It was no mean feat to get started, however; their 300 litre copper-pot still, named ‘Prudence’, was the first to be granted a license in 189 years and is only the second currently operational in London. Instead of being bitter about the protracted application process, however, the team (which includes ‘industry legend’ Jared Brown) is excited to be ‘lifting the mystery of distillery’ and hope to inspire others to follow suit.
Although Sipsmith is a new venture, it adheres strongly to distilling traditions and comes with some impressive London credentials. Not only are they based on the site of a former brewery which was later the home of renowned beer and whisky critic, Michael Jackson, but the water they use to blend their spirits with even comes directly from the source of the Thames. After an epic session on Google Earth, Sam pinpointed the farmer’s field through which the water was likely to pass and, somewhat enterprisingly, went along to investigate. Having established that the farmer in question possessed a bore hole from which it was possible to extract Thames water, Sam asked permission to use it and received the immortal reply: ‘if it’s good enough for my cattle, it’s good enough for your gin.’ We really can’t fault the logic on that one..
When one considers that Sam gets up at 4am to drive to the bore hole and pick up the water, the actual distillation process seems easy by comparison. Due to the restrictions of their license Sipsmith has to commission a base spirit that they then distil and, working with a very pure 96% abv English barley spirit, they make their vodka first. The spirit is poured into what is essentially a giant copper kettle (which can force the room’s temperature up to 44 degrees in summer) and heated until vapours start to rise into the swan’s neck – which is such a critical part of the process that they’ve even incorporated the image into their motif – where they turn and head down a pipe into the next chamber which cools them back to liquid. Here, it’s exposed to the copper wall of the cylinder, which absorbs the liquid’s soft fatty acids into its metallic skin and leaves the spirit with far more character than can be achieved in a steel set up.
After an hour, they allow the liquid to evaporate, pass through the condenser and emerge into the spirit safe as a liquid once again. The spirit safe is a very traditional, although now uncommon, feature of distilling and it used to be standard that only the master distiller and customs offical ever had a key. Here, Sipsmith, unlike many other distilleries, ‘cuts’ the alcohol, which means removing the flavourless ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ to leave the better quality ‘hearts’. This results in a characterful, pure product that doesn’t have to be filtered and has a discernable sweet taste reminiscent of icing sugar. The vodka produces a pleasant warming sensation and it’s easy to see how this would be an asset to a cocktail, rather than something that needs to be masked by other ingredients.
Only 40% of the heart cut is actually used for this vodka, however, the rest is re-distilled into gin. Changing the set up of the still, so that a pipe runs directly from the swan’s neck to the condenser, they add the remaining 60% along with 10 botanicals, including Bulgarian juniper berry, Seville Oranges and liquorice, which enjoy an overnight bath at 75 degrees and release their flavour into the liquid. In the morning, a well rested Sipsmith team completes the process and cuts the liquid to remove the heads and tails.
What’s left is a truly marvelous gin that justifies its complex production process and the year and a half it took Sipsmith to develop the recipe. An intense smell jumps from the glass: bright juniper notes and a citrus sweetness which is elegantly followed by slight spiciness and a dry finish when you taste it. It’s a classic London dry gin that would make a great London-related present – if you can resist polishing off the bottle yourself, that is. As they only make around 250 bottles at a time (rather than making a concentrate and diluting it with neutral alcohol), each batch is unique and, if you type your batch number into the website, you’ll be able to see what the team were up to when they were making it. Our favourite (yes, we are that nosy) is probably 001, which shows Fairfax’s daughter -who was born on the same day as the first batch- and emphasises how small and personal their operation really is.
It’s clear that Sipsmith has lots of interesting ideas for the future and has put its heart and soul into making a real difference to the way people think about spirits in London. With such good people at the helm of what will hopefully be a distilling renaissance, we feel secure enough to sit back with a well made G&T and let them get on with it.