Thirteen years ago, Sipsmith was set up in a tiny workshop in Hammersmith by the pioneering trio of Sam Galsworthy, Fairfax Hall and master distiller Jared Brown – the first traditional copper distillery in London since 1820.
We caught up with Jared to discover more about the story behind their super duper distillates.
“In the absence of a gin of truly uncompromising quality we (Sam, Fairfax and myself) set out to create one – a classic, handcrafted London Dry Gin, made in small batches in London, the birthplace of gin.
Our challenge was to successfully pursue an appeal against the 1823 Gin Act, to award a license for small batch gin distillation (a still under 1,800 litres), which was previously deemed as moonshine.
After two years of lobbying and convincing the government, Sipsmith influenced a change to the law which allowed us to bring classic London Dry Gin to the capital, making Sipsmith the first copper pot gin distillery to open in London for nearly 200 years.
Through challenging the gin norms we are now widely credited as catalysts and pioneers of today’s gin renaissance. In fact, bringing the spirit of England back to its birthplace was almost the easy part, compared with helping make gin popular again.
What style of gin did you set out wanting to deliver?
Unlike many spirits that have evolved in different ways and at different times, London Dry Gin was developed with a specific set of botanicals in a specific place – London – at a specific point in history. It’s from that point that we have taken our reference, and as such made a conscious choice to bring back that classic style to the gin world. Gin made as it should be made, with absolutely no cut corners, to achieve the most exquisite classic gin of uncompromising quality.
Sipsmith London Dry Gin is exceptionally smooth and classic in style, with character bold enough to carry itself through a G&T and smooth enough to be sipped in a Martini. Gin is an essential bartender’s ingredient, for building all sorts of cocktails and so it had to be a classic!
We hope people will find Sipsmith London Dry Gin as a useful reference, a gin compass if you will, to navigate the crowded and now often confusing world of gin. We believe we have created the benchmark for a classic quality gin.
Was there a lot of trial and error with recipes?
Yes, I did a huge amount of research, mainly from distilling books dating back as far as the 1700’s, and I did hundreds of tests until I was happy with the final recipe. That recipe is exactly the same now as it was nine years ago when we first released it, a classic London Dry Gin at 41.6% ABV.
The ABV is 41.6% because the optimal ABV for balancing the botanicals is between 41% and 43%. We tested this in fine increments, blind testing as we went, and 41.6% was the winner.
Just as it took hundreds of tests until we were happy with our London Dry Gin recipe, we have a continued restless enthusiasm for experimentation. Everything we make at Sipsmith is a celebration of tradition and exemplifies the creativity that goes into producing a gin of uncompromising quality – we only over release expressions of gin that are outstanding in quality and raise the bar. That’s what led to the release of our London Cup (a premium version of a very popular Summer drink that you mix long with lemonade and fruit), our ever so popular Lemon Drizzle Gin, and of course for the true juniper geeks out there, our VJOP – Very Junipery Over Proof. Our VJOP is the first gin in the history of gin to combine macerated, unmoderated and botanical basket juniper bringing the full juniper flavour spectrum into a single classic gin.
Our Sipping Society is a wonderful way to experience the very best of our Distillery experiments – made by hand (just like all our gin), by our Distiller in the lab. Every gin is made on our tiny 50lt still – affectionately named Cygnet – and our Sipping Society members get first hand access to these prodigious gins (www.sipsmith.com/members).
How did you try and make it technically unique?
From day one, we have championed our belief that doing things by hand, with passion and immense skill, will lead to the most exceptional results. There are simply some things that machines alone cannot master, and making a premium classic quality gin, just like an exquisite work of art or piece of music is absolutely reliant on flair, passion and human skill.
There was never any question that we would use one-shot distillation, as it gives a far superior flavour and mouthfeel. Selecting your heart cut was once the true art of distillation during the industrial revolution, attempts were made to find a standard point and create charts and tables for the heart cut. However, the beginning and end points were set by chemists measuring alcohol output and not flavour.
The distillation process at the Sipsmith distillery begins in the morning when the end of the heads are marked by an abrupt burst of sweet citrus aroma, which is glorious. This is the beginning of the heart. At midday, the heart of the heart brings the classic juniper notes, then later an aroma not unlike vintage champagne (biscuity, toasty, creamy, hints of almond) marks the end of the heart. The next bit smells of old mop water. In virtually every other gin about 10%-15% of this bit is left in their distillate, as it contains high levels of alcohol. We do not, because we did not use tables to set our heart cut, we used our palates.
