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Oliver Kitson – Sipsmith

Sipsmith gin distiller Ollie Kitson
Sipsmith gin distillery
sipsmith-cranbrook-distillery-doors
oliver kitson measuring spirit at Sipsmith
sipsmith art
botanicals in a jar, black & white
Sipsmith gin distiller Ollie Kitson's chosen
sipsmith junipalooza pallet stand
03/08/2015
Written by Gin Foundry

A lot is said about the gin poured into our glasses from tasting notes, how to mix it, how it’s made to where it’s positioned in today’s fiercely competitive market. But what about those who make it? To get a better idea of life behind the scenes and the people who are at the heart of our favourite spirits – we decided to launch a Meet the Maker micro series. Here – we catch up with Oliver Kitson from London based Craft distillery Sipsmith.

Gin Foundry – Hi Ollie, thanks for taking some time out to talk to us. Lets ask an easy one to start… How long have you been distilling and what made you choose it as a career?

Oliver Kitson – I’ve been Head Distiller at the Sipsmith Distillery for about a year now. Before that I was working as a brewer. Moving from beer to spirits is a pretty logical progression and gin is really going through a renaissance in London since Fairfax and Sam opened the distillery, and there is so much going on.

It’s certainly boomed in the past few years – What’s your favourite part of making gin?

Sampling can obviously be pretty enjoyable but my favourite part is exploring different botanicals, creating novel flavours and developing new recipes. We’ve got a very well equipped lab at the Distillery and are constantly experimenting. We have a few things in the pipeline which I’m very excited about.

That and three amazing stills! How often are you firing them up and how long does a batch  of Sipsmith take?

We run our stills every day, with a batch of our London Dry Gin taking 9 hours to distil and re-load for the next day on our newest still Constance, so I’m kept pretty busy. When I’m on holiday we don’t currently do any distilling, which can make it pretty cold for the guys when I go snowboarding in Winter as our steam boiler powers the office central heating as well as the stills!

From a flavour perspective, what do you think makes your gins unique and stand out form the crowd?

Sipsmith gins are special because they’re all made the old-school way, with a real mix of old and new. They’re all distilled at our Distillery in Cranbrook Road on our bespoke copper stills – and the ladies in our lives – Patience, Prudence, and Constance. We’re still one of the only gins in the world to use to traditional One-Shot Method (i.e. not made from concentrate) and we only take the very best cut of the spirit off the stills, the hearts, and discard the unpleasant heads and tails, rather than redistilling them. The stills’ unique shape also gives a high purity while the copper acts as a catalyst, removing unwanted flavour compounds and also creating new desirable ones. This means all the carefully selected botanicals marry together in the still with the spirit producing a complex yet balanced, high quality gin. We also use our London Dry Gin to make our Sloe Gin and the quality of the spirit is one of the reasons it’s so sippable.

Sipsmith changed the game when it was launched bringing a new era of small scale distilleries and craft gins. In your opinion, which other gins do you feel have really pushed the category forward (both from a marketing point of view and / or from a flavour perspective)?

To me it’s about gins that are well made. St. George Terroir from the US is a very interesting gin, it’s very herbal and pine rich. Hayman’s Old Tom is great example of the style and I think it’s great in a Collins. Also Warner Edwards do a rhubarb gin, which is very nice served long with ginger ale.

Three really good examples. There are a lot of new distillers and new distilleries, many of which have small budgets for set up and some without much formal training on apparatus who are trying to replicate the success Sipsmith has enjoyed. How tough is the learning curve to achieve consistency and how important are the base tools?

It’s pretty difficult in both brewing and distilling. A lot of people have tried to set up shop thinking they’ll give it a go with cheap equipment and quickly find they are out of their depth. The problems can be worse in distilling as you can’t ‘home distil’ first to gain experience, there is less literature and less institutions offering courses and the consequences of making a mistake can be much greater.

I’m lucky in that I’ve got Jared, our Master Distiller and a bit of legend in the drinks world, to bounce ideas off and get advice from- as well as an MSc in Brewing and Distilling from Heriot Watt University and all the transferable skills from brewing to fall back on. As for the equipment, it’s not just the stills, you also need precision weighing equipment along with a host of other laboratory apparatus such as hydrometers and thermometers.

In your opinion, do you think there is a loss of quality in making a concentrate as opposed to doing a one shot gin? Does it even matter?

The ‘one shot’ method is a really important part of our ethos here at Sipsmith– I really believe that it is a cornerstone of uncompromising quality. Rather than creating an intense concentrate by packing the still with over 20 times the required botanicals to produce a distillate that is then diluted with raw spirit or using essences, our method means no concentrates and no additives – just water to dilute the distillate to bottling strength. This creates a much smoother gin that is perfect for cocktails such as the Martini or the Old Fashioned. Every once in while we get a visitor dragged along by their friends who says they don’t like gin, it doesn’t take long for us to change that!

The idea of ‘one shot’ is often described as being a big part of the essence of Craft gin (whether rightly or wrongly). Some distill that way, some don’t and many have legitimate claims for why they regard themselves as a craft maker. While we’re in that topical area – Do you think there should be clearly defined guidelines as to what constitutes a “craft” gin?

There’s been a lot of debate about this in the world of beer and cider with big conglomerates trying to muscle in on the scene with ‘crafty’ marketing. Whether it’s tomatoes, gin or bicycles, people increasingly want high quality, artisan products. They also aren’t stupid: If something lacks authenticity they will see right through it.

We’re still very small- what we make in a year some bigger distilleries are doing in a day. But craft for me isn’t necessarily about the size of the producer, it’s about passion, expertise, provenance and a commitment to quality and not simply doing things because it’s the cheapest way. It’s not an accountant designing the process and getting the product made under contract by a robot behind locked doors. It’s about a story, real people making real things. I see this every time someone walks into the distillery and lays eyes on the three girls for the first time, they are more often than not totally spellbound.

Agreed, people tend to see through the lies and it can’t just be about size as that’s only one of many factors. When it comes to the final spirit – what’s your favourite way to drink your gin?

With our London Dry Gin I like to have it in a regular G&T or to combine it with our Sloe Gin, bitters and some sweet vermouth for my own take on a Martinez. As for the VJOP there’s only one way to go and that’s a very dry Martini with a lemon twist.

Cheers Ollie, thanks for talking to us. For those wanting to get more insight and see how the Sipsmith team distil their spirits, they host tours each week that can be booked here: Sipsmith Tours

Sipsmith Gin Prudence