American “gins” that are made from Moonshine. In their case the base spirit dogs any clear botanical flavours from emerging, but here, the same boisterous cereal tones have been deliberately added as botanicals, yet much to the same effect. Once diluted, softer flavours are given a little more space to roam, and the herbal nature of Sipsmith’s flagship ingredients come through stronger, leaving the tongue coated in fiery green leaves, rather than any kind of candy.
Not one for us, but one that we can salute for the innovative approach taken in the making and for those who like the craft of production, worth tasting to understand how the “fat washing” technique has been harnessed.
June: Gooseberry & Elderflower Liqueur
This summertime tipple celebrates two quintessentially English hedgerow ingredients: the gooseberry and the elderflower. While the elderflower is as popular as ever, you never see a gooseberry out on the town, and Sipsmith thought it was high time for a revival. It’s a Liqueur but bottled at 40% ABV.
To make the Gooseberry & Elderflower Liqueur, Sipsmith copy the same method as in their Sloe Gin and freeze the berries. This encourages the skin to split, so that when they are left to soak in some Sipsmith London Dry Gin (left at 82% ABV), there’s better contact. The gooseberries are left to sit in the spirit for a full week, before a natural elderflower gomme is added to the mix.
Rich, ripe, bubble-gum sweetness greets the nose. Orange blossom and sticky elderflower combine with tart fruitiness that seizes the senses, preparing the tongue for an experience that doesn’t quite come through. Rather than fresh green apple acidity, woody, rooty liquorice laden elderflower fills the mouth, alongside tangy Seville orange qualities with it. Tonic doesn’t necessarily suppress this, but it does accentuate just how botanically intense this edition of the Sipsmith Sipping Society is. It almost exhausts the mouth, actually, giving an amphetamine like hit to the tongue. Serve with Med tonic and sliced grapes, or neat alongside a cheese board as that gooseberry twang pairs oh so well… Go on, you won’t regret it!
The initial plan for this one was to create a clear Espresso Martini. Before they got to that stage, though, the Sipsmith team realised just how great the relationship between coffee and other botanicals could be. Rather than go down the cocktail route, they got hold of Niki Segnit’s Flavour Thesaurus and started to work out which flavours would go better with that bitter complexity. Using Pact Coffee’s Fruit & Nut Espresso blend, the team added cinnamon, coriander, vanilla and banana to the roster, resulting in an insane flavour that is not too far from perfect.
Rich, coffee notes ping out at the nose, bringing an air of burnt Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut with it. It’s clean and inviting, with a ruby richness that positively invites you in for a sip. More over, there’s a cheeky star anise note that just adds to the aroma bringing with it swathes of exotic spice, without ever being too obvious.
On the tongue it’s joyfully candied, with the vanilla and banana bringing huge sweetness to the coffee bean. There’s an enveloping liquorice root and coffee on the finish that’s almost decadent in its nature, while the spice (cinnamon warmth and star anise) takes a long time to dissipate after the sip. We’re not sure where the juniper is in all of it (maybe there was a VJOP distillation going on that commanded it all and none was left for this), but it’s lovely, actually, and very easy to sip neat. Too easy to sip neat, actually… we barely had any left to mix with tonic by the time we got around to it. Which is lucky, it transpires, because with tonic it’s just a little strange. We’d much rather take Sipsmith’s suggestion of blending it into a White Russian. Pure luxury in a glass!
August: Hula Hula
We’re going to lay our feelings on the line here: you simply cannot trust anyone who doesn’t take great pleasure from the simple joy of the Pina Colada, that must Caribbean of cocktails. Sipsmith, in fact, got so very carried away with their love for drink that they basically made one in Gin form. The Hula Hula is distilled with sweet, juicy caramelised pineapple and fat-washed (that old chestnut) with coconut oil. Inspired by the Pina, but named after a creation of bartender Harry MacElhone, this is about as much fun as you can get from a sip.
Bottled at 43.3%. On the nose, this is completely and utterly outrageous. Super sweet and rich, with great swathes of pineapple and chucks of coconut it’s a magic trick the spirit is not a milky white. This smells almost exactly like a Pina Colada, and the taste isn’t that far off! Spirity, yes, but so ridiculously creamy to taste, as liquorice and citrus emerge alongside an omnipresent topical coconut. It’s something you have to try to believe. Is it gin? Not even close. Surely it’s not even trying to be either. Is it an excellent journey in distilling? Yes. It’s bloody brilliant but we’re not sure given the category conflict of juniper predominance on the one hand and the taste of this on the other, whether to call it either absolutely disgraceful or completely divine.