The design of our stills is crucial in obtaining our desired flavour. The helmet (the part directly above the pot) controls the reflux (the intentional inefficiency of bringing alcohol vapours from the pot to the condensing coil). If you look in our stills when they are running, you can see the spirit raining back down from the helmet, to rise again and again before reaching the swan’s neck. Each time, it is further exposed to the highly reactive copper which acts as a molecular filter, cleaning and purifying the distillate.
In whisky, it is easily understood that the angle of the swan’s neck determines the flavour of the spirit. The ninety-degree, tapered necks on our stills are ideal for delivering the best flavours in the botanicals. The swan’s neck is so important to us, that we pay homage to it in our logo.
We passionately believe this is the only way to handcraft spirits of this quality. Inspired by the centuries of London’s gin history that we have inherited, we balance modern technology with traditional recipes and techniques.
What is the most important part of the production process?
Sipsmith began with three idealists seeking to return the spirit of England to its birthplace. This ideal still comes through in every batch we make by hand here in West London. We make our spirits in genuinely small batches with our team of dedicated distillers, on our copper stills (Prudence, Constance and Verity).
Unlike most distilleries we have an inverted ratio of distillers to pot stills – 5 distillers, 3 copper pot stills. During the creation of every batch our highly skilled distillers use their senses and experience to determine when to take the cuts and what the perfect amount of botanicals is for our one shot recipe.
Our cuts, at first made purely by tasting and trial rather than trusting anyone else’s, are now setting a new standard for gin quality. For us, this was always about making the finest possible gin. We are gin lovers through and through and our team has a passion to inspire ever more people to discover and enjoy our classic quality hand-crafted London Dry Gin.
What were the biggest surprises in the botanical search?
Our botanicals are classic and nothing we have chosen would be a surprise to an 18th century distiller. We have carefully sourced the botanicals that go into our classic quality London Dry Gin from all over the globe, choosing only the very best quality ingredients. This means that we do change our source of origin based on where the best global harvests are each season, but our juniper is always sourced from the Mediterranean basin.
We discovered that juniper from the north Mediterranean is hands down the best for making gin. It was a lucrative export for Genoese merchants trading with England as far back as the 1200s and centuries of distilling books laud its superior quality. Our own tests confirmed this and so in the tradition of London distillers from the first, we only use juniper from this region.
The recipe for Sipsmith London Dry Gin was inspired by one I found in an eighteenth-century book called The Art of Distilling. Each day, we add precisely the amount needed to make one batch of gin in each still – never adding more to create a gin concentrate.
Are you surprised by the renaissance of gin?
Consumer sophistication has been on the rise for years. People have long since moved away from buying the biggest bottle of wine and the biggest plate of food their money can buy, to buying the best they can afford. We are shifting from a binge culture to an indulge culture.
Gin is a large step up from vodka, which ruled the drinks scene as far back as the 1980s. People ask if gin is a trend and what will be next. The truth is that gin, like good wine, is an evolution not a trend. Other spirits categories are also rising, but what is fading is appetite for mediocrity being made by multinational beverage companies, while craft spirits show every sign of continuing a steady rise into the future.
Are you positive about the future of gin?
Yes, very positive. It is in our DNA to experiment and we will always be innovating. However, we do also see a danger of the gin boom running away with itself and the crowded market becoming overly complex for people to navigate. We feel we can help bring some clarity to the category, by educating people on the different gin types available and using our classic London Dry Gin as a compass to help gin lovers navigate this crowded market.
As people explore the category they often start off drinking the classic Gin and Tonic, before discovering other options including gin cocktails such as the Martini and Negroni. We recognise the appetite to learn and discover more and we are always experimenting with new gin styles. We have a passion to continue to inspire people to discover and enjoy this great spirit – and we welcome all gin explorers.
What are the essential gin cocktails?
Every bartender should know the Martini, Gimlet, Negroni, Tom Collins, Gin Rickey (not too much lime!), Red Snapper, French 75, Gin and Tonic, and the Martinez. Other drinks depend on where you’re bartending and who is drinking there.
My current favourite is the Martini, dry with freshly opened vermouth, thrown and with a lemon twist squeezed over the drink and discarded, without ever touching the glass.
But the next big gin drink? I think the Gin Rickey finally has a shot at this spot. It contains absolutely no sugar, yet it is a wonderfully balanced drink.
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