The Dabblers visit Sipsmith, makers of artisanal gin and vodka…
In a shed in a residential road in Hammersmith, two thirtysomething former public schoolboys are busy at work under the shadow of a colossal copper machine. They are making London gin. Well, not actually physically making gin themselves – a distilling wizard called Chris comes in to do that, having taken over from master-distiller Jared Brown – rather, they are making a brand; they are making Sipsmith Gin and Vodka.
Their names are Sam Galsworthy and, magnificently, Fairfax Hall, and they are a very smart pair indeed. But first, a word about the machine. A steampunk’s fantasy of funnels, pipes and tanks in beautiful burnished copper, one could spend hours gazing at Prudence, as she is winsomely known. She looks like the sort of contraption that characters in an HG Wells novel would use to fly to the moon, except that dear Prudence does something even better than space travel: she makes booze.
Her owners are justly proud of her. You can view a video of them assembling Prudence (“the first copper still to launch in London for nearly 200 years”) on the Sipsmith website and, when the Dabblers visit, Fairfax treats us to an exhaustive, enthusiastic tour of her mechanics. Prudence takes up about a third of the shed; the remainder is filled with paraphernalia including vast vats of ethanol, shelves crammed with glassware and a ‘wall of shame’ of mainstream gin and vodka brands.
Prospective Sipsmithers are required to distinguish these mass-produced rivals from Prudence’s artisanal output in blind taste tests. Now, speaking as someone who has never seen the Gordon’s in a G&T as a problem that particularly needed fixing, I came to Sipsmith somewhat sceptical about the claims to superiority of the ‘handcrafted’ approach, but the deliciousness of the product cannot be denied. Jassy – with her infinitely more sophisticated gin-palate – gives her review below, but the vodka was a revelation, wholly lacking that grimace-inducing harshness of the usual shot. The sloe gin – a recent addition to the product range created by ‘resting’ Prudence’s gin on sloe berries – is lovely too: rich and warming, you could drink it after dinner like a port.
Frankly I could have done with somewhat more generous tasting samples than those dished out by Sam and Fairfax – it was a bit more nosing than drinking for my (admittedly uncouth) liking and I could have drunk gallons of the stuff – but I suppose they are on a shoestring and have to watch these things. Fairfax refused point-blank to tell me the margin on a bottle though he did claim that the business is now profitable. Sipsmith gin ain’t cheap. 70cl on the Whisky Exchange is £27.49 inc VAT, compared to £14.48 for a similar quantity of Gordon’s.
But it needs to be pricey – the operation as it stands is ludicrously unscalable. Bottles are individually hand-sealed in wax with a batch number so you can track the ‘birth’ of your drink on the website. In addition to the ten carefully-selected botanicals*, Sipsmith gin uses water from the source of the Thames (cos it’s London gin, geddit?). No really, it does: every so often Fairfax and Sam drive a van to a farm in the Cotswolds and fill up a bloody big tank of the stuff themselves from a spring.
Their bordering-on-absurd commitment to the cause is thus undeniable, but it would also be naïve to think that the Sipsmithers aren’t shrewd businessmen. Both have career backgrounds with big players in the drinks industry and with Sipsmith they’ve tapped into two clear trends: the local-y handcraft-y quality ideal as witnessed in the proliferation of microbreweries; and the growing desire to apply the connoisseurship standards once reserved for wine and then whisky to ever more products. And why not London gin? London is cool; gin is just waiting to be cool again. With remarkable serendipity, even tonic now has a ‘premium’ version in the form of Fever-tree which – surprise, surprise – the boys recommend for a Sipsmith G&T. Fairfax explains that they do not see Sipsmith as replacing the bottle of Beefeater or Gordons in the cupboard, but sitting alongside it as a ‘special occasion’ drink. And while they might not have a marketing budget they do have over 3,000 Twitter followers and (this is clever), they regularly invite bar stewards from trendy establishments to admire Prudence and then send them away as ‘ambassadors for the brand’.
They even know that being ‘secret’ is a great for publicity – the Hammersmith shed is itself a nice marketing tool. But one suspects they won’t be in it for long – and indeed, Fairfax tells us that they are soon moving to larger premises. Doubtless this will enable them to improve on the margin, but in the meantime they are busy building something truly valuable (and ultimately, one presumes, lucrative): a distinctive, high quality, much-loved British brand.
*Macedonian juniper berries, Bulgarian coriander seed, French angelica root, Spanish liquorice root, Italian orris root, Spanish ground almond, Chinese cassia bark, Madagascan cinnamon, Sevillian orange peel and Spanish lemon peel — in case you fancied having a go at making your own.
Sipsmith Martini Recipe – by Jassy Davis
Opening a bottle of Sipsmith Gin is like being blasted in the face by Alpine-themed air freshener. A wave of earthy pine and juniper crashes out of the bottle, followed by a minxy twist of lemon that announces the arrival of a very superior gin. It loses no time in wooing you, beginning with a sweet swipe of cinnamon that rolls into spicier notes – the coriander seed stands out – and finishes with a warming citrus glow. A good balance of sweet and savoury with no oil slick mouth feel or heart attack after burn, it’s my favourite gin for making martinis.
How to make a martini is subject to fierce, drunken debate. A ratio of 3:1 gin to vermouth? 4:1? 5:1? Just standing near a bottle of vermouth while you drink it? Personally, if I want to drink a glass of cold gin, then I just drink a glass of gin. For a martini, I like the vermouth to have some chance of making itself felt.
I don’t shake my martinis, I stir them– if I want air in my martini, I breathe in while I drink – and stirring the drink with ice ensures the whole cocktail is cold and crisp.
60ml Sipsmith gin
15ml good dry vermouth, such as Noilly Prat
A strip of pared lemon zest
Place a handful of ice in a small jug and pour in the Sipsmith and vermouth. Give it a good stir and let it sit for 2–3 minutes (Sipsmith is 41.6%, it needs a little diluting).
Strain into a martini glass. Twist the orange zest over the top of the glass a couple of times to spray it with the oils from the skin, then sink it in the glass and drink.