August: High Tea
Inspired by the never-ending summer of 2018, Sipsmith embarked upon a mission to create the perfect accompaniment to that other great British tradition: afternoon tea. They took inspiration from the very person who invented the post/pre meal meal, Anna the Duchess of Bedford, and used her very favourite tea: Earl Grey. Orange blossom, orange and lemon peel are also in the line up, bringing out the fresh, bergamot notes of that most leisurely tea type.
This elicited something of a ‘90s surfer dude response from us when we lifted off the lid. “Woah,” we said. “Tea!” Despite the 51% ABV, there’s a soft, soothing and addictive nature to the aroma, this is something we can’t help but sniff at as we go about our day. Not to reveal too much of own snobbery and align with the elites of the world, but it’s distinctly more Darjeeling than Earl Grey on the nose…
The taste is equally rich, although the botanical intensity is so rich that there are hints of a soapy explosion about it too. Perfumed to say the least, with a splash of bergamot meets orange that moves into Earl Grey. This, thankfully, is more like gin and there is a notable pine underpinning the journey and making a flourish ant the death and bringing it home. Really smooth for the high ABV too.
With tonic, the sweetness from the nose comes back, bringing with it an orangey, stewed tea note that makes you yearn for a hot cuppa and a good book. It’s a really exquisite rendering of taste, though it’s not something you’d drink everyday. It’s far too weird for that!
All in all, the Sipsmith Sipping Society is an exceptional adventure through flavour and one that fans of the brand would love. While none of the gins we’ve tried via the service are ones that we feel would work as a standalone product, they’re all brilliant experiments in their own right, whether we liked the taste subjectively or not. They serve as evidence that almost anything can be achieved flavour wise, but therein lies our gripe, some are quite clearly not gin, nor do they need to be when sold in this context.
It’s one thing to say that they are not core offerings but the damage as to what is a gin and what isn’t (juniper predominance) is just the same. Given they are (or at least it feels like they are) primarily there for the pursuit of creative distilling and the amusement of Sipsmith fans, we’re not sure if there is any need to call them gin or shackle them to juniper when the concept would lend itself to something else.
The sipping service’s charm lays in the bi-monthly discovery of what the team are doing and trying the wonderful spirits inside – not necessarily about trying a new Sipsmith Gin. It’s Sipsmith the distillery, not necessarily the Gin that is the attraction here. Some of the techniques in making the flavour are really innovative and the adventure (and our hearty congratulations go to them for this) is in both process employed and the taste achieved. We hope that in future they have the confidence to just make something for what it is and follow the concept down the rabbit hole, emerging triumphant with the beautifully bizarre and presenting it as such. It’s almost the case now, but we’d like to see it freed further.
What is reassuring is that in all of the folly and the joyful creativity, in all of the fun trials that we are sure have been well received as they are really engaging to explore and discover, there haven’t been any that have been made into big bottle offerings yet. None have had the big red carpet media roll out either. They’ve just been ticking over quietly for those in the know and those who like the distillery, as a lovely bit of fan engagement.
We feel this is quite right too, none of the gins in the boxes deserve the upscaling, no matter how fun they are (arguably the liqueurs should, but that’s a can of worms for another time). This also goes to show however, that those who are presumably buying these are doing so as they love the brand’s creativity, not because they are expecting something to rival their flagship London Dry or their VJOP and wanting to taste it first. Thus why shackle something to juniper when it would be all the better if it was taken further and freed from awkwardly trying to be different whilst also being respectfully ginny. Let the artistry of distilling take over, and let the freedom of expression and the craft, or ‘smithery as they would say, of it all just play out and see what emerges. One final comparison for you – if you set an artist the brief of capturing the subject matter, you don’t need to specify how it must painted or in what style, simply that the essence of the idea or of what you want captured is translated to the best of their ability. This is where we feel the Sipping Society contents could be and what they are prevented from doing currently by having to try a be gin, or by being mislabeled as such.
Gripes over wanting total freedom for the distillers to get as weird as they can aside, as far as we’re concerned, this is still well worth investing in as a gift for someone, especially if they like the Sipsmith brand. It’s beautifully presented and wonderfully exciting to see what they are up to – besides what better way to greet you on the doormat after a long day at work?
Find more information on the Sipsmith Sipping Society HERE.
Copyright © Gin Foundry