I first went to visit Sipsmith, situated on a residential street in Hammersmith, back in 2010 and fell in love with their story and their gin.
Sipsmith was inspired by the micro-distilleries that were popping up in the States. Sam and Fairfax, two of the founders, visited the likes of Junipero in Potrero Hill, California and Bluecoat in Philadelphia and were blown away by the passion of the guys in charge and the quality of what was being produced in these small batches.
They wanted to bring this small scale, hand crafted production of gin back to London, the home of gin. After jumping through a multitude of hoops they finally got a distillers licence and commissioned Prudence, an absolutely stunning 300L copper pot still made by Christian Carl, a family run company and the oldest producers of hand crafted copper pot stills in Europe.
The idea was to bring back to London a tradition that had been lost. At the height of the gin craze in the 1750s, one in four houses in London has its own still. Gin was a real handcrafted process. Although, it became abundantly clear not everyone was making it very well, people were going blind due to the poor quality of spirit being produced. As those small distilleries started to go, the whole industry got compacted into the hands of a few big families, like the Tanquerays, the Gordons, the Booths and the Gilbeys. These big distilleries dominated the industry and gradually over the years they all left London until the only one left was Beefeater in the 1820s.
The ethos behind Sipsmith was to bring back that tradition of small hand crafted production, they wanted to set up small distillery in the heart of the community, producing London dry Gin the same way it would have been made in the 1800s.
The key botanical in Sipsmith gin is of course juniper, which was added to an English barley vodka base. We were given some juniper berries to smell, they actually don’t smell of very much until you crush them between your fingers and the sticky, oily, piney gin smell is released. This pungent aroma is what they are trying to capture in the gin. There are then nine other botanicals – nothing weird or wacky, as the whole point behind Sipsmith was to represent a classic, quintessential London Dry Gin.
Their master distiller, Jared Brown, looked at all these old recipes from the 1800s and settled on Tanqueray and Beefeater as poles of reference for a London Dry Gin. On the one side of the spectrum we have Tanqueray which is hugely Juniper dominant (and deliciously so – from the lingering memory of my No 10 Tanqeray martini at Momos last night), on the other side there is Beefeater which is very citrusy. Sipsmith wanted to encapsulate that spirit of London Dry Gin and reach a balance of somewhere in the middle.
Now we get to the tasting, the intensity of flavour literally jumps out of the glass. We’re told this is due to the one shot batch process which means Sipsmith is not made from a concentrate product – more about this and the botanicals used in my previous post on Sipsmith.
It is wonderfully smooth, even when enjoyed neat the alcohol warms, but does not burn. In terms of flavour profile, Fairfax hopes we all get juniper – which may sound silly seen as though juniper is the key botanical in gin, but there are so many gins coming on to the market that don’t actually taste of juniper (Hoxton Gin for example, is most definitely flavoursome but that flavour is not juniper to my mind, and as a gin I find it just a bit weird – I guess I’m more traditional than I thought).
So Sipsmith has that pungent juniper slap and soft citrus kick, followed by warming spice and a long smooth finish. Classic and classy.
Now onto the Sipsmith Sloe Gin, it is vibrant and juicy, with cherry and a touch of prune about it. It has a mouth watering acidity and tart finish, which surprises me as the home-made Sloe Gin I’m used to is lusciously sweet, but Sipsmith’s house style is generally dry and slightly tart and to be fair right up my street.
Apparently, there are two main mistakes people make when trying to make Sloe Gin at home.
- They believe some mystical alchemy will take place when using bottom shelf gin, sloe berries and sugar to try and create a lovely sloe gin. No such magic exists, says Fairfax, the secret to a good sloe gin is to start with a good base gin. Simples.
- They follow a recipe and add a set amount of sugar before the maceration, which generally means too much and a cloyingly sweet slow gin is the result. Sloes are just like grapes, the level of sugar and acidity they contain will depend on how sunny or cool it has been that summer, so you never quite know exactly how bitter, sweet or acidic it will taste. So after the sloe berries have macerated in the gin for a few months, taste the results and only then add a little sugar as required.
Not really replicable at home but Sipsmith puts their gin in for the first month of maceration at still strength (70 odd %). This high alcohol level really gets to heart of the sloe and rips the berry apart and picks up the stone, which is where the almond taste come from. They then, dilute it down and leave it to rest for a further two months. After which they taste it and only then balance it with a little sugar to get that full on fruity flavour, without the cloying sweetness, and finishing quite tart on the palate.
At this point Fairfax mentions they are starting to export to Australia, Hong Kong and China. I’m worried now, ‘there is barely enough Sipsmith Sloe Gin for London’ I cry. I’m reassured by the fact they are not exporting the Sloe Gin, and quantities of regular Sipsmith Gin are are fairly small. But it is an interesting conundrum, how does a beautiful batch produced gin such as Sipsmith expand? After being in business for just over 2 1/2 years they are already starting to reach the ceiling of their production capacity.
Well the answer appears to be Prudence Junior, or Patience to give her her proper name and gender. Sipsmith is currently planning for a second still a little bigger than Prudence who they have already christened ‘Patience’ in order to expand their current production capabilities.
What else is in the pipeline for Sipsmith?
Well Sipsmith’s Summer Cup (read take on Pimms) is due out in May. They spent last summer perfecting the recipe, and trialled a hundred odd bottles (sadly I didn’t stumble across one).
Again the recipe they have chosen was inspired by traditional summer cup recipes and the house dry finish was created by the tannins in the earl grey tea, a key ingredient along with gin of course, angostura, vermouth, triple sec, maraschino, lemon verbena, essence of cucumber and cardamom.
They are also toying with the idea of a super-juniper gin (well their favourite gin, Sipsmith aside, is Junipero) it will be a high strength, 47% abv juniper dominated tipple. The high alcohol content is not just for kicks, Juniper is the one botanical that really stands up to high alcohol levels and so typically you’ll find high stength gins have a more dominant juniper character.
As ever it was lovely to be in the company of Sipsmith and great to hear how they are getting on and moving the business forward. A trip to Prudence is well worth a visit, over half of those in the room at Juniper Society had taken a visit to the distillery and I urge you all to do the same.
Distillery Tours are on the first and third Wednesday and Thursday of the month (£12 pp) –email firstname.lastname@example.org for details. Sipsmith is stocked in Waitrose and Majestic and plenty of good London bars and stores.